March 16th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 11
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Flathead Range Watersheds
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear photo
Topographic map of Girardi, Star, York and Lyons Creek. Municipal boundary in orange.
Continuing on with the watershed series this week let’s visit four more distinct drainages, this time south of Coleman and Blairmore. They are as the map shows Girardi (1), Star (2), York (3) and Lyons Creek (4). Their combined main courses carry a total of about 31 kilometers of important waters north into the Crow. There are websites that have shared the spectacular view from places like Mount Coulthard looking down on these wonderful drainages and it is from sites like these, that one can truly get a bird’s eye view of their expanse. They are unquestionably stunning. Don’t like to use that word but in this case it fits.

Starting to the west Girardi, that beautiful little stream that flows from the basin formed by Sentry and Chinook peaks, contributes about 6.8 square kilometers of drainage area to the system. Its waters are cold, clean and low velocity and its headwater sands and gravels are ideal habitat for an isolated population of Westslope Cutthroat Trout that have been identified there. Girardi runs under the highway and at times high flows, like June 2014, can bring a lot of sediments to its highway culvert crossing.

Immediately east of Girardi is the Star Creek basin that carries the flows from the Chinook Peak, Mt. Parrish and Mt. McLaren basins. This area was the subject of a controversial logging technique study a couple years ago, one that was designed to theoretically assess the water flow impacts, if any, of these different approaches. Star has a surprisingly extensive drainage that reaches over five kilometers up the Chinook Peak basin after it merges with easterly flows just above Star Creek Falls. Stream watchers and researchers alike will undoubtedly be watching what happens up there during this spring’s runoff, if there is one!

Star, along with Allison and York, were extensively logged in the Pass early days by Peter McLaren’s logging operations. McLaren was a senator from Perth, Ontario who became deeply involved in supplying the lumber required for the Crowsnest Pass Railway and in later years for commercial lumber and mining timbers. Coal mines developing in the Pass used a lot of timber underground and could not have existed and maintained their operations without a continuous flow of props. Often coal is presented as the principal industry in the Pass but the expansive logging industry here was in itself almost as significant.
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East of Star the huge York Creek drainage system finds its way south from the Andy Good and Mount Coulthard basins until it connects to the Crow on the west edge of Blairmore. Five kilometres up York Creek it splits to a main and north branch both of which have about six kilometers of flow. North York begins up in a basin between Andy Good and Coulthard in a place where a tragic event occurred in 1946. There an RCAF DC-3 struck the top of the Flathead Range plunging into this branch’s source and killing seven servicemen. The evidence (landing gear and wing) still lie in its beginning flows.

The main branch of York Creek heads south at the split and then up to the east base of Mount Coulthard. Its source is a beautiful tarn (or corrie loch) that sits in a cirque high up on the mountain’s east side. I guess I will put this spectacular small lake on my bucket list before my knees totally give out.

Waters from Coulthard and the west side of Willoughby Ridge join and head north towards the Crow. It is always amazing to study what happens at height of land in places like the Coulthard basin. Just a few hundred meters south of the York drainage headwaters more flow from Coulthard’s south slopes forms the source waters of Lynx Creek that runs south, merges with Lost and Goat Creek and into the Carbondale River. And then it is on to the Castle and into that silt trap they call the Oldman River Dam. This is the river that Thomas Wright Blakiston, a member of the Palliser expedition, travelled up in 1858 as he was told by the local Indians that the Crowsnest Pass was a “bad road.” Bad indeed. Ask any deer trying to cross the highway through the Pass how “bad” it is!

The last drainage on the south side of the Flathead into the Crow is, of course, Lyons Creek. That cranky old stream that discharges with great regularity huge amounts of sediments into the Crow. Even when other streams manage to endure significant rainfall events without too much turbidity, Lyons continues, as it has since the 2003 fire event in its upper reaches, to brownify the usually blue-green flows of Crowsnest River. In 2013 this creek went berserk and tore out the railway crossing in East Blairmore. Upstream it was an unmitigated disaster and it continues to be a really big headache for the municipality. One of the questions I hope to answer down the road is just exactly what is the municipalities’ responsibility in watershed issues within its substantial boundary.
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I raced from stream to stream in June 2013 to capture the heartbreaking images of nature gone wild that day and to witness the astonishing power of water in wild volume as it made its way inexorably downstream, as it must. It was very evident to me then that we must study the inevitability of these types of events, how we can prepare for them and what it is that we are doing that exacerbates them. Lyons sent us a message. I wonder if we are listening.

As promised last week I am going to step back from these drainage connections briefly to share with you an interesting aspect of the Crow’s flow that has intrigued me for years. If we are to truly diversify our attractions here to make our community self sustainable this amazing early piece of archaeological history should be part of the story we share with visitors.
A few years ago as the 2009 Doors Open weekend tour bus that I was on travelled from Blairmore to Coleman, the tour guide, respected archaeologist Dr. Barney Reeves, pointed south out the window to the old short-circuited winding meander of the Crowsnest River. This original course was bypassed many years ago with a straight channel to facilitate moving waters past Bushtown more quickly so as to avoid the headache of annual flooding there. Barney said then that this meander area is referred to as the old “buffalo swamp.”

Intrigued by this comment I queried Barney about it and his reply was that: “That’s what the K’tunaxa (Kootenai Indians) call it, as that’s where they would drive buffalo down from the slopes (from the north) and trap them. I can envision this and do often as I drive past this special wetland heading back to Coleman. Dr. Reeves went on to say: “These willow dominated wetlands in the Crowsnest are considered one of the largest and finest examples of their kind in the Alberta Rockies and as I recall are listed as an environmentally significant area in one or more studies of such. They are unique and rare kinds of wetlands as they develop on old glacial lake beds and have been there since the glacial lake, that occupied the floor of the valley sometime around 13,000 yrs ago, drained out through down-cutting of the Blairmore Gap. Their development would be really interesting to document through recovery and analysis of one or more sediment cores for the geology, sedimentation, plant pollen and plant and animal macrofossils (snails, insects). It could be really interesting to see when they developed and what happened during the Mid-Holocene dry period from ca. 8000-5000 yrs ago. Who knows how deep they are and what might be in the bottom.”

I can see in my mind’s eye wooden boardwalks reaching into these special wetlands with interpretive signs and can imagine exploratory archaeological trenches dug there that reveal the remarkable history of the story of the “buffalo swamp”.

Tracing the Flow of the Crow:  Part1 - Part2 - Part3 - Part4
March 16th ~ Vol. 85 No. 11
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