by Julie H. Ferguson
Every November, between two and six thousand eagles congregate to gorge on spawned-out salmon within an easy day trip from Vancouver. I have yearned to experience this, the biggest convocation in North America, but was determined to see it on an unspoiled river.
The Harrison River, deep in the Fraser Valley, filled the bill and is less than two hours from home.
From time immemorial, huge numbers of eagles have followed Pacific salmon flooding up wild BC rivers to spawn, then die. Dwindling food supplies and freeze-up further north drive the hungry eagles to southern BC for the later salmon runs. They are lazy birds – scavengers first, hunters only when they must.
The eagles are everywhere: on the gravel bars, along the river’s bank, and atop pilings. They fill the bare trees, soar in the sky, and bicker over a single salmon even when there are thousands. I hear them mew, whistle, cluck, and shriek. I struggle with my camera bundled up in a shower cap and the dim light so close to the winter solstice.
At the confluence of the Harrison and Chehalis Rivers, named the first Salmon Stronghold in Canada, the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival kicks off the spectacle in mid-November. Opening day at Pretty Estate resort, home of Rowena’s Inn and Sandpiper Golf Course, sees experts, eagle handlers, and photographers on hand to assist visitors in understanding the birds’ life cycle that is directly tied to salmon migrations. BC’s well-known eagle guru David Hancock of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation is a regular and approachable presence.
There are two ways to experience this natural phenomenon. Drive out to Harrison Mills along Highway 7 on the north side of the Fraser River:
1. On land: Turn left at the Sasquatch Inn and follow the signs to Sandpiper Golf Course (1km). Turn right through the gates of the Pretty Estate Resort. You will be directed to parking behind Rowena’s Inn and take a short walk to the “Flats.” You can’t miss the eagles! (Free)
2. On water: Drive a bit further on Hwy 7 and cross the Harrison River bridge, then turn right to Kilby and follow the signs. From here you can take a guided river cruise operated by Fraser River Safari. The birds are not spooked by the boat, so you get closer and keep drier than on foot. It’s wise to book the river safari online before leaving Vancouver. ($65-70/person)
The boat navigates through Harrison Bay and up-river. From the pilings, the adult eagles stare me down with the unwavering eyes of all raptors. Their yellow beaks, hooked and sharp, are perfect for eating flesh. I watch an adult haul a salmon carcass from between the logs and fend off thieving juveniles and gulls.
In late December, the eagles disperse—even partners go their separate ways.
“But I thought they mated for life,” I comment.
“Last year one tagged male flew to Haida Gwaii and his partner went to Montana,” my guide says. “They returned to their nest here on exactly the same March day to raise another eaglet.”
I will return too.
© Julie H. Ferguson 2013
The author wishes to thank Pretty Estate Resort and Fraser River Safari for making this adventure possible.
If you go:
The bald eagles visit Harrison River from mid-November to late-December; the festival is held annually on the third weekend in November at the Pretty Estate Resort. (Nov 16-17 in 2013)
Pack hiking boots, rain-gear and warm clothing, a hat and gloves. Take binoculars and, if you want good photos of the eagles, a camera with a 200mm lens or longer (smartphone cameras will disappoint).
The Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival is accessible to visitors who can walk on uneven ground. Rowena’s Inn is wheelchair accessible, but the river safari is not. Both are kid-friendly. Visitors can find good meals at both Pretty Estate and at Kilby Historic Site.
- Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival: http://fraservalleybaldeaglefestival.ca/
- Fraser River Safari: http://fraserriversafari.com/
- Harrison River, Canada’s first Salmon Stronghold: www.wildsalmoncenter.org/programs/north_america/canada.php
- Hancock Wildlife Foundation: www.hancockwildlife.org/
– Bald Eagle biology at www.hancockwildlife.org/index.php?topic=BaldEagleBiology
– Hancock’s eaglecam at Rowena’s broadcasts two live views at
- Pretty Estate Resort:
Rowena’s Inn on the River – www.sandpipergolfclub.com/rowenas_home/
River’s Edge Restaurant – http://www.sandpipergolfclub.com/riversedge_home/
Sandpiper Golf– www.sandpipergolfclub.com/
- Tourism Harrison for accommodation, etc. – www.tourismharrison.com
© Photos by Pharos (Julie H. Ferguson) 2013
About the author:
Julie H. Ferguson is an addicted travel writer and photographer who is intensely interested in the history and culture of foreign lands, as well as Canada, and her stories and images reflect this focus. She never leaves home without her cameras and voice recorder, always looking for the colour and sounds that captivate readers everywhere.
Julie is also the author of twenty-six books, including four about Canadian history and seventeen travel-photo portfolios. Her travel articles and images have appeared in global markets, both print and online.