Monday, August 06, 2007

Bald Eagle Watching Trip to Harrison Mills

Here is a story from my archives of a cold, windy site seeing tour to Harrison Mills to go Bald Eagle watching. I don't know who watched who more; us watching the eagles or the eagles wondering what the heck we were looking at!

Ed Pedersen
Ron Patrick
Ken & Linda Pedersen

Chehalis-Harrison River area of the Fraser Valley 50 miles east of Vancouver

With this posting I am including additional information for those of you who wish to retrace my steps. This tour is a delightful country drive along secondary roads and country side roads. It is especially delightful during the summer, but the number and types of birds to view are limited during the summer months.

I am including mileage stops where possible, as well as I am enclosing GPS waypoint information for those of you with GPS units. Plus, I am including any geocache sites along the way.

For those of you not familiar with geocaching, it is a "sport" where geocachers around the world hide things in a container that could be as small as sandwich size, or as large as a 5 gallon bucket.
They post the GPS coordinates on and other folks will try and find it.

This was my 4th year of Bald Eagle watching in the Harrison area, and I try to get out there 2-3 times each season. Prime times are mid-December to the end of January. After that, the salmon are finished spawning and most of the carcasses have been devoured. When that happens, the eagles move away to find better feeding grounds.

So, with this in my mind, I posted a tour to the BackRoads Driver Northwest YahooGroup and hoped that the weather would co-operate.

For the past few days the area has had -10 C temperatures with 30-40 MPH winds, giving a wind chill factor of -23C and that makes it darn cold to stand out in the wind with a camera or binoculars!

We got lucky, sort of, as the wind had diminished, but in the exposed valleys it was just a strong as ever, and those tour stops meant freezing your pinkies right through your gloves. It also meant that the eagle sightings were not as numerous as hoped for, but the quality made up for the reduced quantity.

Mile Zero was in the village of Dewdney on Hwy #7 Lougheed Highway a few miles east of Mission. Stop at the bridge before you go over the Nicomen Slough onto Nicomen Island and zero your odometer.

While you are stopped check out the cottonwood trees for the conspicuous large forms of the Bald Eagles. Once you see their silhouette in the bare trees the first time, you'll be able to spot them readily as you continue this journey.

Stop 1
We proceeded east along Hwy#7 spotting the occasional mature and juvenile eagles in the trees that ran along side the slough. We stopped at 2.1 K (1.3 miles), and pulled over onto the left side of the road where the shoulder widens.

This is usually a slow running section of the Nicomen Slough, with plenty of mud flats for salmon carcasses to be exposed, and prime eagle spotting. Today, due to the cold spell, the slough was mostly frozen over, and only a few juvenile eagles were spotted in the trees waiting out the wind. We did spot several song birds flitting back and forth in the brambles, although they were moving too fast to allow proper identification.

Stop 2
Back in the cars, and again heading east our next stop was at kilometre 3.7 (2.3 miles). Here we could see mallard ducks lazily plying the open water, while the occasional Bald Eagle soared by playing on the wind. A couple of Winter Wrens jumped from tree to ground level searching for insects and other tidbits.

Once more we headed east to kilometre 5.9 ( 3.67 miles ) and turned left onto Johnson Road. This would take us back towards the slough which was now 1/2 a mile away from Hwy #7. We followed Johnson Rd. past farmer's fields and barns till it met Nicomen Slough Rd. We turned left onto this one lane road and idled along the slough looking for eagles and other birds.

Here we spotted a pair on Tundra swans down from the Artic wintering in the slough. As well, Bufflehead ducks and Canada Geese spent their time in the sheltered section of water out of the cool winter wind.

Above us, eagles would whip by letting the wind take them to a new perch. We went another 1/4 of a mile, turned around, and followed the single lane road past Johnson Rd, and remained on it till it met up again with Hwy #7 ( Lougheed Hwy ). We turned left, (east), and continued along side the slough until we reached another bridge that crosses Nicomen Slough.

Once you cross this bridge you are no longer on Nicomen Island. The island you just left is one of the most fertile farmland areas in the Fraser Valley. This is due to the large amount of sediment that the Fraser River has deposited here for thousands of years since the last Ice Age.

Stop 3
Before we crossed the bridge, we pulled over on the right shoulder of the road and into a small gravel parking area. In the open waters we could see flocks of Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Common Mergansers and other waterfowl that were too far away to identify. Several juvenile eagles were here, and one especially stood out as it rested on an angular stump on the bank of the slough.

East again on the highway brought us to the start of Harrison Bay at kilometre 23.9 (14.85 miles). Harrison Bay is a large elbow of the Harrison River; it spreads out in what was once an ancient channel of the Fraser River during the glacier melts.

In the fall and early winter, before the shallow waters freeze up, this is an area overflowing with waterfowl. In the fall of 2003 I estimated there were over 3,000 ducks of all kinds on this small body of water. Today was not to be the same, as it too was frozen over, and there were no birds to be spotted on the western side of the bay either.

At kilometre 26.3 (16.34 miles) we came to the turn off that would lead to our most productive areas of the day.

We turned left onto Morris Valley Rd, where a pub by the name of The Sasquatch Inn is situated. This road also leads to two main valleys in the area: the "Chehalis" and the "Harrison" valleys. Both are reputed to be home to the legendary Sasquatch, also know as Bigfoot !

We followed Morris Valley Rd and pulled over as it opened up into a wide expanse of the Harrison River called the Chehalis Mud Flats. This is a very wide swath of open landscape approx 5 miles long and a mile wide.

Stop 4
Here is where all the Bald Eagles had headed after the local waters froze over. Pullover at Kilometre 29.0 (18.02 miles)

Close to the shore ducks like Mallards and Scaups paddled but no eagles could we see. We scanned the bluffs that bordered the west side of the road, and spotted several eagles in the trees above us. One recently matured eagle was particularly well placed on a branch, and waited patiently while Ron got some good shots of him with his telephoto lens. We were on the west side of the mud flats looking east to the far side where the main channel of the river is located.

In the far distance, with the aid of the binoculars, we could see a multitude of eagles sitting on the windy sand bars picking at the frozen salmon carcasses.

North still on Morris Valley Road and the eagles were more numerous in the old snags and cotton woods that lined the edge of the marsh along side the road. We were obviously hitting the equivalent of the "eagle motherlode".

Stop 4A no Waypoints logged
Kilometre 31.5 (19.57 miles) brought us to the Chehalis Fish Hatchery. Getting out of the cars we could hear the eagles in the trees around us, and we knew that we were in the right spot.

The Chehalis River is a small river that empties into the larger Harrison River, and the Chehalis is a prime river for 5 types of salmon spawning. From late summer to late winter multiple runs take advantage of the wide gravel beds of the river to spawn. And, in turn, every fish eating bird congregates here as well.

We parked in the hatchery parking lot and walked around the outside perimeter path that would lead us down to the mouth of the hatchery channel, where the channel empties in to the Chehalis. As we walked along the path we could see eagles soaring above the river, and Coho salmon, their skin gone dark with age, moved lazily in the channel. The ever present seagulls argued over half of a dead salmon that one of them had carried onto the pathway. A lone American Dipper, it's feathers a dark slate colour, flitted to the edge of the channel, and then promptly jumped into the fast moving section and walked underwater as it looked for salmon roe being carried with the current.

The dipper shared the wide channel with several female Common Mergansers, their bright orange head crests wet from diving for salmon roe and other tasty treats. In the trees near us, low to the ground, a pair Varied Thrush watched us with concern as we walked towards the river's edge.

Even before we reached the river bank, in the tall trees around us we could see numerous mature and juvenile Bald Eagles resting between feeding bouts, their vivid yellow eyes watching us with curiosity as we watched them. I counted more than two dozen in the immediate area, and still more wheeled by as they flew up or down the river channel to alight in a tree top, where they instantly blended in with the foilage.

My best guess is that, if we could pick out the eagles hiding in the tall trees around us, that there would be approx 100 within a football field's length of us. We could hear many more than we could see so well were they camoflauged.

Having taken as many pictures as we could, and having spotted more eagles with the binoculars, I decided it was time for a diversion. The area right around the hatchery contained a geocache, and this was to be my first find.

I pulled out my GPS, found the coordinates for the cache, and with the aid of Ken the Bushwhacker, we followed our noses, (well, the GPS' nose ) as we honed in on the cache SUCCESS ! Hidden 15 feet off the trail under an old fallen log was a small container containing a log book, a pencil for signing the logbook, and several items to trade such as a watch and small kids toys.

Tonight I'll log onto and report that I found the cache, and what the condition of the cache is, as well as any comments I may have. The waypoint name for the cache is GCHQG3 located at N 49 17.478 W 121 56.528. It is known as "SOME THINGS FISHY".

Also near here, just a 1/2 mile away is another geocache known as "CHEHALIS CANYON" waypoint name GCHQG5. It is located at N 49 18.091 W 121 56.329. Due to the time of day, the recent snowfall, and the fact the we were freezing our butts off, we decided that some of these geocaches are more fun to find in the summer !

So, we passed on this one and continued our trip. If you are wondering where the name Chehalis comes from, it is a derivative of the First Nations name given by the Stolo nation to their community furthest from the Fraser River. In the Halq'emeylem language Chehalis (Sts'a'i:les) means"running aground on a sandbar (with the chest of the canoe)"

Stop 5
Back in the vehicles, we retraced our route back to Hwy #7, and then turned east (left) for a short distance to the Harrison River bridge. We pulled over on the right shoulder of the road before we drove over the bridge. It was extremely windy here,and our faces and hands felt the chill bite of the cold wind making us shiver in just a few minutes.

Taking the binoculars and looking north up the mud flats, I counted 60-70 eagles on the wide expanse of the mud flats, seemingly oblivious of the biting wind. As well, in the small bays of the flats hundreds of ducks like Canada Geese, Lesser Scaups, and Mallards hunkered down to stay warm.

Looking south of the bridge I counted 30 eagles perched on the river bank and nearby log booms picking at salmon, while flocks of geese and waterfowl watched them with a wary eye. We also got a perfect present of having a juvenile Bald Eagle playing on the wind just above our heads. It seemed to be using the bridge as a reference point, as it maneuvered expertly to remain just above the bridge. Try as we did, he was just too darn fast to get a good picture.The wind was gusting to 40 MPH, and he was shucking and jiving in the wind gusts. As if to tease us, as we got back in the cars and drove over the two lane bridge, he came down and hovered at car top level at the edge of the bridge, literally 10 feet away from us. "Hah, how do ya like that" he says!

Stop 6
At kilometre 39 (24.23 miles) we turned right on to School Road and followed the signs to Kilby Park. This is the site of one of the first white settlements in the area. One of the original farmers started milling lumber in 1870,and from 1870 to 1910 a succession of mills came into operation. In 1902 Thomas Kilby came to the area and built a three story hotel that quickly became the focal point of the small community. It became an overnight stop for the trains heading to and from Vancouver, and the farmers from Chilliwack on the opposite side of the Fraser River use to bring their dairy products bound for the growing Vancouver and it's suburbs across the river on small boats to load onto the west bound trains.

Long before the white settlers, for thousands of years, the First Nations had a community here called Scowlitz ( Sq'ewlets), "turning the canoe around the corner". It was situated right at the mouth of Harrison Bay as the Harrison River narrows to enter theFraser River.

The Stolo here hunted in the mountains to the north, and fished in the safety of the sheltered bay for salmon. They also fished the backwater channels of the Fraser for the mighty White Sturgeon that use to grow to 20 feet long, and live for 100 years.

Kilby park is on the east side of the large Harrison Bay, and the bay is home to flocks numbering in the hundreds of Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Lesser and Greater Scaups, American and European Widgeons, Tundra Swans, Mallards, Barrows Goldeneyes, and more types of waterfowl than a poor spotter like me can name.

Of course the main attraction of the day, the Bald Eagles had their fair share of brethren on site for our viewing pleasure.

This was the end of the tour, as the day was coming to a close, and we had all had our share of frozen patches of skin. We headed west back along Hwy #7 to Mission and had a late lunch, then Ken and Linda headed home, and Ron and I headed to one of my co-workers, who had just caught a good size Steelhead trout and was anxious to show it off.

It was a very cold day for the group due to the winter weather and the high winds, but it was a rewarding day none the less. We saw our share of eagles, some even up close and personal, and all around enjoyed the days outing.

My thanks to the members of the group who came out today, and look forward to seeing other members on future tours.

Mile Zero N 49 11.132 W 122 04.066
Stop 1 N 49 09.721 W 122 09.984
Stop 2 N 49 09.908 W 122 08.725
Stop 3 N 49 11.132 W 122 04.066
Stop 4 N 49 16.330 W 121 57.107
Stop 4A no waypoints logged
Stop 5 N 49 14 993 W 121.56.938
Stop 6 N 49 14.203 W 121.57.753

1 comment:

Robin said...

Nice page... geek!