BC on Ice

Last year was my first visit up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia, Canada. Every year from mid-November through December, thousands of Bald Eagles descend on this area to feast on returning salmon. It’s one of the largest gatherings of eagles outside of Alaska and last year did not disappoint. I had targeted two weekends to visit this year and ended up not making the first weekend. The second weekend came and promised sunny but cold conditions. Just like last year, I made plans to meet up with Michael Russell.

The week leading up to our trip out to Harrison Mills was the coldest stretch of weather the Pacific Northwest has experienced in the last 15 years. Environment Canada even issued what they call is an “arctic outflow” warning for the early part of the day. It’s basically a technical sounding term for really cold winds originating from the interior coming down the Fraser like a runaway freight train. As we crossed the Fraser on Highway 11, we got our first view of how the day would go: icy. The river had wide stretches of ice as as we could see up and down stream.

East of Derouche, we pulled off the highway to check a certain slough and it was solidly frozen over. We started to realize that if the water was frozen over, the eagles probably weren’t going to be able to dine on salmon! As we drove through Harrison Mills, eagles were few and far between. We pulled off at Harrison Flats where last year we enjoyed quite a nice show of eagles. This year….not so much. There were a half dozen eagles hanging out in the trees but only one lone eagle feasting on a salmon. Lucky for us, that happened to be right below the pullout in front of us. For at least 10 minutes, we were treated to a great photo opportunity.
Bald Eagle eating salmon at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle taking flight at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagles at Chehalis Flats near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The eagle flew away and suddenly it was pretty quiet. It seemed like a good time to load up and keep looking. We stopped by Kilby Provincial Park and it was also free of any eagles. We drove around to the other side of Woodside Mountain to check out Mountain Slough. Nothing but cold winds. It was pretty clear that the day of eagle watching was over and it was time for Plan B. Michael suggested that we head a little further east to Hope and check out Silver Lake Provincial Park for sunset. That sounded good to me so off we went.

Silver Lake Provincial Park lies 4 miles up Silverhope Creek and features Silver Lake which is nestled at the base of several prominent mountains. The canyon leading to Silver Lake runs north/south and is heavily incised so it doesn’t get much sunlight in winter. Just shy of the turnoff to the park is Eureka Falls, which is a waterfall that directly spills into Silverhope Creek. Not surprisingly, the waterfall was completely frozen on this day but you could just make out water running down below the ice. Anything looking wet was actually ice so you had to be extra careful with footing.

Having had our fill with Eureka Falls, we turned out attention to Silver Lake. The access gate and spur road leading to the park was just up ahead from Eureka Falls. The access gate was open and the road snow-free and that allowed us to drive the remaining half mile to the park’s entrance gate. We parked next to Sowerby Creek which also had plenty of interesting ice formations. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a little time to photograph them. We returned to my truck after sunset but it was too dark by then. The lake and campground is just a five minute stroll beyond Sowerby Creek.
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Frozen Eureka Falls along Silverhope Creek near Hope, British Columbia
Hope Mountain at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Silver Lake is a nice sized lake (about 95 acres in size) in a very peaceful setting. High peaks line both sides of the valley but the most prominent peaks (Hope Mountain, Wells Peak, and Mount Grant) tower above the eastern shore of the lake. The lake was well frozen, though we weren’t about to test the thickness of the ice. Sunset was largely cloud free except to the south where a few wispy clouds hung out. Sunset was nondescript but it was peaceful and we had the whole area to ourselves. It only got colder once sunset was done so it was time to call it a day and head home.

We passed a couple of other parked cars as drove drove back down the park access road. As I crossed the bridge over Silverhope Creek, I noticed something wrong- the gate was closed. Oh oh. I parked on the bridge and we got out to go look at the gate. Yeeup, definitely closed. And locked. WTF! I had no tools with me so this suddenly became a bad situation. Michael mentioned that he saw some discarded items back up where we parked outside the park’s entrance that we might be able to use to bust the lock. I certainly had no better options to offer so we headed back uphill to go retrieve the objects.

We encountered the two other cars coming downhill as we headed back up. They were both Hope area locals and were NOT happy when we told them that we were all locked in. We told them about our “plan” and continued uphill as they drove down towards the gate. Having loaded up a metal t-bar post with a concrete base, we headed back downhill to the gate. We arrived to find only one car and a wide open gate. What the hell happened??! As it turns out, the second person (who had an older full size pickup) was angry enough about the situation that he either rammed the gate or nudged up to it and punched it open. Either way, we were free once again!

Seeing how it was -12°C / 10°F outside, I was relieved that we didn’t have to hike back down to Hope to find a pair of bolt cutters. That was certainly a fitting way to end a day filled with adjustments. The gate wasn’t signed at all so why it was closed on us is still kind of a mystery. One of the Hope locals mentioned something about local logging operations which had concerns about their equipment getting vandalized up in the area so maybe one of their people locked us in without bothering to check. Whatever the case, I’ve learned a valuable lesson- CARRY BOLT CUTTERS!
Mount Grant at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park vicinity, British Columbia
Mount Grant and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
Hope Mountain and Silver Lake at sunset, Silver Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia

Harrison Bald Eagles

Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
This past weekend, I joined Michael Russell of Michael Russell Photography for a trip up to the Harrison Mills vicinity in British Columbia to view and photograph the annual bald eagle visit. Billed as one of the largest congregation of bald eagles in the lower mainland, up to 10,000 eagles descend upon a 2 kilometer stretch of Harrison River where it meets the Chehalis River. There’s an official festival in honor of their return during late November but the actual eagle counts are at their highest during the weeks that follow.

The eagles are spread out over a vast marsh / estuary so there isn’t one spot to visit for viewing. As the stories usually go, the eagles typically hang out at large distances away from the road or the limited viewing locations behind the Eagle Point housing subdivision. Thankfully for me, Michael has been in the area before and had a few ideas for stops which I otherwise would not have known about. We were also blessed with dry (but cold) weather during our visit.
 Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Two bald eagles spar while flying near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle cruises over a salmon filled channel near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
On our drive east to the Harrison Mills vicinity, we counted a number of eagles along the slough which parallels Highway 7 between Dewdney and Derouche. We eventually stopped along Morris Valley Road a little bit north of the Sandpiper Golf Course. Here we were treated to a dizzying display of activity. A core group of a dozen bald eagles were feasting on salmon along a small channel and were surrounded by dozens (if not hundreds) of sea gulls. Scattered through all of the trees surrounding this open area were even more eagles surveying the scene.

The skies above us were always dotted with a soaring eagle or sea gull and there was never a dull moment. The banks of this channel were littered with the bones of hundreds of dead fish and yet there were still more salmon swimming in the clear water. We enjoyed this spectacle for nearly an hour until it every bird was spooked into the air by three hunters walking across the estuary on their way back to their vehicles. This was a definitely a bummer but it did force us to look elsewhere. We decided to drive a little further east to the bridge over the Chehalis River. On the way, however, my girlfriend spotted an eagle sitting atop a solitary snag in a wetland. After finding nothing along the Chehalis, it was an easy decision to double back to that solitary eagle.

Bald eagles feasting on salmon near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Fresh snow atop Mount Woodside near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle soars across the sky near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
The snow-capped top of Mount Woodside made for a nice background behind the eagle. After exhausting our opportunities here, we doubled back to the Eagle Point subdivision to check out the observation viewpoints along the edge of the Harrison River. As we reached the first viewpoint, we had an encounter with THAT guy. You know THAT guy- he’s the one with the expensive gear and has no time (or patience) for anyone except himself. In this situation, this photographer had two Nikon pro bodies, a three foot long telephoto prime lens, a Jobu gimbal head, and an attitude big enough to handle two bodies at the same time. Here’s how the conversation went as we came upon him taking up the center portion of the viewing platform:

Us: “How’s it going? Find any good viewing locations?”
Him: “For what? Moose? Bear?…”
Us: “uh, Eagles..”
Him:(pointing above and behind himself without looking to a tree with eagles) Over there.”
Us: “ok, thanks.”

I wouldn’t expect something to give up info about a secret spot but there’s absolutely no reason to be a complete Richard to someone else. This guy could have said anything to us but chose to be a smart-ass. After that wonderful exchange, it would come as no surprise that he eventually appeared at another spot we were set up at and walked around and in front of us without any concern about any shots we may be taking. Someday, karma will catch up with this guy…

Bald eagle perched on a cliff above Morris Valley Road near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
The day was nearly over but there was still enough time to check out Kilby Provincial Park. While there weren’t any eagles at the park, my girlfriend once again noticed a couple eagles feasting on salmon alongside the Highway 7 bridge over the Harrison River. As our last gasp of the day, we doubled back to the bridge. There are some trees along the road which I thought would conceal our arrival; unfortunately, most of the birds present moved on the minute we stopped. Luckily, a lone eagle perched atop a piling stuck around and posed for us for a few minutes longer.

After that, I chatted with Michael for a while before the cold and other time commitments prompted us to part ways. Every time I visit Canada, I’m humbled by it’s vast beauty and diversity. I’m hoping to return later this winter to check out the snowy owls near Boundary Bay. Special thanks once again to Michael Russell for playing tour guide during our outing! If you haven’t check out his work, please visit his website.

Bald eagle and snag reflected in open water near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald eagle in snag with a snow-capped Mount Woodside in the background
Waterfowl along the Harrison River near Harrison Mills, British Columbia
Bald Eagle atop a piling along the Harrison River and Highway 7 near Harrison Mills, British Columbia

Yellowstone National Park

Sunrise over The Thunderer and Soda Butte Creek, Yellowstone National Park
Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National ParkThe week of Labor Day marked my first ever trip to Yellowstone National Park. I’ve actually wanted to incorporate a little more wildlife experiences in my photography the last few years. Heck- if you’ve ever looked in my “fauna” gallery on my site, you know it’s pretty bare! Anyways, my girlfriend stopped through the park back in June and was all too eager to make a return trip. Away we went!

Unlike most of my blog posts where I typically write up a journal or narrative for my outings, this time I just wanna rattle off a list of random thoughts-

Trip Research / Prep!

There are a couple of traditional print books about photographing Yellowstone such as this and this. I have both, and they’re not too bad (but a bit light on wildlife). Prior to my trip, I came across an eBook put out by photographer Dean Sauskojus (website here) called “The Ultimate Photo Guide to Yellowstone National Park” (and you can access the eBook info page here). Dean’s photography is wonderful, and his locational write-ups seemed to be fairly spot-on. I found it handy to be able to refer to the PDF on my tablet while out in the park. Anyways, I would definitely recommend the eBook.

Small waterfall along the Gibbon River in Gibbon Canyon, Yellowstone National Park
Morning's first light hits the Mammoth Hot Springs Main Terrace, Yellowstone National Park
Morning Light on Mount Hornaday from Round Prairie, Yellowstone National ParkAnother tidbit of advice I had been told prior to my trip which I found true was that the distances between points takes a lot longer to travel than you might think. You might want to estimate up to 1.5x the amount of time you think needed in order to get between places by the time you want. You hear about “bear / buffalo jams” but we didn’t experience anything severe during our stay. It could just be the tendency to gawk as you drive, or just being extra defensive to avoid being surprised by something on the road. Case in point, we were driving back to Tower Junction after sunset on our last night and seemingly out of thin air, a small herd of bison was partially in the road, including a young bison nursing off mama.

I’m here! Now what?

One thing I’ve learned to do over time is to scale back expectations of what you can accomplish during the course of a day. Every day I had a sunrise and sunset spot selected but only a very loose plan to connect the two together. Let your hunches and curiosity tell you when and where to stop. Tangentially related, get some bear spray for your safety and protection. It’s designed for use against an attacking bear but any large wild animal can suddenly turn aggressive towards you. This video shows a bunch of teen and pre-teen jack-asses who have a run in with a bison (I would hope most of you wouldn’t be that foolish, though!). At one of my stops near Grand Prismatic Spring, we passed a solitary bison laying down near the Fairy Falls trail. As it turned out, the bison had a wound in it’s side from a sparring match with another bison. A wounded animal can be a dangerous animal and the bear spray was a reassuring item to have.

If you do happen to stop someplace, be prepared to draw a crowd. I’d like to tell you that the crowd will be animals but more often than not, it will be your fellow tourists. They end up deciding that you MUST be seeing something! After all, why else would you have stopped?? I was photographing Soda Butte Creek and Barronette Peak from the highway bridge over the creek when a car stopped on the bridge behind me. I initially ignored them but then a voice asked, “you looking at an animal of the view??” I answered “the view” and they immediately drove off.

American Bison (Bison bison) heading back down into the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Gibbon Falls, Yellowstone National Park
Sunset over the evening Bison commute in Slough Creek valley, Yellowstone National ParkNow, sometimes where there’s smoke, there *IS* fire. A few times, we pulled over (into an accepted parking spot) when we came up on a scene with dozens of other people park and gawking at something. The first time in the Lamar Valley, it was the appearance of a black wolf; the second time was in the Hayden Valley and there were up to four wolves in a chess game with a herd of bison. I guess my moral of the story is to let small groups of people enjoy themselves, if you can.

When you are out driving around, be sure to have your camera immediately available. Getting stuck in a bear or bison jam may give you an opportunity to get a nice close shot that you might otherwise
miss. We were stopped in one brief traffic snarl and off to our right was a fox hopping and hunting some prey in the field. While we were stopped, my girlfriend was able to snap a couple shots of it. Another time, we were driving back down from the Beartooth Highway and we passed a fox, happily trotted up the road with a fresh meal in its mouth.

Some Closing Thoughts

I came home from Yellowstone with about 1,400 photographs. Most of these were rapid “bursts” in order to capture some sharp shots of wildlife. After reviewing them, I still have some work to do with my use of a “wildlife” lens like my Bigma (the Sigma 50-500mm lens). This week I came across a few sites which discuss what’s known as long lens technique (this, this, and this) and I’ll be working to incorporate these techniques before my next visit to Yellowstone.

Gray Wolves and American Bison above the Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
American Bison (Bison bison) in the Slough Creek Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Boundary Bay Owls

There has been a lot of press lately about the large migration of snowy owls down into the continental U.S. Every once and awhile (known as an irruption), their numbers really spike and this happens to be one of those years. As it turns out, one of the big “hot spots” for them is just across the border in British Columbia at Boundary Bay near the town of Tsawwaassen. Some friends of mine visited a few weeks ago which got me curious and I did some research. Lots of owls, sitting around, not far off established trails- my kind of wildlife photography!

Originally, I was just thinking about a day trip to Boundary Bay. My girlfriend suggested that we make it an overnight trip and that turned out to be a GREAT idea. The main congregation of snowy owls is found near the end of 72nd St, along the raised dike. From the 72nd St junction westward to 64th St, the snowy owls are generally found resting on top of the driftwood pieces that tides have washed up against the base of the protective dike.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160th @ F16, 500mm, ISO800)
Hawk at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
For the most part, the owls seem to tolerate the HUGE influx of admirers viewing and photographing their stay. The majority of visitors stay close to 72nd St (site of the largest gathering of owls) but folks willing to walk further west along the dike towards 64th St will also see more owls, bald eagles, great blue herons, and other wildlife. Even fewer people travel east along the dike from 72nd St but don’t let that stop you! I found a couple snowy owls (without any one around) along with a great blue heron and more bald eagles.

As longtime visitors to my blog can tell, I’m a landscape/nature photographer first & foremost. Any wildlife I have previously photographed has usually been the result of being at the right place, right time. In the last year, I purchased a Sigma 50-500mm lens (also known as a “Bigma”) and a gimbal head in hopes of adding more wildlife photos to my portfolio. We arrived at Boundary Bay during the late afternoon and were able to get a parking spot somewhat close to the dike since people were beginning to leave.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (OFF-TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Foggy scene- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 420mm, ISO100)
Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 270mm, ISO100)
The weekend’s forecast was for sunshine and 50 degree temperatures but that was quickly changing at Boundary Bay. A thick maritime fog was advancing towards us from the Strait of Georgia. Eventually Mount Baker disappeared from view and reduced visibility settled in. Although there would be no sunset, the conditions did offer an opportunity to capture some unique photographs. We turned around at 64th St and made our way back to 72nd St. The failing light really provided a challenge since my Sigma is a F6.3 @ 500mm. Thankfully, the low light and higher ISO capabilities of my Pentax K-5 were up to the task.

We got back to my truck well after sunset and the place had pretty much cleared out for the day. Along the way back, however, we were treated to some owl activity such as perching even closer to the dike trail and some flyovers. We traveled the back roads towards Tsawwaassen where we spent the night at the Coast Hotel (recommended!). The next morning, the skies were clear and I was excited to head back in time for sunrise. I had expected a number of wildlife photographers would already be present at Boundary Bay but that wasn’t the case. In fact, we were the third car to show up!

Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/25 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO400)
Snowy owls in tree- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F7.1, 230mm, ISO400)
Snowy owl at dusk- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/3 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO3200)
I quickly suited up and we were off. For my sunrise shots, I decided to head out into the marshy, grass filled near-shore environment. It was cold enough over night to frost which made travel a little easier. As you get to the mudflats, there are some beautiful S-shaped tidal inlets which perfectly reflected the developing light show. Although the skies to the east over Mount Baker were devoid of clouds, the skies to our south had a series of high, wispy clouds which began to reflect the warm light of sunrise. It was truly one of my favorite sunrises of the year and the fact I was able to photograph it and enjoy it with my girlfriend made it even better!

Sunrise began to develop quickly and eventually the sun rose above the horizon between Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters range. The wildlife photographers were beginning to show up in numbers as the light improved. My girlfriend decided to head east along the dike from 72nd St as I decided to head back to the owl concentrations west of 72nd St. I’m going to save any commentary about the behavior of wildlife photographers for another blog post but I was saddened.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 70mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
I headed further west towards 64th St to get away from the photogs and returned to a large tree alongside the dike which the day before held up to three snowy owls. On this day, two bald eagles were enjoying the high ground. My only experiences with bald eagles are along the North Fork Nooksack River near Mosquito Lake Road (east of Bellingham) and in that area, the eagles tend to “spook” quite easily. At Boundary Bay, the experience is quite the opposite.

I approached the tree in several stages, taking photos along the way. I really thought that they would fly away but they didn’t. In fact, a woman walked right up to an interpretive display near the base of the tree and the eagles did little more than look down inquisitively. After getting my fair share of eagle photos, I headed back to 72nd St and then further east to meet my girlfriend, who had been calling me throughout the morning about all the wildlife she had been seeing along the dike. Sure enough, I kept seeing what she had.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 19mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 14mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F14, 21mm, ISO100)
We eventually returned to 72nd St around 11am and it was rapidly turning into the circus we witnessed the day before. I took a couple more photos (which filled my memory card) and I took that as a sign to leave. After gathering our stuff and checking out from our hotel, we spent a little time to explore the ag fields near Westham Island and Ladner. We were both pretty tired so we made the drive back home, returning just in time to see the kickoff for the Super Bowl. Ok, that last fact made *ME* happier than my girlfriend!

This was a great place to visit and I’m sure we’ll return, even when the snowy owls have left. This was also my first good outing with my Bigma lens supported by a gimbal head. The vast majority of the photos in this blog post were taken with the Bigma and I’m pleased. It’s not the fastest lens at F6.3 on the longest end but the high ISO capabilities of the Pentax K-5 can make up the difference. I do need to dial in the set up of the gimbal head because I still experienced some vibrations of mirror slap while taking photos..

(You’ll notice the terms “TRAIL PHOTO” and “OFF-TRAIL PHOTO” with the picture descriptions. I’ll explain this in an upcoming blog post about wildlife photographers)

Sun clearing the Cascades from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 100mm, ISO100)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/80 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO200)
Bald Eagle at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Bald Eagles at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 270mm, ISO100)
Coastal fog and Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/20 @ F16, 320mm, ISO100)
Great Blue Heron at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F16, 500mm, ISO200)

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