Eagle-watching on B.C.’s Harrison River

eagle-watching on the harrison river
eagles roosting in ghost trees
Winter on the Harrison River is the ideal time to spot majestic bald eagles roosting in the trees

Harrison — beyond the hot springs

Few people look beyond what the sleepy village of Harrison Hot Springs has to offer, when steamy summer days have cooled and the turquoise lake’s temperature isn’t so inviting for a languorous swim.

Of course, any time of year is ideal for soaking in the area’s famed sulphur springs, especially at once of the five pools (two indoors, three outside) hidden inside the Harrison Hot Springs Resort. (Soak pre- or post-spa? Both! And especially in the evening, under the twinkle of the starry sky.)

But autumn is when the Harrison River wakes up, luring nature lovers to explore its chalky waters and tree-fringed shores. Anglers who fish for salmon and trout—or hope to hook a prehistoric sturgeon—are already familiar with the river, which commingles with the mighty Fraser in this serene region located a 90-minute drive east of Vancouver, in part of British Columbia’s farm belt (look for cows grazing, acres of cornfields, rows of tulips, and hazelnut orchards, all part of the Agassiz-Harrison Mills portion of the Circle Farm route).

Exploring the river by jet boat

The best way to become acquainted with area’s raw beauty is to tour the Harrison River by boat, and witness the changing landscape and open vistas around each bend. On a late-November day, complete with slate skies and spitting rain, I joined a small group of people on a heated jet boat for an eagle-watching excursion with Tony Nootebos of Harrison Eco Tours (the next day our same group fished for great white sturgeon). It’s here that just weeks before, thousands of spawning salmon had traveled upstream to lay their eggs in the very part of the river where they were born, churning up gravel and building shoals along the river in the process, before expiring and becoming dinner for other wildlife.

This life-cycle process is what the river is all about. It’s at once staggeringly beautiful and incredibly heartbreaking to watch the spent salmon gasping their last breaths, hooked jaws snapped open, while watchful eagles decide whether they’re hungry enough to dive-bomb for a bit of fish flesh. And while watching the salmon drift by in their watery graves is mesmerizing in its morbidity, it’s the eagles we’re seeking.

Counting eagles

As we zip up the river, pausing at various vantage points, the atmosphere can be described in one word: primal. The distinctive pitch of the eagles’ cries alerts us to the so-called ghost trees that line the river. The poplar trees’ branches are almost bare, and stand out as graphic outlines against the milky grey sky. And though the wind has died down, the branches dance from the weight of massive bald eagles, which are almost barely perceptible, their downy-white heads and brown plumage blending in with the backdrop. A flash of hooked yellow beak, ripple of feathers, and one of the majestic eagles takes flight. Gulls balk at this activity and pursue the eagle, all flapping wings and cacophonous squawks. The birds circle in the sky and elude each other, before landing on the shore, oblivious of our wondrous stares.

We can count dozens and dozen of eagles in the trees, circling above, walking on the shoreline ….  numbers from the official annual Harrison Eagle Count, which just ends a couple days before our visit, hadn’t been finalized, but previous years’ estimates indicate that a staggering 7,000 eagles flock to this region, celebrated as the third-largest congregation of eagles in North America.

The eagles aren’t the only wildlife active today. A seal swims past, ducking under the water just in time to elude our cameras. But we manage get close to a Great Blue Heron, a striking specimen that patiently pauses on a piling before unhinging its wings and spindly legs and flying off, a silhouette against the distant mountains. φ

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