May 25th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 21
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tracing the Mighty "Stag" River
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Mount's Joffre and Nivelle and the glaciers that feed the Elk River. Note outlined in red the eskers and ground moraine left by the fast retreating glaciers.
So I thought it might be interesting to cast a glance westward from the complicated drainages that make up the “Flow of the Crow” that were examined in a recent five part series and instead study the course of the mighty Elk River. Having observed and worked around this river for over 35 years I decided to take a hard look some years ago at the multiple streams that systematically join the Elk and then the Kootenay River near Lake Koocanusa.

Melting glacial ice 36 miles north of Elkford is where it all starts. Ancient remnants of the last great freeze-up; this fast retreating source-ice lies massively on the south face of Mount Joffre and the east face of Mount Nivelle high above the provincial park that contains the spectacular Upper and Lower Elk Lakes. The flows from the Joffre glacier tumble over a spectacular falls known as the Petain and into Petain Creek, one of the first feeders into the Elk River system.

I've never been there physically on the ground but I flew over those lakes in the early 1980’s in a small fixed wing aircraft scanning for radio-collared animals as part of the Line Creek Mine wildlife studies. The glaciers were a remarkable sight perched atop these magnificent peaks. I revisited them a few years ago from a vantage point that allowed me to look at no less than 16,500 square kilometers of mountains and river systems at a glance. I was seated at my kitchen table at the time, with a 1:250,000 scale (1 inch = 5 miles) topographic map layed out before me. I've been studying topographic maps for 45 years now in order to better understand the "lay of the land" as my father would say. To view the total drainage of the mighty Elk River it took two of those detailed maps at that scale. They are referred to as 82J-Kananaskis Lakes and 82G-Fernie. Here’s what I saw.

From the Elk Lakes, the river that the intrepid explorer David Thompson called the Stag, heads south towards Elkford absorbing the runoff from creeks like Abruzzi, Cadorna and Aldridge. Also absorbed is the drainage from Connor Lakes to the west which is also glacier fed. The creek draining from Connor Lakes is called Forsyth and it along with Bingay, Crossing and Boivin Creek feed into the Elk before it passes through Elkford.

Boivin Creek was originally named Goat Creek but was renamed for William Boivin who, according to Elk Valley historian Bruce Ramsey, took up land many years ago near what is now the Elk Valley airport. Boivin apparently lost part of one arm back then and complained often of the pain in his stub saying:"I wish somebody would shoot me". He was found one day east of the Elk River on a trail leading to Grave Lake with a bullet hole right between the eyes. It was termed suicide but there is a claim that no gun was ever found! Boivin in French can mean a “place of good wine.” Perhaps “place of good whine” might have been more appropriate.
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South of Elkford, now called the "Wilderness Capital of BC", Brule Creek comes into the Elk from the west past Hornaday Pass. That pass is named for Dr. William Hornaday, a New York zoologist who wrote about his 1906 hunting trip up the Elk Valley in an amazing book called "Campfires in the Canadian Rockies". East of Brule Creek's entry into the system the Fording River merges with the Elk. Feeding the Fording from the north are waterways with names like Henretta, Kilmarnock, Chauncey, Ewin and Line Creek. It had been my observation through 31 years of crossing the Elk-Fording merging point on the way to work that the Fording cleans up in spring a lot quicker than the Elk which runs brown well into the late spring. I believe the Fording's clarity is due in part to the diligence of the Fording River and Line Creek mines and their network of settling ponds and dams.

South of the Fording mouth, the Elk flows on to Sparwood with some added waters from Nordstrum, Cummings and Wilson Creek to the west and from Grave Lake and Grave Creek to the east. I have tasted the land-locked kokanee salmon caught in the pristine,icy cold waters of Grave Lake and it was memorable.

Eventually the Elk meets with Michel Creek, a waterway that during the 1995 flood event showed us just how vast and powerful her own drainage system was by tearing out the highway and a half dozen railway bridges. To the east of this junction one of Michel's sources is Summit Lake on the Alberta/Colombie Britannique border. Its waters drain west and meet with Alexander Creek just past the weigh scales. These crystal clear blue green flows then join with Michel Creek as it heads northwest towards Sparwood. The main branch of Michel Creek starts about 25 km. south of the Coal Mountain turnoff absorbing water from Marten, Leach , Byron and Erickson Creeks on its way north.

The Des Chutes River, as Father Pierre-Jean De Smet called the Elk in the mid 1800's, then heads south by south-west from Sparwood towards Fernie. Smaller tributaries such as Lladnar, McCool, Hosmer and Hartley join in as the Elk moves inexorably towards the sea. Just outside of Fernie, Fairy Creek merges its pure clean spring fed waters into what is now a river of some substance . A note of interest is that a 1905 map of the area spells that creek name "Fairie" but as usual old country spellings get reworked by zealous cartographers.
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The next significant contributor is Coal Creek whose own drainage area and potential power was also aptly demonstrated back in '95. I lived near that creek during that massive runoff when boulders the size of pickups were being moved downstream. Just south of its mouth near the Fernie Ski Hill turnoff another smaller creek flows in. Michael Phillips, discoverer of the Crowsnest Pass, labeled this one Lizzard Creek (yes with 2 z's) in 1874 after what were probably long-toed salamanders he observed at the creek’s mouth.

Proceeding southwest Morrissey Creek joins the Elk from the east as it races towards the famous canyon area below the town of Elko. Finally, as if not yet sated the Elk is infused by the Wigwam River drainage, some of which flows 30 kilometers or more north to join it. The fly-fishing I’m told is phenomenal on this mountain gem. Then it’s on to the Kootenay and the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. From the glaciers to Koocanusa the total drop in elevation is just over 6000 feet. Now that's what I call a river system.

In 2010 the Elk River Alliance, a hard-working community-based watershed group that recognizes what an important river system the Elk is, was formed . The ERA is a watershed think tank that conducts dozens of programs with a vision of connecting people to their watershed, ensuring it is drinkable, fishable, and swimmable for future generations. Check out their website where education is used to raise collective watershed literacy and facilitate watershed stewardship. Every river system in Canada should have a group that works as hard and as diligently as this one does.
May 25th ~ Vol. 85 No. 21
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