Celebrating eagles in the Harrison River Valley

Tourism Harrison River Valley is launching the Season of the Wild to encourage visitors to see the region's bald eagles in a sustainable way

By Grace Kennedy | November 1, 2021 |6:15 am

This story was first published in November 2021.

For as long as salmon have migrated up the Harrison River to spawn, bald eagles have been following and eating them. The eagles congregate in the hundreds along the Chehalis Estuary, a flat muddy expanse perfect for picking dead and dying salmon from the water. And in 1995, enthusiastic volunteers started bringing visitors to the flats to see the eagle gathering.

A quarter of a century later, those tours had exploded in size, with thousands of people coming through the area in a single weekend to appreciate the eagles. But more people brought more challenges.

In 2020, the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival announced it would stop its annual event because of the negative impact of so many visitors in such a delicate ecosystem. Tourism Harrison River Valley has sought to keep the spirit of the event alive—but hopefully without the negative environmental impact. The new Season of the Wild will feature a few guided tours along the Harrison River, as well as overnight stay packages, a storytelling night at the Sasquatch Pub, and a speaker series at the Agassiz Harrison Museum. We talked to event coordinator Stephanie Gallamore about tourism, wildlife and finding a way all can co-exist.

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FVC: How early did Tourism Harrison River Valley start thinking about putting this together?

Stephanie Gallamore: So the bald eagle festival’s always been an important piece to our fall campaign. So when they announced that they wouldn’t be going forward, we were obviously very, very saddened by it. We didn’t organize it, but it’s been a big part of who we are right with the Harrison River right there. So when they first announced that, we kind of looked out and we’re like ‘How can we do this in a safe and sustainable way?’ We don’t want to be doing anything that is going to be detrimental to that area; it is a sensitive habitat.

So with us taking over the Harrison River Valley with our MRDT region [the area that collects hotel tax for tourism organizations], that was one of the concerns brought up by some of the local Harrison Mills accommodators; [they wanted] to host events and activities in that area. So this was one of our initial concepts to them: we’d like to bring forward the Season of the Wild. It’s kind of hard to call this an event—it’s kind of it’s a hybrid model I guess you would say. So we’ve got a series of events throughout it, but it is a naturally occurring event. It’s kind of a self-guided tour that focuses around the salmon, and the bald eagles, and the sturgeon. So that’s how it started.

FVC: Why was this something that was important to put together and make sure it continued in that area?

Gallamore: It’s always been a big part of our shoulder season. It’s such an amazing natural phenomenon and it’s always something when you get to see. It’s pretty inspiring to be out there in nature, so it was definitely one of the things that we thought that we could take over and try to do it in a safe and sustainable way.

FVC: How are you making sure that we don’t run into some of the same issues that the Bald Eagle Festival ended up having in the last couple of years?

Gallamore: Really the eagles are available for viewing from about early October or mid October to early December and even into January, with peak viewing in November. And the bald eagle festival was only run on two days… So you had everybody coming out over a short span of time, where we’re trying to spread it out throughout the entire season. You’re able to see the spawning salmon in early October and you can see the salmon, the bald eagles, and the sturgeon throughout this entire period. So this change in the timeline is how you can disperse the visitors.

FVC: Looking at some of the events that you have, they seem to not be focused around the Chehalis estuary area, and the flats there. It’s more towards Kilby, a little bit lower on the river. Was that on purpose or was that just part of how this all came together?

Gallamore: A little bit of both. Because the spawning grounds are not open this year, we obviously don’t want to be promoting people to head up to that area. We put it out to our stakeholders and our businesses to see who was interested in hosting events. We created a small budget for each of our business partners to host their own activities. And then we were trying to encourage activity throughout the entire Harrison River Valley so it’s not focused on one area and to spread it out. Again [it’s] the same with the timing; so we created a little calendar just to make sure that there weren’t two events happening on the same weekend—really trying to extend the season and let a lot of things happen.

FVC: For you personally, what do you hope comes out of this—for this year and then for the future?

Gallamore: This year we do plan for it to be a little bit smaller scale, especially with a lot of the key partners not being able to participate like the Weaver Creek spawning ground [which is closed due to COVID]. But we hope to see that the life and the spirit of the original Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival could kind of live on and just kind of continue and grow from that.

The Season of the Wild runs from now until January, with specific events happening along the Harrison River. Visit Tourism Harrison River Valley for more details.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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