This is a magical place. It is home to one of the few interior temperate rain forests in the world. Spectacular mountain scenery, glaciers, alpine lakes and meadows, splendid forest, extensive wildlife and forgotten old mining ruins are all part of the West Kootenay hiking experience.
British Columbia has a series of north/south running mountain ranges with their resulting rain shadows. The prevailing westerly winds first drop a huge amount of precipitation on the Coast mountains with the semi-arid Okanagan in their rain shadow. Most of the remaining moisture has to rise over the successively higher mountain ranges of the Columbia Mountains – the Monashees, Selkirks and finally the Purcells with fourteen summits over 11,000 feet. This results in more rain, large snow packs and a forest with a wide variety of trees. The Columbia Mountains are “rain-catching” mountains. The east side of the Purcells, the Rocky Mountain Trench and the Rocky Mountains are again in rain shadow – much drier and with much smaller snow packs than the West Kootenay.
Mountains dominate the landscape but few peaks are visible from the deep mountain valleys.. Spectacular alpine meadows produce one of the best wildflower displays on the planet. The fall colour display dominated by the alpine larch tree is unbeatable. Lush forests with moss floors and a reputation for prodigious bush whacks dominate the landscape. There are some areas of superb rock climbing especially in the Valhallas. Logging scar is present but not as devastating as on the west coast.
Two major rivers, the Columbia and Kootenay flow through the West Kootenay. Each are almost entirely lake, both natural and the result of hydroelectric and water-control dams. Hot dry summers and mild winters with a deep snowpack characterize the climate. Insects seem to be less of a problem than other places in the world. There is relatively little wind. It is the perfect four-season playground. No crowds, a laid back, back-to-nature, hippy vibe, and one of the best mountaineering clubs anywhere make the West Kootenay a great place to live.
Sitting on the US/Canada border, it is halfway between Calgary and Vancouver, but neither group makes it here in great numbers. Relatively speaking, the West Kootenay doesn’t see the tourist traffic of the areas on either side, the Okanagan and the East Kootenay. We still haven’t been “discovered”. The locals seem to want to keep it that way.
WHERE ARE THE WEST KOOTENAYS?
The West Kootenay is located just north of the US border, midway between Vancouver, British Columbia (640km/400 miles to the west) and Calgary, Alberta (640km/400 miles to the east). Spokane, Washington, is 240km (150 miles) south and Revelstoke, BC, on the Trans-Canada Highway, is roughly the same distance north.
My definition of the West Kootenay includes all the areas most frequently explored by the Kootenay Mountaineering Club. Technically, that is all land south of the Trans-Canada highway, but practically, we only frequent the mountains much further south. The highest, most rugged and most technical parts of the Columbia Mountains are centred around Rogers Pass and the highway. It has different transportation corridors than the West Kootenay – the Duncan River serves as the access from the West Kootenay to the south bits of this area. As a result, the Gold Range in the Monashees, the Selkirks north of Trout Lake and the Lardeau River and the Purcells north of Howser Creek, have seen activity only from the small core of climbers in the club. Practically the majority of the KMC are hikers who scramble up mountains and virtually all of our routine trip schedule involves mountains south of that line. The height of land in the Monashee and Purcell Mountains tends to serve as the east-west boundaries.
Thus, for the Selkirk Mountains, this guide covers everything south of Trout Lake and extending into Northern Washington and Idaho. David Jones covered the area north of this in “Selkirks South”, an excellent climbing guide to the area of the Selkirks between that line and north to the Trans Canada Highway. We are geographically separate from these mountains to the north, as are our transportation corridors and have seen activity in the club only from the small core of climbers.
The Gold Range in the Monashees and the Purcells north of Glacier Creek are not well documented but have seen much activity from our club. Access to the west slopes of the Purcells is only practical from the West Kootenay.
Modern transportation routes serve the West Kootenay. Highway 3 and 3A is a major transprovincial highway that crosses the southern portion from east to west. The two highest highway passes in Canada are on either side. Highways 6 and 31 connect with Vernon and Revelstoke respectively to the north – both cross Arrow Lake on ferries. Several highways, including 2, 25 and 31, lead from Washington and Idaho in the south. Greyhound and The regional airport in Castlegar provide transportation into the area. Spokane International Airport provides access from the USA.
The city of Nelson, with a population of 9,000, is centrally situated in the region. The larger towns of Grand Forks, Castelgar, Trail and Creston, along with many smaller towns, provincial campgrounds and commercial resorts serve as bases fir trips into the surrounding countryside.
The shape of the land – a largely vertical landscape dominated by steep mountain ranges that tower above narrow valleys – has held industrial man at bay. Protected by the region’s inaccessibility, wilderness still survives here. Man left his mark especially during the mining boom at the turn of the century, a profusion of mines, connected to the outside world by trails, dotted the high country. Remnants of this heritage remain and many of the old mining trails are used by today’s hikers. Despite this, crowds are rare.
Heavy winter snows in the WK provide the cold weather enthusiast with a wide range of outdoor opportunities. The historical method of travel through snow-covered forests and over rugged terrain is by showshoe. although the snowshoer has a virtually unlimited choice of routes in the Selkirks, the most popular areas include most of the trails and access roads mentioned in this book.
On trails, roads or open sites at lower elevations, a tear dropped style snowshoe is recommended whereas the Alaskan style with a rounded oval shape is recommended for the deep powder of higher terrain.
Dozens of unplowed access roads along with winter logging roads (check with BC Forest Service) and a growing number of marked trail systems lure cross-country skiers. Trail systems exist at the Apex Nordic Ski Centre at the bottom of the turnoff to the Whitewater Ski Area, Blackjack Cross-Country near Rossland, Nancy Greene Recreation Area, Paulson Cross-Country Ski Trails, Champion Lakes Provincial Park and Nakusp Hot Springs, to name the largest.
Ski mountaineering is increasingly popular at Staleap Park on the Salmo-Creston, Rossland – Nancy Greene and the Seven Summits Trail (with many cabins), Bonnington Range and its 4 cabins, Whitewater Ski Hill and Kokanee Glacier. The Kokanee Glacier cabin is completely booked out from early December to mid-May (Alpine Club of Canada) and draws skiers from all over North America. The longest downhill ski hill is Red Mountain near Rossland. Whitewater is south of Nelson and several cat ski operations function throughout the winter.
Traveling in the mountains in the winter presents certain dangers, especially avalanche. The combination of steep hills and heavy winter snows creates perfect conditions for avalanche. Avalanches are complex and unpredictable. Beware of open snow slopes, especially after a snowfall of over 15cm (6″), after sudden temperature changes, during or after winds greater than 16kph (10kph), or during periods of hot spring sun on south-facing slopes.
To preserve wilderness areas for future generations, we must strive to leave no trace of our passing. In some high-pressure areas, even footprints leave their mark. As they are relatively unknown, the WK have had little hiking pressure to date. Aside from the forgotten old mines and clearcuts creeping steadily up the forested valleys, there is little evidence of man. There are still many pristine areas.
Pack out everything you pack in.
Stay on trails, particularly in high-use areas.
As open fires scar the land and remove scarce nutrients (wood) from the fragile ecosystem, build a fire only in an emergency. If you must make a fire, look for an existing fire pit, a flat rock or exposed bedrock an make a serious effort to eliminated all traces when you leave.
Do not cut green boughs for your bed.
Plan your tent site so you do not need to scar the earth with rain trenches around your tent. Camp in designated areas, away from soft lake shores or meadows. Bury feces in cat holes and carry out your toilet paper.
Do not feed any animals. Man’s food is neither natural nor beneficial for animals and only encourages them to beg.
Remember that you are among fellow living things here in the back country. Every flower, shrub and tree, wild animal and bird should be treated with respect.
Water. I am not sure if Giardia Lambda or beaver fever is an issue in the West Kootenay. It has been my experience that I drink all water if there are no humans above me. But to be safe and if there is a question about the water’s quality, then either not drinking it, boiling it or treating it will result in no problems.