Conservation | Goat River Watershed: Can a gold rush trail save the salmon?

By Simon Zukowski –

The Fraser River is home to perhaps the world’s largest salmon run. Yet fewer salmon have been returning to the Fraser in recent years and the runs have been fluctuating more wildly.

Newly installed Kiosk at the Littlefield Creek Trailhead, near Bowron Lake Provincial Park. From left to right: Al Birnie, Simon Zukowski, and Roy Howard (president of the Fraser Headwaters Alliance).

Newly installed Kiosk at the Littlefield Creek Trailhead, near Bowron Lake Provincial Park. From left to right: Al Birnie, Simon Zukowski, and Roy Howard (president of the Fraser Headwaters Alliance).  Photo submitted by Simon Zukowski

The trend is not in salmons’ favour. Fish are sensitive to temperature changes and as the Fraser heats up due to climate change the salmon are suddenly finding themselves in hot water. Habitat loss and pollution, whether from agriculture, industrial run-off, or stream diversion are playing a role as well, as are salmon farms, where parasites can multiply quickly in crowded pens and contaminate passing wild salmon.

A conservation group from the Robson Valley, the Fraser Headwaters Alliance (FHA), is trying to give the salmon a fighting chance. Since the 1990s, the group has been working to protect the Goat River watershed—one of the last, large, pristine watersheds that feed the Fraser River. As a spawning ground for Chinook salmon and Bull trout, the Goat is vitally important to the health of the Fraser.

A view from the trail towards Wolverine Mt. and Isaac Lake.

A view from the trail towards Wolverine Mt. and Isaac Lake. Photo submitted by Simon Zukowski

The FHA would like to establish a protected area in the Goat River watershed. To build support, they’re working to bring more people in contact with the area. In the late 1990s, they restored a historic gold rush trail that runs along the Goat River. Originally commissioned in 1886 by the Cariboo’s Gold Commissioner, John Bowron, the Goat River Trail follows one of the few low-elevation passes through the Cariboo Mountains to connect the Bowron Lake plateau to the Fraser. The original expedition’s crew included historic gold rush figures George Isaac and Kenneth Macleod, for whom Isaac Lake and Macleod Creek were named. At its busiest, 40 prospectors mined along the Goat for gold.

The Goat River Trail continued to see heavy use through the early part of the 1900s—including as a supply route for bringing bootleg liquor to railway construction camps along the Fraser. In this way, the trail may have facilitated its own demise, as the completed railway displaced it as the supply route of choice between the Robson Valley and the Cariboo.

In 1933, Cliff and Ruth Kopas became the trail’s first ‘ecotourists’ when they traversed the trail on horseback as part of a honeymoon pack trip from near Calgary to Bella Coola. Their recollections of the trail are retold in Cliff’s fascinating book, Packhorses to the Pacific.

Map of the Goat River Trail and the proposed protected area. Submitted by Simon Zukowski

Map of the Goat River Trail and the proposed protected area. Map design by Taylor Bachrach, for Fraser Headwaters Alliance

Today, the upper Goat River valley remains little changed from John Bowron’s day. Part of BC’s rare inland rainforest, it contains pristine old growth, which supports populations of grizzly bears, moose, and mountain caribou. Though the trail has been improved, hints of its history are still evident in the old blazes and decaying cabins that remain along its length.

The trail’s fascinating past coupled with the spectacular wilderness beauty of the Cariboo mountains make the Goat an unforgettable experience for hikers.

This past August, FHA volunteers brushed out an overgrown section of the nearly 50km upper Goat River Trail, making it passable for hikers for the first time in years.

Hang in there, salmon. Help is on the way!

Simon Zukowski is a volunteer with Fraser Headwaters Alliance. He lives in Prince George and is hiking the full length of the trail for the first time this September.

One Response to Conservation | Goat River Watershed: Can a gold rush trail save the salmon?

  1. Pingback: "Can a gold rush trail save the salmon?", an article in the Green Gazette by Simon Zukowski, 2016 SLLP alumnus - Rivershed Society of BC

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