A Visit to the Kootenays, September 2016

October 20, 2016 by Rokman61

‘The Kootenays’ refers to an area in southern BC set within the Interior Mountain Ranges (west of the Rocky Mountains and east of the Central Plateaus).  During the past several years I have been in email communication with a fellow named Alistair who publishes a nature blog with superb photos of wildlife and other aspects of interest in the West Kootenay region of BC.  I had passed through the area on various occasions but had never taken the time to dally and explore.  Alistair’s blogs in autumn often feature the spawning runs of Kokanee salmon, and the bears that came to feast on them. This seemed like something worth seeing, so I asked Alistair if mid-September was a good time to view the action.  He responded in the affirmative, and kindly offered to help us with our quest.

Norma and I drove up on Monday, Sept 12.  On a brief stop at Manning Provincial Park, to check out the resident Columbian Ground squirrels and Clarke’s Nutcrackers, we encountered an unexpected scene.  No squirrels or Nutcrackers, but a flock of 28 Lamborghinis instead.


The vehicle of choice in much of the Interior is the 4×4 pickup truck.  For humble tourists like us, it’s likely to be something like a Toyota Corolla or a modest SUV.  These fancy Italian cars are from a different world than the one I am used to.

How would you like a nice orange one?


We noticed on the drive east that the approaching autumn season was barely evident in the colour of the foliage.  Interestingly, on the return trip only five days later, things had turned markedly.  In the photo below, bits of yellow in the background are trembling aspen, the red bushes are saskatoon and other shrubs, and the large cottonwood trees are still green.


The odd-looking grey cliff in the middle of the photo is a deposit of silicate slag, left over from a mineral smelter that operated in the town of Greenwood over a hundred years ago.

Much of the dry interior of southern BC features a landscape dotted with sagebrush.  Also common here but not so familiar, is rabbitbrush, which one hardly notices except at this time of year when it is bursting with yellow inflorescence.



Apart from its timing and exuberance of blooming, rabbitbrush (Ericameria sp.) is somewhat similar to sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), both being related to asters and sunflowers. There may have been more than one species of rabbitbrush present, this one having gone to seed.


If you have heard of elderberry jam or wine, this is a source, the Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulean) of the interior.  On the coast we get mostly Red Elderberry (S. callicarpa), which is purportedly edible if cooked but not worth the effort.



Whilst passing through the town of Grand Forks a few years ago, I recall seeing ‘wild’ deer standing on the sidewalk like loitering pedestrians.  Sure enough, Norma spotted a small group of them, grazing in a grassy schoolyard.  I’m wondering maybe they have a contract with the school board to keep the lawns trimmed.  These are White-tailed Deer, somewhat daintier than the Black-tailed or Mule Deer we get on the coast.  I rarely get to see young spotted fawns like this one.


The Kootenay region is a very attractive and interesting tourist destination.  This view is a sample of one of the endless scenic landscapes.  That’s the free (Department of Highways) ferry that crosses Kootenay Lake.


The town of Nelson has a well-deserved reputation for having an ‘artistic’ flair.  As a good friend tells it:

” . . . various flavours of hippies including original and new age types. Need your ears candled, your energy fields tuned, your chakra balanced?  Then Nelson’s the place.”.

An example of Kootenay culture (or perhaps Kootenay clutter?).


One has to admire  Kootenay creativity.



In the Kootenay area are several well-know cottage industries that offer quality hand-made artifacts.  I feature one of them here.


This funky little business at Crawford Bay (on the east side of Kootenay Lake), manufactures old-time ‘corn’ brooms, which are actually made of fibres from the seed heads of a variety of sorghum.  It is run by an enthusiastic young artisan who apprenticed and took over the business from his retiring aunt and uncle.


This broom-making machine is a true antique, well over a 100 years old, and is still in use.

Many of my previous blogs were focused primarily on birds, but they were a relatively minor attraction on this trip.  I do have a few examples.

September birding on the coast is mostly about migrating shorebirds, which pass through in the millions.  The Kootenays lack extensive suitable habitat for them, so the occurrence of any migrating sandpipers is an unusual treat for the local birders.  We just happened to be around when this pair was discovered in Nelson.


On the left is a Baird’s Sandpiper, the other is a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.


The Buff-breasted in my opinion is one of the handsomest of all our shorebirds.  It is also not abundant in BC, being considered relatively rare on the coast (zero to perhaps a half dozen per year, not lingering), and super rare in the Interior, almost unknown in most places.

Alistair is a more accomplished photographer than me: his pictures of the shorebirds here are worth a look.

This Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be very intent on examining the post.  Perhaps she (boys have a red stripe on the chin) has a contract with BC Hydro as a pole inspector?


The Kootenays could justifiably argue that they are ‘Osprey Central’.  The birds are nearly constantly seen and/or heard when one is near the big lakes.  Here two Ospreys dine on fresh Kokanee, the pilings of the Kootenay Lake ferry dock serving as table.


The spawning Kokanee (more on them below) attract an assemblage of wildlife in addition to we the tourists.  Ospreys and bears come to catch the live spawners, Bald Eagles, Ravens, and gulls feast on the spent carcasses, Common Mergansers go after smaller fish, and Dippers are there for the bounty of Kokanee eggs.  This one sat on a cobble and serenaded us for several minutes, it’s continuous melodious song mingling with the tinkling of the water in the stream.



Perhaps this is an opportune place to sneak in a rock shot.  You can skip over this part if your brain glazes over.

The photos below were taken near the ferry landing on the east side of Kootenay Lake.  We see here a spectacular exposure of rocks that are conspicuously layered and thus look like bedded sedimentary deposits.  They are however something quite different, namely highly metamorphosed rocks generally referred to as gneiss.  I will explain how to tell.


First note the nearly horizontal layering, defined by differences in the relative amount of dark mineral present.  The greyish layers may originally have been sedimentary and/or volcanic rocks, now highly modified.  The white knobbly-looking layers are a rock called pegmatite (described below).  Also note at right, the steep whitish band which is an igneous granitic dyke (molten rock injected along a fracture in the gneiss).  The continuation of the dyke can be seen in the upper left part of the picture.

From the minerals present and the details of observable textural features, a rockamologist can deduce that these rocks were at one time heated to at least 600° C, which also requires they were buried to a depth of roughly 15-20 km!  Under these extreme conditions, two process usually happen, the results being visible in this outcrop.

#1 The rocks may begin to partially melt, and the first liquid to form has the composition of ‘granite’, which when re-solidified forms the minerals quartz and feldspar.  This liquid may be squeezed out and then migrate to cooler areas where it is injected into fractures to form dykes like the one present here.  Alternatively, the liquid may accumulate and gradually recrystallize within the rocks from which it originated.  Rocks produced this way often have very coarse and irregular texture, and are referred to as pegmatite, as seen in the closer view in the second photo (the rock hammer indicates scale).

#2  Under these conditions the rocks are mostly solid but behave plastically and can flow  like thick syrup.  The intense pressure causes internal motion in the rock mass, causing it to flatten (shorten) in one direction and stretch (elongate) at right angles to the flattening.  The net result is that every feature gets rotated into parallelism, including the in-situ pegmatites near the bottom of the outcrop which are now aligned with the gneissic layering.

In the closer view below the very coarse texture is evident in the pegmatite layers, the largest white crystals being feldspar.


During the process of flattening and stretching there is internal shear to allow for the dimensional changes.  Feldspars happen to be more mechanically robust than the other minerals present so tend to resist plastic deformation, and try to retain their blocky shape.  The net result is that many sheared feldspars take on an ‘eye-like’ or lenticular form.  I have outlined some in red to help you see what I am calling attention to.


The shape of the feldspars indicates internal shear, which in turn means the rocks have undergone shape change.  When first formed, this mass of pegmatite may have had any random shape, which was subsequently flattened and drawn out parallel with the gneissic layers.  Which leads to the nub of my discourse: the process evident here helps to explain why gneisses are characteristically layered and thus somewhat resemble bedded sedimentary rocks.  Both have parallel structure, but the layering can be of very different origin.

Our activities on the visit were centred around Kootenay Lake.  One objective of the trip was to observe the spawning Kokanee, which are members of the salmon family that live in the lake and enter streams to spawn in the fall.  These fish are landlocked versions of the famous Sockeye salmon, one of the the most valuable food-fish in the world.  Norma and I had observed runs of ocean Sockeye in previous years: here is a shot taken on Oct 21, 2010.  A truly amazing natural spectacle.


What we observed in the Kootenays looked very much the same, except the fish were less than half-size!  Sockeye feed in the ocean (or, in the case of Kokanee, the lake) for three years, then spawn and die.  Before they enter the spawning beds they turn from a shiny silver colour to bright red with green heads and tails.

The natural fish habitat in the region has been extensively modified by dikes and dams constructed along the waterways.  To compensate for loss of suitable spawning sites, special channels have been built to provide more opportunities for the fish to reproduce.  One such spawning area is in Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.  The next photo shows what the unmodified creek looks like.


Here is a view of a constructed spawning channel: gravels of the required size have been brought in, and weirs added to provide the uniform current flow.


The fish had begun to enter the spawning areas shortly before we visited.  In some pools there were Kokanee packed wall-to-wall – sorta like sardines.


Because of the rippled surface of the water it is difficult to get a sharp photograph of individual fish, which are not just colourful but also elegantly marked and shaped.  I tried many hopeless pictures, and I thought this one came out kind of interesting.


Another population of Kokanee comes up The Lardeau River and was just beginning to arrive the day we visited,  Bears attracted by this run provide some of the best viewing opportunities, but we were too early on this trip.  We did observe some fish staging in quiet pools – still an awesome sight!


We encountered no bears on the spawning grounds.  Mostly they feed early and late in the day, and access to viewing areas is limited at those times.  Apparently we missed a Grizzly sow with two cubs by a matter of minutes.

But not all the bears come to feed on fish.  Some Grizzlies are at home in the high mountain forests and sub-alpine terrain well above the valleys.  To search for them we had to bump along on a rough logging road for more than an hour.  We drove slowly through the open cuts but saw no bears.  At our turn-around we stopped for a leisurely lunch where we could scan the slopes below.  No bears.  It was on the way down that Norma excitedly blurted out “Stop!  I see one!”.  And so she did, a magnificent and majestic Grizzly boar, peacefully poking around and browsing on the slope below us.



Some of the time he spent pawing the ground and turning over chunks of wood, perhaps seeking out some juicy invertebrates.


Mostly he seemed to be eating grass.


I had seen Grizzlies on several occasions before, but never such a colourful and attractive individual.  Presumably he was tuning up for winter hibernation, and his pelage was in prime condition.


Since we were a fair distance away, with a light breeze coming toward us, the bear was seemed unaware of our presence.  He paid no attention until he must have heard some sounds we made, as he briefly looked up our way then went back to his business.

One last look as we restarted the car and drove off.


Alistair got a superb portrait of him, see here.

A little farther along, Norma again blurted out “Something ahead on the side of the road!”.  This time she had spotted more bears, a sow with two cubs.  The mother and one cub were munching grass in a shady spot.


As we approached, the mother sow (right) quickly lead her cubs into the woods and out of view.  I managed to get this portrait of her just before they fled.


Alistair ‘knew’ this family and had photographed them on previous occasions.  Have a look at his classic blog which features the mother sow and his comment on the ear tags.

Although the bears were the highlight of our trip there was plenty of other things to see, do, and experience.  Well worth another visit.

Travel can be so interesting – you never know what’s brewin’!






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