By Laura Keil
50 years ago last week, the Canoe Valley south of Valemount began a transformation that would permanently alter the landscape, the economy, and the future of the area.
The Mica Dam, which remains one of the highest earthfill dams in the world, was the third dam built in Canada under an international treaty that harnessed the Columbia River system to facilitate flood control and maximize power generation in the U.S. and to a lesser degree in Canada.
The dam began operations on March 29th, 1973, and in the years that followed, the lush valley south of Valemount would transform from an age-old river snaking its way through old-growth forests into a treaty-dictated reservoir, taking with it thousands of acres of forestland, wetlands, and a year round hot spring.
Prior to the treaty, the Canoe Valley river bottom had been a rich source of lumber and enjoyed by residents for things like trapping, berry picking, and soaking in the year-round hot springs. There were no large settlements down the Canoe Valley, only mills and a few trapper cabins. Compared to the Arrow and Kootenay Lakes, which were also flooded by CRT dams, there was hardly any private property affected.
But that fact didn’t mean the transformation wasn’t shocking to local residents.
Ann McKirdy Carson was only a teen at the time, but remembers the “salesmanship” involved in the government’s communications.
“They were telling stories of what an amazingly beautiful lake we would have, etc. There was a lot of salesmanship in getting people on board with it.”
She said two of her teachers were well-informed about Hydro’s plans and spoke to her class about it. But many folks weren’t well-informed.
It wasn’t until the valley was razed that Ann McKirdy’s dad Jim truly realized what was being lost by the Mica Dam. Due to time constraints, BC Hydro contractors clearing the valley to prepare it for flooding had only processed the largest trees — the rest they’d simply knocked over.
“It was very brutal,” McKirdy Carson said. “It was just two Cats with chain in between them knocking trees down. And I remember my father, standing at the edge of it, just being shocked and horrified at what had happened — the devastation — to a valley he’d known from his infancy.”
She recalls it wasn’t clear to him prior to that what was going to happen, and probably not to a lot of people.
“They didn’t really understand how things would unfold, actually.”
Loss of hot springs and cedars
Prior to the flooding, McKirdy Carson recalls frequent Sunday outings to the hot springs. Rather than use the cable car to cross the Canoe River, her dad would haul a boat down the gravel road that used to hug the east side of Canoe River and they’d cross that way. The hot springs were just inside the forest, next to a small lake. They’d been fixed up a little, by some ex-pats from Sweden.
The water was clean and clear, Catherine Hiroe, McKirdy Carson’s sister, previously told the Goat.
“Us children would be free to walk the trail at our own pace … the giant devil’s club on either side prevented us from going off of the trail. The bridges over creeks and wet spots were made of hollow pieces of rotted cedar,” Hiroe says. “It was so different from our everyday world. It felt magical, like we were little hobbits on an adventure.”
They would soak in a makeshift cedar tub, gravel carpeting the bottom which had been packed up from the river. Two streams, one hot and one cold, could be adjusted for temperature control by moving the position of some rocks.
Dennis Nordli, a child at the time, recalls the cedars being tremendously wide. He recalls one photo with nine cubs Boy Scouts touching hand-to-hand in front of the massive trunk.
“I figure it was pretty close to 12 feet across the bottom, just about four metres. That was the biggest tree I’ve ever seen in this valley. The only trees that come close to those were the ones at the (Ancient Forest) park.” he said.
McKirdy Carson says there was a smell among the ancient cedars near the hot springs that was distinctive. The only other place she’s smelled that scent was at the Ancient Redwood Forest in California.
She also recalls many days spent berry picking in former logging blocks, areas rich with wild blueberries and raspberries.
Some locals benefitted temporarily from the dam construction. Joan Nordli’s late husband Arne Nordli worked as a machine operator on the dam during 1968-1969 and commuted from Valemount to the dam site on his 305 Yamaha motorcycle using the road that used to snake its way along the Canoe River. The dam was roughly 100km from Valemount, and he could do it on one tank of gas.
But it wasn’t always an easy journey.
“He was coming home and we had a sudden spring, and the rivers were just flooding,” Joan Nordli recalls. “By the time he got home, he was absolutely purple with the cold.”
Dennis Nordli says it took his dad about an hour and a half to reach the Mica Dam site from Valemount.
“it was a pretty good road. It was as good as I’d say the road that’s on the west side of the lake (today).”
Some 1600 workers were at the dam during its peak season. Many of them stayed in a worker accommodation camp called Mica Village.
At the time, Dennis wagers that 95 per cent of Valemount was either affiliated with logging, highways or the railroad.
“At that time, in the BC forest industry, we had so much wood that nobody was really concerned with the volume of wood that was going to be flooded.”
After the flood
After the valley flooded, the resulting lake was choked with logs that had been knocked down but never cleared.
Dennis recalls the fishing being extremely good, likely due to insects in the logs feeding the fish. But boating in the lake was a dangerous endeavour, and getting out of the boat, an even worse idea.
“It was good fishing … when it wasn’t windy,” he said. “(At times) it was taking your life in your own hands.”
He recalls four-foot diameter logs sloshing against each other in the water.
McKirdy Carson says for a long time, it was just a sea of logs at high water.
“It wasn’t really a lake at all, it was a sea of logs, and it was a rather dangerous sea of logs that you could get caught in. It took them a long, long time to actually clean it up enough so that it’s kind of like it is now.”
Jean Osadchuck was a young mother at the time, and she says for many years people would go down to the lake to salvage the floating or beached wood.
“What a shame it was the way they logged it all, and the way they cut the trees and just left them laying in the water.”
Hydro had initially expropriated some of Osadchuk’s family’s land at 2KM along the East Canoe FSR, but they were allowed to buy it back once it was clear the land wasn’t in any danger of flooding.
Osadchuk says there were many complaints about the methods Hydro has used at the time.
“You’d have big arguments with everyone,” she said. “They didn’t have time, they said. They had to get this lake in.”
“It was very awful,” she said. “You hated it, especially when you were raised before, seeing how they went about it.”
Dennis Nordli says he recalls wood being salvaged and milled both during and after the flooding.
“There was 15 kilometres of debris this end of the lake and they (were) slowly picking through it anything that was viable either to that time which Canyon Creek sawmill or it went to CanArctic (mill at 12km).”
Only in recent years has Kinbasket Lake’s debris control finally gotten under control. And there are still hazards. The other ongoing issue has been the dust that is swept up the valley when the water level is low. Huge dust storms now plague Valemount every spring when the water level is low and the snow no longer holds the sand in place.
Hot spring loss
The rising and falling waters of Kinbasket Lake wiped out the hot spring infrastructure that existed prior to 1973. Nowadays, the hot springs are only accessible for a couple weeks in March and April on years when the reservoir’s drawdown is low enough to expose the spring. While visitors can drive down the west side of the lake to within walking distance, the cedar tubs are long gone, and a new soaking pool is dug in the rocks and muddy beach each time the water level moves. Instead of being tucked into a lush cedar forest, bathers are surrounded by an expansive view of mountains and a rocky beach speckled with the stumps of old cedars. It’s a muddy sulfur-scented soak, changed each time by the ebb and flow of the water level.
McKirdy Carson says it’s always with mixed feelings that she goes to the hot springs now.
“I can feel a certain amount of excitement that the hot springs are being uncovered right now and there would be a chance to go down, but it’s also weird, because I knew what it was before. I knew the incredible beauty of the rainforest there, the big cedars and stuff. It’s always with a mixed feeling of loss. I knew what it was like before. It was stunning.”
Columbia Basin Trust
In the 1990s, Valemount’s then-mayor Jeannette Townsend lobbied for the creation of the Columbia Basin Trust, and was a founding member of the organization.
The Trust was created in 1995 “to support efforts by the people of the Columbia Basin to create a legacy of social, economic and environmental well-being in the Canadian portion of the Columbia River Basin—the region most affected by the Columbia River Treaty.”
The Mayor of Golden heard her on CBC radio In 1992, and realized they should join forces in their effort to get compensation for the harm done by the reservoirs.
“We would always talk (to CBC) about the dust coming in from the Mica Creek area, or the Kinbasket reservoir, and there was no water in it. “
Regional District of Columbia Kootenay Director Josh Smienk phoned her and invited her to join them. In July 1995, the Columbia Basin Trust was formalized in the BC legislature.
Since then, the CBT has been a benefactor of many non-profit organizations in Valemount, and has helped fund many important projects such as the Mountain Bike Park, the downtown revitalization, the village office building, and the Community Forest industrial lands.
The Future of the Treaty
Canada and the U.S. are currently negotiating the future of the treaty, including the terms of flood control which expire in 2024. After the most recent round of negotiations March 24th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden released a joint statement:
“Canada and the United States will intensify their work over the coming months toward agreement on a modernized treaty regime that will support a healthy and prosperous Columbia River Basin.”
The BC Government says conversations between the Canadian and American delegations focused on strengthening co-operation to support aquatic life and biodiversity in the Columbia River Basin, ongoing studies regarding salmon reintroduction, flood-risk management, and the connection between hydropower operations and Canada’s desire for greater flexibility in how its treaty dams are operated.
Although the treaty falls under federal jurisdiction for international treaties, it requires Canada to obtain the concurrence of the Province before terminating or amending the Treaty.