This article was researched and written by Jim Sime for the Golden Rod and Gun Club. It was submitted for publication in 2000 Golden Memories.
The first travel by non-natives in the upper Columbia is recorded in David Thompson’s journal dated, October 23, 1800 when two of his men, La Gasse and La Blanc, accompanied a group of Kootenay First Nations into this area. They left Rocky Mountain House on the Saskatchewan River to travel over Howse Pass down the Blaeberry to the Columbia and south to the Kootenay River. They spent the winter of 1800-1801 working and trading with the aboriginal people, returning to Rocky Mountain House in late May of 1801. It is assumed that both men were illiterate as there is no record of their journey and more specifically, no record of any wildlife killed for food along the way.
Next came Jaco Findlay in 1806 to clear a trail over Howse Pass for Thompson who was to make the journey the following year. Findlay made rough sketch maps of his route, but no written record of any wildlife encountered.
Finally, on July 25, 1907, the great recorder and map maker, David Thompson and his party started their journey for the Upper Columbia. Game animals must have been scarce on the Upper Blaeberry as on June the 26th, he records “Gave the men a large dog of which they made a hardy meal.” He also records seeing white goats on the mountains. Eventually, on June 29th, at the now well-known animal lick a mile above the present O.B. Campground, they killed a young Buck Red Deer (probably an elk). They required a steady supply of fresh meat and lack of it meant hunger. On June 30, 1807, they reached the Columbia on the south end of Moberly marsh (the present site of Moberly station). Here they built canoes for their trip south up the river. White at this camp, Thompson records the party killing red deer (an animal he defines in his later journals to be an elk) and two Chevreuil (probably Mule Deer). The party had several hunters whose prime responsibility was to keep the party supplied with fresh meat. In spite of this, he records many days without food and further up the valley, actually notes that the party is starving. On July 13, 1807, the party started south up the river and soon passed what he calls the Rapid River (present day Kicking Horse). A mile further south, he records “I went up a lake and fortunately killed 9 swans, thank heaven for the relief.” Thompson’s Swan Lake is present day Cedar Slough, but the telling illustrates a constant struggle for food of any sort. Obviously, there were some large undulates and beaver in the valley, but in the early 1800’s wildlife could hardly be considered abundant.
The Thompson party did not record the killing of any moose until later on in his journey in January of 1811 when they came up the Athabasca and over to the Columbia via Committee Punch Bowl to Boat Encampment. In this part of the valley, Boat Encampment to the Blaeberry, moose meat was their main diet. Moose continued to dominate the ungulate species in this area through the 1800’s and mid 1900’s. Trappers and prospectors survived on moose meat throughout the early 1900’s prior to the construction of the Big Bend Highway. They also report taking an occasional caribou which made a welcome change in their diet. With the clearing of the Mica Dam Reservoir, things were about to change. The high water line was cut out in 1965 with the clearing commencing in 1966 and continuing until 1971-72. The moose season for bulls, cows, and calves was extended to the end of January for the years 1967 and 1968, presumably to harvest the animals displaced by reservoir clearing and subsequent flooding. Thompson records the vegetation for the Northern end of the Upper Columbia Drainage in 1807 to the mature forest with evergreen stands down to the banks of the river. South of the Spillimacheen River, the vegetation started to open up and he describes the area adjacent to Columbia Lake as meadows and open parkland. Even here, they were always short of food and went to great lengths to catch salmon and other fish in the river.
There is very little information available on the wildlife in the area for the remaining period of the 1800’s, up until the railroad arrived in the valley in 1883. Hector, Moberly, Rogers, nor Wilson made any detailed accounts of the wildlife. There is some indication that it was still scarce as their food supply was always a major concern.
During the construction of the railroad in 1883, many large fires were allowed to burn to the northeast side of the river in the area between Golden and Donald. These fires changed the wildlife habitat in the succeeding years. Apparently the deer population did not react in a positive way to the situation as the camps at Field, Golden, Donald, and Roger’s Pass had buffalo meat shipped in on ice from the prairies.
Soon after the C.P.R. was completed in 2885, people took up permanent residence in Donald and Golden. The main animal hunted were Mule Deer and these were still few and far between, although they, did record shooting the occasional moose. Mule deer populations gradually increased and by the time of the first world was in 1914, they had become available to the more experienced hunters. One of the mist favored hunting areas for hunting Mule Deer was in the headwaters of the North Fork of Canyon Creek. White tail deer did not arrive until 1914 when they, were recorded on the North Bench above Golden. They had been seen previously in the Spillimacheen area from the river boats and the stage coach. The only record of elk was by the crew surveying the railway belt in the Blaeberry just North of Mummery Creek where they reported a herd of none elk. During the mid-1920’s, deer populations of both species began to show a marked increase, whereas moose populations remained static. The only report on elk was by a local hunter who shot an elk on the bench above Serian’s field in the early 1920’s. This field still exists, approximately ½ mile northwest of the Swiss Village. The hunter did not know what the animal was other than a large deer and it was not identified until sometime later. Goat were abundant on their historical ranges, that is Mt. Hunter, North Fork of Hospital Creek, South side of Mr. Seven and Canyon Creek. Grizzly and wolf sightings were rare and coyotes were becoming more frequent visitors on the North Bench above Golden.
The Mule deer and White tail populations of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s began to show a marked increase in numbers. Local hunters were now becoming selective, with white tail being the desired species since it was better eating. It was sustenance and meat hunting was the name of the game. Trophy hunting did not enter into their minds. The increase in the deer populations took place from Donald south up the valley, and down the Kootenay. Through the mid and late 1930’s, the 1940’s, and up to the mid 1950’s this trend continued. There were literally deer everywhere in the valley. One of the present members reports that he actually counted 45 white tail killed on the railroad tracks between the cribbing (approximately two miles west of Golden) and Jeff Henry’s farm (approximately five miles west of Golden in the winter of 1943.) In the early 1950’s, it was hazardous to drive the South road to Radium or Invermere after dark for fear off colliding with a deer. Until the mid-1950’s hunting was limited to antlered bucks and two animals per hunter. After that, the doe season opened and the season was extended to December the 15th. What happened after that was certainly no credit to those who make the legislation allowing it to happen. Deer populations of both species have steadily declined since that time.
The Columbia Black Tail had occasionally shown its presence in the valley since 1938. The first recirds show two does north of Edgewater in the fall of that year. A small population soon built up and prior to the 39/45 war both bucks and does were seen in this area on several occasions. In the fall of 1948, a Black Tail buck was shot just north of the highway where it crosses the Blaeberry River. The hunter did not recognize the species until one of his partners arrived at the site. A four-point Black Tail buck was shot by a club member north of Brisco in 1950. There have been no reported sightings in that area since that time. Until the early 1950’s several does and fawns were seen in the area north and west of the Blaeberry River (between the present highway and the Upper Donald road). The most recent sighting was in 1995 at the animal lick close to the Natural Bridge west of Field, where two does were observed.
In the late 1930’s when deer populations began to have a noticeable increased, another event of significance to hunters began to take place. This was the migration of elk from the east. In 1937 a large six-point elk was shot in the site of the present golf course. The main migratory routes were into the upper Blaeberry and Palliser west of the park boundary. The original numbers were not great but by the end of the 1939/1945 was populations existed in both areas. They soon increased in numbers and began to occupy desirable range in the main valley, such as Willowbank Mountain and Crosier country in the Beaverfoot. Elk hunting came into its own. Both these populations spread rapidly and in 1948 a club member shot an elk on the islands west of Moberly. They now took up residence on the west bench and together with the white tail and the mule deer as well as a few moose began to utilize the large area on the west side of the river so severely burned in 1928. By the mid 1950’s elk had colonized every suitable habitat in the Columbia valley and its tributaries. The group from the north end soon joined with another group coming from the south that had originally come from Kootenay Park unto the Upper Kootenay and Columbia Rover valley’s. Elk populations increased steadily through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s reaching their peak in the 1975-80 period. During this time, it was common for counts of 300+ to be made on the sloughs while driving between Golden and Brisco in the winter months.
Thompsons 1807 journals make no mention of wolves in the upper Columbia which is significantly different than his reporting of wolves following the buffalo herds on the prairie/ He and his parties travelled the upper sections of the river, both summer and winter in 1807 with no reference of seeing wolves at all. On April 22, 1808 on his journey down the Kootenay River south of the present Canadian/American boundary, he makes a brief reference to wolves. This is the only reference to the animal that Thompson makes on the west side of the continental divide in the journals of his travels from 1807-1811. In 1936 the trappers on Bush River reported seeing two wolves on the river ice. In 1948, the owner of the lodge at Boat Encampment shot two wolves on the river ice in front of the lodge and at this time, the trapper from Valemont who trapped the Wood and Canoe Rivers to Boat Encampment reported catching at least one of two wolves each winter.
From that time on there were several reports of wolves being seen by people traveling the Big Bend Highway, but it was not until 1965 that a reliable sighting was made by the driver of a government plow truck who saw two wolves on the Bush Lakes. Gradually, they moved south and by the mid 1970’s wolves were seen quite frequently. By the mid 1980’s packs of six or more hunted the islands above the river west of Golden and it became common for a hunter to shoot a wolf. At present, that is 1998, all hunters are aware that it is difficult to spend a full day hinting in the snow in the upper Columbia without at least seeing the fresh tracks of a wolf.
The other large carnivore that inhabits the upper Columbia valley is the cougar. The earliest source of information is again David Thompson’s journals. He makes no reference to sighting in his 1807 record of his travels to the headwaters of the Columbia and down the Kootenay. Later, in 1811 on his journey down the Columbia to the ocean, when south of the present boundary he records one of his hunters killing “a big tawny cat”. This was the first of its kind which he had seen and he meticulously measured its firth, leg length, body length, and overall length. He was particularly impressed with the length of its tail. He had obviously seen a cougar and made the first record of its appearance in the Columbia drainage. He further records that the animal made them a hearty meal. When deer populations began to increase in the 20’s and 30’s they were soon followed in the Spillimacheen to Golden area by more sightings. They were not yet frequent visitors. A big tom was shot by a deer hunter on the bench below Moberly Mt. in 1936. Further south, in the Invermere, Windermere Canal Flats area there was a marked increase in cougar activity with the result that the Provincial Government employed the services of Martin Morigeau as a paid predator hunter. Martin’s exploits and the efficiency of his hounds became legendary in that part of the valley as he confined his activity to the are from Brisco south. There is a public school named after him in Canal Flats despite the fact that his main residence was in Windermere. Martin Morigeau’s ancestors were of course the famous Morigeau family that settled in the area of Thompson’s fur trading post. Cougar had an influence on more than just wildlife in the valley.
Bighorn sheep have been migrating into the area along the Trans Canada Highway immediately east of Golden for at least 50 years. Some single males, sometimes two females, and in one case, a group of five animas came, stayed for a short while, then moved on. In 1947, a sheep was shot in the vicinity of Dartt Creek by a local hunter and in 1948 another sheet ws shot just three miles east of town. In 1936, a young ram came home with the farmer’s tame sheep at Washout Creek )11miles south of Golden), he stayed with the domestic heard for about eight months. In 1938, a group of six sheep skulls were found by goat hunters in the creek bed of the headwaters of the north fork or Hospital Creek, these skulls were those of two males and four females. These skulls were well bleached and had been there for a number of years. The above are just a cross section of the sightings in the area over the past few years.
In the fall of 1985, three sheep, one mature ewe, one an immature female and a three year old ram arrived in the vegetable garden of one of the residents of the mobile home park at the top of the Golden hill, just west of the KOS campground. These three animals were not the least bit shy of humans and nothing was done to frighten them out of the garden where they spent most of their daylight hours. In the evening, they moved east of the trailer court and down the hill to the edge of the canyon where they bedded under some mature fir trees. Snow soon arrived that fall and over the winter the sheep were fed hay purchased from a local farmer. The following spring of 1986, the mature ewe gave birth to a male lamb and the four animals spent the summer and fall up the canyon as far as Dartt Creek. In late fall, the four arrived back at the garden patch and were fed hay again over the winter. The second year the hay was augmented by apple mash provided by the Provincial Government.
The Golden Rod and Gun Club now got involved by reimbursing the person who had purchased the hay as well as giving much encouragement and support. In the spring if 1987, the two ewes had female lambs and a migrant in the form of a four-year-old ram joined the group. Once again they departed for the canyon for the summer. This procedure repeated itself for a few more years until the herd got too large to feed on the garden patch. The Golden Rim was then asked if the sheep could be fed on their lawn, to which they heartily agreed. They also provided some hay. The herd was growing steadily and becoming quite an attraction for both the locals and visitors to town. Both the Golden Rim Hotel and Purcell Heli-Skiing Lodge have received their badge of honor when one of the mature rams saw his reflection in one of the eye level windows and promptly sent the image into oblivion. By 1998 there were thirty-four animals with the Rod and Gun Club members feeding the animals each winter and the club footing the bill for the hay. During the whole project, particular attention has been paid to refrain from touching the animals or any form of hand feeding.
The overall results are encouraging. Thousands of people admire these free roaming animals in the canyon each summer. The community of Golden has become more than just a name on a road map and the Golden Rod and Gun Club has made another contribution to conservation and to the community.
Woodland Caribou are seen occasionally in the Gold River, Sullivan, Bush and Middle River valleys. This situation has not changed a great deal from the 1920’s when the trappers and prospectors began to travel the area more frequently. An exception to this casual appearance used to happen each fall at the head of the Sullivan River in an area known as Prairie Hills (now called Bald Mt).
From the early 1920’s to the late 1930’s large members of caribou gathered each fall on the area known as Prairie Hills where it was presumed that the annual rut took place. When the snow began to gather and winter set in, they moved off the summit and down the Spillimacheen to Caribou Creek and McMurdo Creek. They would then travel up these two creeks and cross the passes into the Duncan River valley which at that time was heavy old growth forest. They would then go down the Duncan to Kootenay Lake and up the Lardeau to Trout Lake then west to Fish Creek and north over the pass into Flat Creek, down Flat Creek to the crossing of the railroad across the Illecillewaite River and up Bostock Creek over the pass and down Mountain Creek, across the railroad tracks into the Beaver Valley, up to Grizzly Creek. Then up the shoulder along Grizzly Creek to the summit of Prairie Hills was outside the park boundary, the park warden at Stony Creek warden station made an annual trip each fall from the early 1920’s onward for their winter supply of meat. He reported that for many years there was in excess of 500 animals gathered on the summit. In 1938, when he was 14 years old, one of our present club members accompanied the park warden on his annual pilgrimage and shot a large bull Woodland Caribou. It was one of a large herd on the summit of Prairie Mountain at that time. He returned to the summit in the fall of 1947 and the caribou had vanished. To his knowledge none have been seen there since that time.