South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park: Nature and Culture
The area was first proposed for protection in 1937 and was designated a protected area in April 2001. The present boundaries were revised and designated a class A provincial park in late June of 2010. This area has long been recognized as having provincially outstanding conservation and recreation resources and has been the focus on intense public interest for wilderness preservation since the 1970’s. Through various wilderness studies and special management processes, the wilderness of the area has been largely maintained. First Nations have use the area for generations. This area has been used for over 100 years for hunting and recreating. For several decades the Gang Ranch used the area as part of their summer range.
Livestock grazing has occurred in areas now included in the park for over 70 years. From 1939 to 1964, 4300 domestic sheep were herded every May from the grasslands of Lac du Bois Park northwest of Kamloops to the Little Paradise, upper Relay, upper Graveyard, Two Lakes basin and Dash Hill area. On the return to Lac du Bois in the fall, lambs were culled from the herd at Clinton and shipped down to Ashcroft to be sent to markets in the Lower Mainland. Since 1967 the Relay-Paradise-Graveyard area has been used by cattle from Gang Ranch for summer grazing, with very large numbers in early years and considerably decreased use in recent years. Graveyard Creek is known to have had cattle grazing since 1945.
Prospecting in the Big Creek /South Chilcotin Mountains Parks started in the early 1900s with many trails cut and camps established with pack horses. Grant Creek in Big Creek Park and the Eldorado-Cinnebar basin area in South Chilcotin Mountains Park were two such sites. The Gun Creek trail was created and used to service mining activity in the upper Taseko valley, in particular the Taylor Windfall gold mine. Two women, one called Dolly Moore, packed gold from the mine to the processing plant at Gold Bridge. The trail up Gun Creek and over Warner Pass was maintained by the government in the late 1920’s to 30’s and was kept open all year long.
The W. D. Trail from Spruce Lake to Tyaughton Creek is named in honour of W. A. “Big Bill” Davidson, a Bridge River valley pioneer. He built Little Gun Lake Lodge in 1933 and later a lodge on Spruce Lake, this one for VIP hunters and fishermen. He used his many horses to pack supplies in to the Taylor Windfall Mine in the Taseko valley via Warner Pass.
Chilco Choate was a well-known Guide-Outfitter in the Big Creek Park area from 1955 until 1992 using horses and occasionally snowmobiles. His areas of use included Graveyard, Tosh, Grant and Big creeks and Lorna Lake. He cut and recut many trails during the 1950s to 1970s.
The first Guide-Outfitting territory in British Columbia was granted in the Spruce Lake area in the late 1880s and has been operated since then on various sizes of territory. From 1954 it was operated by Pat Garrard who established a series of base camps on Spruce Lake, in Eldorado valley, Tyaughton valley and at Grant Creek and many other smaller camps. Big game hunting was the main activity. The license was purchased by Chilcotin Holidays Ltd. In 1991 and the emphasis was changed to all-season wilderness adventure tourism.
Spruce Lake Wilderness Adventures was the first commercial company to establish in what is now South Chilcotin Mountains Park, offering guided backcountry ski tours in 1982. Their first cabin in the park area was built in 1985 at 2100m.
Since then commercial recreational use of the park has steadily increased and now a number of companies offer a variety of year-round recreational experiences.
The area that is now South Chilcotin Mountains Park is known to have been used by First Nations peoples for at least the past 300 years, and possibly for as long as thousands of years. The area falls within the territory of three Nations: Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc, and Secwepemc.
Deer and mountain goats were valued for their meat and hides, while wool and horns from goats were used for salmon spears. Special ceremonies were performed before hunting grizzly and black bear as bears were considered to be too human-like. They valued the meat, fat, hides and fur. Moose did not move into the area until about 1920. (Tyhurst, 1984).
The skins of hoary marmots were used for robes and blankets and as trade goods. These were hunted in late summer or early fall after they had hibernated; the meat was smoked and the fat was particularly prized. Dash Hill, Cardtable Mountain, Eldorado Mountain, Teepee Mountain, and Graveyard Creek are known hunting sites.
Beaver and muskrat were trapped for their meat and fur and mink for their fur. Porcupine were killed occasionally as were “rabbits” (presumably snowshoe hare). This was considered “starvation food,” the meat being used in soups and the fur for blankets.
Fishing was most important in the big rivers of the area, but trout were caught in lakes and creeks. Game birds included ruffed, spruce and blue grouse as well as willow and white-tailed ptarmigan while waterfowl included mallard and Canada goose. Birds’ eggs were also valued.
Berry picking and bulb digging in the high country took planning and energy to accomplish and was usually done in larger groups. Spring beauty, or Indian potato, was an important staple and Cardtable and Eldorado Mountain are specifically mentioned as collecting areas. Yellow avalanche lily, wild onion, chocolate lily, balsamroot, dandelion and prickly-pear cactus are also mentioned. Kinnikinnick, soapberry, saskatoon, chokecherry and low bush blueberry were gathered for food and also for their medicinal properties. Whitebark pine seeds or “pinion seeds” were roasted and eaten, while the inner bark of lodgepole pine and white spruce was scraped and eaten.
Many plant and tree species were used for medicinal purposes. Indian hellebore was an important medicinal plant, called “poison plant.” The roots were boiled and used as a decoction to prevent hair loss and dandruff, for bathing, for arthritis, and as an emetic. Lodgepole pine sap was used for colds and balsam fir bark for asthma and tuberculosis (TB).
First Nations travelled by horse and on foot, establishing a network of trails that now form much of the present trail system in South Chilcotin Mountains Park. Major routes were along trails from Hanceville and Taseko Lakes to Bridge River. They left upper Big Creek via Elbow Pass to Tyaughton Creek, Spruce Lake and Gun Creek, and through Warner Pass to Gun Creek. Trails also connected Taseko valley through Iron Pass to upper Big Creek. Further trails dropped down into the Yalakom valley (Tyhurst, 1984). Camping spots were defined by the presence of quality water.
The gently sloping valleys and dome-shaped mountains that typify the Chilcotin Ranges form the core topographic features of the park. The rounded profile of the mountains is evidence of intense glaciation in an area of largely sedimentary rocks during the last ice age. Some of the higher peaks such as Mt. Warner (2834 m) have a comparatively rugged relief resulting from recent alpine glaciation. Mt. Sheba (2550+ m) and Castle Peak (2491 m) are outstanding examples of remnant basalt-capped sedimentary formations of the Southern Chilcotin Ranges.
Retreat of valley glaciers and subsequent stream erosion of fault-guided valleys have created the major drainages and tributaries of the area. Extensive alpine areas supply abundant water to all the creeks in the park. In the southwest, fast-flowing Slim, Leckie and upper Gun Creeks rise from the wet coastal mountains, while in the north east Tyaughton and Relay Creeks and their tributaries flow more gently through the broader valleys of the drier Chilcotin Ranges.
Sub-alpine and alpine lakes and tarns, including South Slim, Leckie, Warner, Trigger and Hummingbird Lakes, occur at the headwaters of Slim, Leckie and Upper Gun Creeks. Spruce Lake sits in the high pass between the Gun and Tyaughton valleys, draining northwards in a steep, narrow valley to Tyaughton Creek. Warner Lake is a milky glacial blue, while Trigger is less milky and Hummingbird less yet. Spruce and Leckie are very clear. Wetlands and braided channels are typical of the upper reaches on all the southern creeks as well as upper Tyaughton Creek. Steep, fast-flowing creeks flow in all directions from the high alpine areas of the Eldorado-Taylor basin area in the south east portion of the park.
South Chilcotin Mountains Park is situated in an area of complex geology that straddles the boundary between the southeast Coast Mountains and the Chilcotin Plateau. The geological history is one of ancient ocean deposits, tectonic plate movement, faulting and mixing of rocks and layers of rocks, deposition of sedimentary rocks in shallow-marine basins, upwellings of granitic rocks and lava flows. Landscape features in South Chilcotin Mountains Park reflect the many complex geological formations that underlie it.
Sedimentary rocks are found in the heart of South Chilcotin Mountains Park through Upper Gun and Tyaughton Creeks and Relay and middle Tyaughton Creeks. They also form the height of land from Lorna Lake to Vic Lake in Big Creek Park.
The serrated mountains in the Slim, Leckie and upper Gun creeks are underlain by granitic rocks that are a characteristic feature of the Coast Mountains. These granitic rocks are components of the continental margin magmatic arc related to subduction of oceanic rocks along the plate boundary to the west. This is a similar process to that still going on today and generating volcanic rocks such as Mt. Baker and Mt. St. Helens.
Volcanic rocks of Early to Middle Eocene (58 – 50 million years ago) age formed in several small volcanic centres scattered through the park. The most spectacular exposure is found at Mount Sheba, on the north side of Gun Creek.
The youngest rocks are part of the great lava flows of 16 to 1 million years ago that formed the extensive Chilcotin Plateau. Outlying remnants of these lava flows occur in the area of Teepee, Relay and Cardtable Mountains. On Relay Mountain the basalts are up to 350 metres thick.
Fossils are an important feature of South Chilcotin Mountains Park and demonstrate the marine origin of many of the sedimentary rocks. Well-preserved late triassic marine fossils (ammonites and bivalves) are found in the Tyaughton Creek area. Lower and middle jurassic rocks in this same general area are also locally rich in fossils (mainly ammonites). The Relay Mountain Group is in part extremely rich in upper jurassic and lower cretaceous fossils. Fossil-rich parts of the Relay Mountain Group are found around upper Relay Creek, Elbow Mountain and on the low bluffs northwest of Spruce Lake.
South Chilcotin Mountains Park comes under the influence of air masses from three directions: wet coastal air from the west; cold plateau air from the north; and, dry interior air from the east. Situated on the lee side of the main Coast Mountain Ranges, the area receives less precipitation either as rain or snow than the mountain areas to the west.
Summer temperatures are moderately cool, although warm air from the interior helps to raise temperatures somewhat and produces less precipitation. The growing season is short throughout, but particularly so in the sub-alpine and alpine areas. Frost can be expected in most months at the lower elevation, and especially at either end of the growing season, in late spring and late summer. In the alpine, frost is expected daily. The lowest elevations of the park in lower Gun and lower Tyaughton Creek valleys are the warmest and driest parts of the park. Wind is often present throughout the year as it is funnelled through the deep valleys.
South Chilcotin Mountains Park is influenced by warmer pacific air in winter that moderates temperatures somewhat.
Forests and plant communities in South Chilcotin Mountains Park generally reflect the leeward-rainshadow climate of the Chilcotin Plateau and Ranges. The position in the transition between northern and southern influences is indicated in the number of plant species that have been found to be at the southern limits of their range and yet others at the northern limits of their range. Temperature extremes and moderate to low precipitation rates combined with the very varied geology of the area create unique and diverse vegetation associations. The most notable are the lush grasslands and meadows in alpine and subalpine and large areas of aspen and mixed aspen – conifer forests occurring in Tyaughton, Gun and Relay Creek valleys.
Forests are characteristically fire patterned, comprising successional stages of Engelmann spruce, sub-alpine fir and Douglas- fir forests. Expanses of lodgepole pine forest are found in flatter ground in Gun and Tyaughton Creeks. Extensive stands of white bark pine forests fringe the timberline in many valleys of South Chilcotin Mountains Park. Sub-alpine meadowland and alpine tundra form the dominant habitats of the upper valley basins and mountain ridges.
South Chilcotin Mountains Park covers several biogeoclimatic zones. The Alpine Tundra zone occurs throughout the many ranges of South Chilcotin Mountains Park, above 2000 m elevation, where it represents over 60% of the land base.
Permanent snow, including glaciers, occurs on Warner Ridge and the south western ranges of South Chilcotin Mountains Park. Large areas of bare rock, steep scree slopes and avalanche chutes are found throughout the alpine. The cool, short growing season at these elevations means that any vegetation is of dwarf form and has a very brief flowering period.
The transition position of South Chilcotin Mountains Park combined with small changes in topography and aspect creates an especially wide variety in the vegetation cover in the alpine. Low shrubs, a profusion of herbs, many mosses and colourful lichens are found in a wide variety of extensive meadow areas. Scrub, willow and bog birch dominate meadows on drier sites, while pink and white mountain-heathers occur in drier sites. Sedge meadows fill wetter sites and stunted trees or krummholz occur at lower elevations.
Large un-vegetated areas are found in the southwest portion of the park in the higher elevations of upper Slim, Leckie and Gun Creek valleys. Alpine meadows are most extensive in the Upper Relay, Little Paradise and Eldorado valleys creating spectacular floral displays in the short summer season. Meadows in other alpine areas are no less spectacular, but less extensive.
The Engelmann Spruce-sub-alpine fir zone (ESSF) occurs below the Alpine Tundra in South Chilcotin Mountains Park. This zone typically has a continuous forest cover of conifers, including various combinations of Engelmann spruce, sub-alpine fir and, on drier sites, whitebark pine and lodgepole pine. At the highest elevations the forest thins out to parkland with clumps of trees in widespread meadows that interweave with similar alpine communities. There are extensive areas of wind-blown clumps of bushy conifers called krummholz throughout the zone.
White-flowered rhododendron is the most common shrub in the zone, and black huckleberry, grouseberry and false azalea frequently occur. Subalpine meadows include heath-dominated meadows, flower meadows and grasslands. Snow often lingers in heath-dominated meadows providing abundant moisture for a variety of mountain-heathers. Flower meadows often contain swaths of Indian hellebore, arrow-leaved groundsel, paintbrush, Sitka valerian and other flowering herbs.
The Montane Spruce zone is represented by a dry cold variant in South Chilcotin Mountains Park. This drier variant occurs below ESSF on the south-facing slopes of middle Tyaughton Creek and the lower slopes of lower Gun Creek, Leckie and Slim Creeks. It is also found as a thin band below the ESSF on the south-facing slopes of the Pearson Creek ridge.
Forests are open with mixtures of lodgepole pine, varying amounts of Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir and little understory vegetation. On north-facing slopes Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir form dense stands, while Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine are found on drier sites with bluebunch wheatgrass, common juniper, kinnikinnick and balsamroot. Unusual combinations of conifers are found on the dry south-facing slopes of Tyaughton Creek including varying mixtures of Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, sub-alpine fir, spruce and whitebark pine. Scattered ponderosa pine are also found, where they are at the western and near the northern extent of their range. Extensive grasslands occur on the steep south-facing slopes of Tyaughton Creek; through the middle Gun Creek valley they extend down from those identified in the adjacent ESSF subzone.
The Interior Douglas-fir zone is the driest of the ecosystems in the park and is found in the lowest portions of Gun Creek valley. It is a system that is not well represented in protected areas. Forests are open and dominated by lodgepole pine with Douglas-fir regeneration. Birch-leaved spirea and falsebox are found in an understory dominated by pinegrass. Pure Douglas-fir stands with an understory of saskatoon, birch-leaved spirea and bluebunch wheatgrass occur on dry south-facing slopes.
South Chilcotin Mountains Park provides rich and diverse habitats for a variety of wildlife associated with high-elevation mountain and plateau habitats. Lush alpine and sub-alpine meadows, broad upland valleys and extensive shrubby wetlands are only a few of the habitats available. Cold, long winters restrict the variety of species, but the quality of habitats attracts large numbers of some species, especially during the short summer and fall seasons. This provides visitors with some outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities.
Many species of large mammals are found in the mountains of South Chilcotin Mountains Park. Some essential habitat elements make this area particularly important, including: lush alpine meadows, salty mineral springs, rocky escape terrain, wind-swept and snow-free areas and isolation from human activity or development. Mountain goats share habitat with mule deer and grizzly bear are found with California bighorn sheep and moose. In the Eldorado-Taylor-Cinnabar Basin area grizzly bear share habitats with mule deer and mountain goats. The variety of habitats supports a very wide diversity of mammals.
Mountain goats require undisturbed areas for birthing and rearing, for foraging near escape terrain and for thermal and security cover. In winter they move short distances to forested areas on south and western-facing open slopes or wind-blown ridges. The Eldorado Mountain area is rated as exceptional habitat for goats. Mountain goat winter range and associated significant range is also found on the west-facing slopes of Gun Creek from lower Windy Pass to lower Eldorado Creek. On the ridge from Mount Sheba to the Warner Pass area goats and California bighorn sheep winter together in their preferred habitats. The upper elevations of the southern mountain ridges provide important winter range through upper Gun Creek, Leckie Creek and upper Slim Creek valleys.
The moist forests, shrubby forests, swamps and wetlands of South Chilcotin Mountains Park support numbers of moose in the summer, where they browse on deciduous twigs and foliage. The valley bottoms and wet meadows of Gun Creek and Tyaughton Creek are the best locations in the park to see these large mammals.
The park is an important area for mule deer in the summer and fall. The open forests, clearings and wetlands provide abundant shelter and forage. Mule deer are very visible in the summer months, especially around Spruce Lake and Gun Creek grasslands and in the subalpine. Isolated pockets of deer winter range are found in the park and the Douglas-fir forests on lower Gun Creek and south of the park are also mule deer winter range. Important migration corridors through eastern portions of the park bring deer from lower elevation winter and spring ranges through Lone Valley Creek to Tyaughton Creek and through Dash Creek to upper Relay Creek. Deer collared on the Fraser River have been found later in the year at the headwaters of Tyaughton and Relay creeks.
California bighorn sheep are common but not abundant throughout an extensive area that covers the western and northern portions of the park. In general bighorn sheep are resident in the area, a situation unique to these herds. Bighorn sheep populations in the park are stable and healthy. Sheep are found west to Mt. Sheba, over the ridges of the upper Tyaughton valley into Little Paradise and along the Tyaughton ridge towards Castle Peak. Waterholes in escape terrain are important for sheep use of the dry tundra areas. Lambing is known to occur in the Lizard Creek area. Most sheep summering in the park migrate to winter habitats in the southern end of Big Creek Park (e.g. Tosh Creek, Elbow Mountain and the Lorna Lake Ridge) where sun keeps the snowpack on the slopes somewhat reduced.
Grizzly bears require large, relatively undisturbed areas containing critical habitat elements for feeding, bedding and denning. Forage requirements include glacier lilies, whitebark pine, skunk cabbage and berries. Late spring is spent on avalanche slopes, moving higher as summer progresses to wetter forest riparian sites, meadows and wetlands where there is abundant vegetation. There are few options for fishing in the park. Grizzlies are known to forage for marmots and pika by tearing holes in their burrows. Whitebark pine seeds are an especially important part of a grizzly bear’s food in the park.
Black bear are found throughout South Chilcotin Mountains Park feeding in meadows, riparian areas avalanche chutes and grassy south-facing slopes. Cougar are present but numbers are unknown. Bear and cougar use the upper portions of the park as escape terrain away from contact with cattle. Wolves are known to inhabit the eastern portions of the park.
Hoary marmot, pika and Columbia ground squirrels are just some of the smaller mammals found in the sub-alpine and alpine meadows and edges. All are active for only very short periods in the warmest summer months. They make up an important part of the diet of golden eagles.
A wide variety of small furbearers occur in South Chilcotin Mountains Park including lynx, beaver, mink and muskrat. Marten are found in low numbers using large blocks of undisturbed, slightly wetter Engelmann spruce/subalpine fir forests.
Wolverine, which have been seen in South Chilcotin Mountains Park, prefer undisturbed, remote wilderness. Extensive seasonal movements in search of food mean that they can be found in a variety of places depending on the season. Young are born and raised near natal dens in large boulder talus slopes; in summer alpine tundra and krummholz slopes are preferred where they prey on hoary marmots. They move down to forested areas in winter in a large home range.
The high elevations habitats with short growing season found in South Chilcotin Mountains Park do not support a large variety of bird species. However, the extent of some of the special habitats mean that there are high numbers of certain species. Species that are able to forage for food through the harsh winter conditions are resident year-round, such as seed-eaters, predators, scavengers and those that glean insects from bark. The short season of open water and low productivity in most of the larger lakes mean that waterfowl species are limited, although the haunting call of the common loon is regularly heard on Spruce Lake.
Alpine areas provide habitat for horned lark and American pipit that arrive as snow is melting and leave before the first snows arrive. Rock, white-tailed and willow ptarmigan are permanent residents; South Chilcotin Mountains Park is the southern limit for willow ptarmigan. Franklin’s, blue and ruffed grouse are residents of the high-elevation spruce-fir forests along with red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, gray jay, Steller’s jay and pine grosbeaks. Whitebark pine areas provide abundant food for a variety of birds, the most notable being the Clark’s nutcracker. The seeds of whitebark pine are wingless, so cannot be carried any distance by the wind. Nutcrackers feast on the seeds, gathering as many as a hundred seeds in pouches in their throats; the seeds are disgorged in batches into underground caches. Abandoned or forgotten caches provide the seeds needed for new generations of trees.
A variety of birds of prey are reported to include bald eagle, gyrfalcon, rough-legged hawk, Swainson’s hawk, northern harrierand red-tailed hawk. Cliffs provide nesting sites for golden eagles that feed on large rodents such as hoary marmots and Columbian ground squirrels. Prairie falcon adult and juveniles have been seen near Spruce Lake. Great gray owl and great horned owl are year-round residents, as are three-toed, black-backed, pileated and hairy woodpeckers.
Chickadees, nuthatches, pine siskin, golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglet are common throughout the forested areas. American dippers are present in many of the creeks. Hermit and Swainsons thrushes, American robin, magnolia warblerand yellow-rumped warblers are only a few of the summer visitors known to nest.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Few reptiles and amphibians are able to survive the harsh winter conditions found in South Chilcotin Mountains Park. Common garter snake and Western terrestrial garter snake have been reported.
Rainbow trout and bull trout are recorded from most of the larger creeks, with bull trout seeming to stay higher up in creek systems to avoid competition with rainbow trout. Bull trout are known to be resident in the full length of Gun Creek. Bull trout require clean, cold, well-oxygenated water in stream areas with a steep gradient. Ground water seepage channels are also sometimes used for spawning and large, deep pools are needed for overwintering. Spawning, foraging and wintering habitats may be some distance apart so it is important that the connections between all habitat requirements are protected.
Rainbow trout are present in Spruce, Trigger, Hummingbird and Warner Lakes. Mountain whitefish are recorded in Spruce Lake and Gun Creek, while kokanee originate out of Carpenter Lake.
Little is known about the insect populations in any provincial parks, although most visitors are aware that they are there. Many insects fly up to mountain tops in large numbers to mate, the females staying for brief visits only before returning to their favoured habitat below. Bristly tachinid flies, flower flies, sarcophagid flies, blow flies and swallowtail butterflies are but a few. Ladybird beetles congregate in alpine areas before hibernating together under boulders in large groups. Grizzly bears are known to feed on beetles and moths in the sub-alpine. Although no inventories of Deer and Horse flies have been done in the park, these flies have been known to sample humans here.
Many insects are considered pests in the forests of the park. Mountain pine beetles attack lodgepole pine trees in some numbers every year, but have built up to very large numbers in mature lodgepole forests of the park in the last few years. British Columbia is currently experiencing a landscape level pine beetle event. Infested trees are magnets for a variety of woodpeckers, some of which strip large sections of bark off infested trees to reach the larvae.