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.
MAN IN THE KOOTENAYS
This is a story of man in a challenging environment. These rugged, densely forested mountains with their heavy winter snowfalls posed a colossal obstacle to man’s civilizing activities. Only their mineral wealth and imposing beauty could lure him into the high country.
Ten thousand years ago the land was still cloaked in the Pleistocene Ice Age. As the ice receded, life advanced. At least, 3000 years ago, the Salish Indians arrived from the south west, following their lifeblood – the spawning Pacific salmon – up the Columbia River. they settled in the valleys along the Columbia and Slocan rivers and rarely ventured into the surrounding mountains. More recently, about 400 years ago, the Kutenai Indians came down the Kootenay River from the southeast. The Kutenais were seasonal visitors, travelling along the shore of Kootenay Lake and the West Arm, to hunt, gather huckleberries and fish for spawning kokanee in the tributary streams. These valley people, though never numerous, concentrated their activities along the Kootenay shoreline and their artifacts can still be found there.
Like the Indians, the early European explores avoided mountain travel. The towering north-south ranges were almost impassable, and the only feasible route – the Kootenay Lake-West Arm system – was too hazardous for regular canoe travel. In 1808, explorer David Thompson reached the south end of Kootenay Lake in his vain search for a route down the Columbia Valley.
Finally, in 1865, in an attempt to maintain British influence during the Fort Steele gold rush to the east, the first east-west land route was established across the southern reaches of the Columbias near the U.S. border. This was the Dewdney Trail, and, although it made political sense and pioneered the route of todays’s southern Trans-Canada Highway #3, it was not economically competitive against the far easier trade routes that came from the US to the south. By 1880, it was overgrown and largely forgotten.
While the Dewdney deteriorated, the valley routes from the US steadily developed. The rich mineral wealth of the Selkirk region was well known, and the development of water and rail routes set the stage for the great mining boom that put the West Kootenay on the map. Lured by the promise of the mother lode, man for the first time invaded the rugged mountains, which were laced with veins of silver, lead and gold. The hard-rock mining boom of the 1880s was an exciting time. Mines dotted the landscape from the valleys to the peaks, as hardy prospectors combed the mountains for new claims (frequently burning off the dense forests to expose the bedrock). Towns such as Nelson, Kaslo, Ainsworth, New Denver and Silverton sprang up.
Sandon. The story of Sandon, today a ghost town. reflects the energy, wealth and the disappointments of the mining boom. Sandon’s story began by chance in the fall of 1891 when two prospectors, Eli Carpenter and John Seaton, took a shortcut from the valley to Ainsworth over an unmapped region of the Selkirks. Bushwhacking their way east, they stumbled upon an outcrop of rich silver ore at the top of a 2133m (7000 ft) ridge, and rushed to the assay office in Ainsworth with their exciting discovery. Greed tends to bring ot the worst of people. While Seaton waited outside the office, Carpenter had submitted low-grade ore, planning to return to the find and stake the claim with another prospector. The angry Seaton quickly gathered together four Irishmen, raced back to the mountain and, beating Carpenter, staked the Noble Five claim. The “Silvery Slocan”, one of the richest and most famous silver producers on the continent, was born. The news of the Nobel Five claim brought a frantic rush of prospectors to the area. While some staked claims worth millions, most had far less luck.
A classic hard-luck story occurred in the summer of 1892 when a prospector named J. W. Cockle discovered an apparent bonanza – a 125 ton boulder of high-grade silver-lead ore. He quickly staked the entire area in anticipation of the riches to come. First, he sold the boulder for $2000 – only to see the purchasers take over $20,000 worth of silver form it. Then to top off his bd luck, he discovered that the boulder had rolled down the mountainside from a rich but already staked claim above. His claim was worthless!
Amid this drama, the town of Sandon boomed: the wealth from the surrounding mnes fed the thriving community. Serviced by two narrow-gauge railways (one to Kaslo, one to New Denver), Sandon bustled with 23 hotels and saloons, general stores, mining offices, restaurants, and an opera house. It was a wild, exciting 24-hour-a-day town – while the silver lasted. today, its ruins stand as a silent reminder of another era.
Exciting though it may have been, the mining boom in the Selkirks was a time of tremendous hardship for the men who worked the mines. Long, hard hours of backbreaking work, primitive living conditions, and isolation were all part of the miner’s life. Avalanches often swept away both mines and men. The winter snows were so deep that in some areas the packhorses had to be fitted with snowshoes.
But the silver rush opened up the West Kootenay. Towns grew, roads and railways were built, and a fleet a paddle wheelers soon plied the valley lakes and rivers. Once this base of civilization was established, settlers began to arrive. In the early 1900s, the British Empire was at peace, and many British military officers were retiring from service and seeking a new life in the “colonies”. The West Kootenay was promoted in England as a land of spectacular mountains and fertile valleys where a person could live a pastoral life of orcharding and still find adventure. The area became home to many of these British families, who brought with them not only their cultural interests but also their adventurous spirit. While they cleared their land and built their houses, they listened to the prospectors’ stories of life in the mountains. Some began to explorer the mining trails, and soon the word was out – the West Kootenay was excellent hiking country.
Hiking outings became a popular social activity, and in 1918 the Kokanee Mountaineering Club was formed. One favourite outing of the time began with a boat trip to Kitto’s landing, where Charles Busk owned a large, handsomely landscaped ranch. From the ranch, hikers headed up the Molly Gibson Mine road along Kokanee Creek to the mine, continuig by trail to the Slocan Chief Cabin and Kokanee Glacier. the mountaineering club began a campaign to have the area set aside as as a park, and by 1922 Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park had become a reality, with the Busk ranch as its base.
But times change. Spent ore bodies and the Depression spelled the end of the mining era, and the high country regions were deserted. Valley residents still hiked the trails, but recreational use of the mountains waned as serious hikers were drawn to the more publicized national parks. Logging, which replaced mining as the chief industry in the West Kootenay, has been increasing steadily, with clearcuts creeping up virtually every watershed.
Man’s history in these mountains emphasizes a frontier mentality: conquer, exploit, desert. But some of our predecessors had the energy and the wisdom ot fight for the preservation of this vanishing wilderness, and we must carry on their work so that we will not be the last to thrill to its majesty.
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.