The outdoor family pool at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort, November 9, 2012.
Story & Photos by Robyn Hanson
Harrison Hot Springs is currently hosting the 17th annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, a festival that celebrates the beauty and biodiversity of the Fraser River Valley by honouring the majestic bald eagle and the cycle of the salmon. It’s precisely right now when nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts gather around the Harrison River ecosystem to witness what’s considered to be the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world – up to 7000 counted at one time!
As a nature lover, I knew that I had to get myself out to Harrison to experience this phenomenon for myself, especially after seeing all the wildlife and nature photos from last year. Needless to say, when my boyfriend Shawn and I were invited along on a press trip, I was absolutely stoked!
While I had been to the village of Harrison Hot Springs twice in my life, this was Shawn’s first time. Still, this trip offered a lot of firsts for me. It would be my first time on the Harrison River, my first time on a bald eagle watching expedition, my first time staying at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort, my first reflexology massage, as well as my first time actually going in a hot springs… and I couldn’t wait!
We departed Vancouver on Thursday afternoon taking the scenic Hwy 7 as opposed to the speedier Hwy 1. If you take Broadway east out of Vancouver, it turns into Hwy 7 and then two hours later you’ll be in Harrison Hot Springs. It’s an enjoyable journey if you like the slower the but scenic route, especially once you pass Mission and enter the wild, frontier-like stretch through old farms and forest, like you’ve gone back in time 50 years.
The Harrison Hot Springs Resort
The view of Harrison Lake and Mount Breckenridge from our 6th floor room.
Stepping into the Harrison Hot Springs Resort for the first time was like checking off an item from my BC bucket list. There’s a certain timelessness to the place, enhanced with a brass piano and fireplace in the lobby, the buzz of white robe-clad guests, and a certain je ne sais quoi of yesteryear. I mean, it’s truly rare to find resorts with this kind of longevity on the west coast in BC, and yet here we are, the Grand Dame of the Fraser Valley.
Our room was on the 6th floor of the west tower, in what I imagine must be one of the nicest parts of the hotel. It was stylishly contemporary with two queen beds, a flat screen TV, and a balcony that overlooked Harrison Lake and the distant Mount Breckenridge. We savoured some chocolates while admiring the spectacular view and couldn’t believe we were here. We couldn’t get too comfy, however, as we had an appointment for a massage at 4 p.m. If this is life at a hot springs resort, I could seriously get used to this!
Dressed in white robes, we sauntered down to find the Healing Springs Spa after navigating the (initially) confusing corridors of the hotel. Situated between two of the outdoor pools, the Healing Springs Spa appeared to be an extremely popular destination amongst the guests, and rightfully so.
Shawn was taken away for a deep tissue massage while I was led into a darkly-lit room for my first-ever reflexology massage (a massage that focuses on pressure points in the hands and feet). It’s not every day that I pamper myself, and I can count the amount of times I’ve been to a spa on one hand, but for that 45 minute session I was so relaxed that I almost fell asleep!
Completely blissed out from our massage and sipping on grapefruit-infused water, we walked back across the pools and through the maze-like corridors, back up to our room. We had an hour to spare before our dinner downstairs and the hot springs were calling our name.
The family pool at Harrison Hot Springs.
There are five natural mineral hot springs pools at Harrison Hot Springs, two indoor and three outdoor. We naturally gravitate toward the “adults only” pool where couples were soaking, enjoying the soothing warmth on this crisp November evening.
Tiptoeing down the steps into the waist-high waters, I immediately understood why people travel from all over the world to soak their bones in pools like these. The feeling is truly glorious, quite unlike the feeling of a hot tub or a bath like I had anticipated. It was even more relaxing, if that can be believed! With the boughs of fir, the golden foliage, and the first twinkling of stars, it was a memorable way to experience hot springs for the first time.
But like all good things, it must end. At least temporarily. After 30 minutes of hot springs nirvana, it was time to head back to the room to change, for we had dinner plans.
The Copper Room
The most legendary venue at Harrison Hot Springs is the Copper Room, one of the last remaining dinner and dancing destinations in the region. Romantic and elegant without being stuffy, the Copper Room is a throwback to the big band era (at least to me), where couples old and young sway to the music of the The Jones Boys. From Van Morrison and Jimmy Buffett to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, they were playing a mix of requests and old classics to the joy of dancers and diners alike.
The menu at the Copper Room is varied, with an emphasis on fresh, local Fraser Valley ingredients. I noticed a lot of classic dishes, like Beef Wellington and Prime Rib, as well as seafood and vegetarian options. I began my meal with warm bread and butter, and a poached pear salad with Roquefort and frisée, which was a tasty way to start, the saltiness of the cheese and the sweetness of the pears providing the perfect balance with the bitterness of the frisée.
And remember how I said this was a trip of firsts? Well it was also my first time eating Beef Wellington, a traditional English dish of beef tenderloin cooked with pate and mushrooms, wrapped in puffy pastry. Cooked medium rare (my choice), it was served with mashed potatoes, veggies, and a tiny dollop of their spicy housemade horseradish; it was absolutely exquisite.
The Copper Room’s Beef Wellington.
Of course, so was dessert. I was particularly enamoured by their Baked Alaska, which, now that I think about it, was another first. Anything made of baked meringue and ice cream is okay by me! Paired with Gehringer Brother’s Riesling icewine, it was a decadent and fully enjoyable meal.
The Copper Room’s Baked Alaska.
Of course, the evening wasn’t over yet for the hot springs beckoned and we went back in for one last dip. The atmosphere of the pool was different at night; a downtempo afterparty, a nightcap for the body. The adult pool was surprisingly busy, consisting of couples, family and friends, everyone with a smile on their face, gazing up at the stars above as the pool cast an enchanting blue glow. This is the life.
Eagle Watching on the Harrison River
The next morning we woke up to yet another spectacular sunny day, an abnormality for November and the ideal weather for our eagle watching escapade.
We first met downstairs in a meeting room for breakfast and were greeted by one of BC’s best wildlife and nature photographers, Graham Osborne. Graham is a passionate and approachable photographer. Chances are you’ve seen his photography already, as they’re frequently featured in BC tourism guides. He was the perfect addition to us group of amateur photographers, eager to teach us about how to properly compose shots and tell stories with our photos. His enthusiasm for both nature and photography was contagious, and I can only hope my photos do justice!
Taking a picture of fellow journalist Elly taking a picture of us.
Across from the resort on the shore of Harrison Lake, our captain Bill Sivak welcomed us onto his boat. We quickly made our way west from the lake into the Harrison River, a river that feeds into the Fraser River just north of Chilliwack. Although the Harrison is a short river relatively speaking, other rivers (like the Chehalis) feed into it, resulting in an elaborate estuary ecosystem prime for salmon habitat.
The Harrison River was truly new territory for yours truly. I like to think I know this part of BC well, but I was in awe of the new discoveries. I didn’t realize how powerful and wide the Harrison River was. I had no idea that there were ancient petroglyphs on its rock faces. You can see the red human-like faces below on the right, and the tiny cat-like creature below the crevasse on the left. There were also spiral rock carvings, likely thousands of years old. We were all of 20 minutes from Harrison Hot Springs and yet a world away.
Petroglyphs on the Harrison River rock face.
As we travelled down the river, Graham and Bill would demonstrate their wealth of knowledge, identifying the cultural, historical and biological significance of the landscape we were passing. Graham was also there to guide us through our photographic techniques, including the best places to look for bears (in the forest at the river’s edge) or for bald eagles (perched in the trees or on the gravel bars of the river).
Photographer Graham Osborne.
Although the bald eagles gather here in the thousands, the numbers do vary day by day. Since it was sunny and the river levels were high, the bald eagles were less likely to be seen in great abundance. Apparently when it’s rainy or cloudy, the eagles like to settle on the branches, and that’s when you’re most likely to see them. Of course, they’re all there for one thing: the salmon.
Photographing bald eagles on the Christmas Trees, Harrison River.
Further downstream, the canyon-like walls of the Harrison open up and the current seems to runs more rapidly, churning violent eddies against the log booms. It’s here where we begin to see our first bald eagles, the specks in the trees.
Bald eagles on the Christmas Trees, Harrison River.
These trees are known as the “Christmas trees” due to the eagles adorning their branches. Most of the bald eagles, you may notice, don’t look like what you’d expect because they’re missing their signature white heads. These bald eagles were juveniles (or immatures) and it’s easy to recognize them because they’re all brown. They’ll grow their white feathers once they’ve reached maturity, but as you can see, the majority of the eagles on display were juveniles.
You’ll notice that I don’t have any close up shots of any eagles because I didn’t have a zoom lens. We also kept our fair distance as to not disturb them. While most of the eagles were sedentary in the tree, occasionally we’d see an eagle fly off a branch with prey in its claws, and another eagle would chase after it, trying to steal the meal for itself.
Over on a gravel bar, a bald eagle flew off. It picked up a dead salmon in its talons, mostly spine with the head still attached. It was truly awe-inspiring.
But do the eagles hunt for salmon? No, not really. At least not today. They’re only picking away at the dead salmon that wash up on shore after spawning. In a way, the Harrison River was like one big free lunch.
Up in the sky, there must have been 20-30 eagles soaring in circles – behaviour you’ll only see on clear days like this.
It was here where Graham suggested pulling over on a nearby gravel bar so we could get out and explore the river banks.
Captain Bill Sivak securing the boat to the gravel bar.
And it’s only when you’re along the river shore that you notice the salmon. Dead salmon. Stinking salmon. It’s gross, sure, but it’s also strangely beautiful in the “this is the end of the complete salmon life cycle” kind of way. Most salmon never make it this far.
But it was there kneeling down in the gravel, my face inches away from the jaws of the fish, that I reflected on what I was witnessing. The salmon are the keystone species to the entire ecosystem. If it weren’t for this salmon stronghold, there would be no bald eagles.
Getting up from the gravel, I noticed some movement in a shallow pool. It was salmon. Living salmon. They were spawning and swimming in figure eights around each other. It was at that moment that confirmed what I had already known, and that’s just how amazing the Harrison River is, and hopefully will continue to be for many generations to come.
The Harrison River.
Disclosure: A huge thanks to Sophie, Natasha, Graham, Bill, and Ian at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort for providing me with this amazing experience. My excursion to Harrison Hot Springs was compliments of my hosts.