Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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

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