History and cultural heritage
During a visit to British Columbia in 1908, Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor General from 1904 to 1911, crossed the Purcell Mountains from Argenta on Kootenay Lake to Invermere by a trail up Hamill Creek, over a 2,256 metre pass, and down Tobyl Creek; the Well’s trail was later renamed Earl Grey Trail in his honour.
A cabin built in 1909 for Earl Grey and his family remains in deteriorating condition above the Toby Creek trail about twenty minutes walk from the Toby Creek trailhead. The trail Grey followed by horseback and foot was well known by First Nations people and the West Kootenay mining boom of the 1890’s and early 1900’s made the trail into an important access and supply route from the east, with even cattle being driven over it from Invermere on occasion.
The Purcell Mountains wilderness so impressed Grey that he wrote to the then Premier of British Columbia, Richard McBride, urging that this magnificent scenic mountain area be set aside as a national park. Nothing came of Grey’s proposal, however, and for over half a century the trail and the mountains remained the preserve of a few trappers, outfitters, foresters, and prospectors.
In 1904 the Argenta mining company operated a compressor station about 8 kilometres up from Lardeau on the lower end of Hamill Creek that supplied air to the Argenta Mine on Lavina Ridge above it. A four-horse wagon road was constructed up the Hamill Creek canyon with portions of the road hung from the canyon wall. A massive pelton wheel was hauled into place to drive the compressor. It is still in its original location along the trail. The mine closed in 1905 after operating only one year.
In the mid 1960’s Rod and Gun Club members from Invermere began lobbying for a Conservancy in the Purcell’s. With industrial logging development coming to many valleys in the area local people felt a sense of urgency to protect this spectacular area.
In 1970, the historical and recreational values of the Earl Grey Pass Trail were recognized by the community of Argenta which made reopening the trail its project for the 1971 British Columbia Centennial. In 1971 to 1972 Federal Opportunities for Youth (OFY) funds supported the efforts of area people to re-establish the trail. Though deviating from the original route owing to the forest fire impacts, creek crossing problems and money and manpower constraints, the OFY project strengthened a reawakening interest in the area Earl Grey had recommended for national park status.
In 1974, as a result of lobbying by conservationists, outdoor clubs and individuals through an Order-in-Council that literally stopped the bulldozers the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy encompassing 131,500 hectares of the Purcell Mountains was created.
The Conservancy, together with the adjacent 9,164 hectare St. Mary’s Alpine Park and 550 hectare Fry Creek Canyon Recreation Area, were preserved for their ecological and recreational values. In the 1980’s, amendments provided for application of the Park Act and Regulations and in 1995 an expanded Purcell Wilderness Conservancy became a British Columbia class A provincial park.
The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Park is one of the first large scale wilderness areas in Canada to be set aside as a result of local citizen action. This contiguous undisturbed wilderness is critical in maintaining the viability and biodiversity of the largest intact ecosystem in southeastern B.C.
The Purcell Mountains embrace high glaciated mountains, resplendent alpine lakes, verdant wetlands, magnificent old growth forests and rushing rivers. These features provide habitat for an abundant variety of plant and animal communities. All of the ungulates of the Kootenay region, except bighorn sheep, are found within the conservancy as well as many species of carnivore and smaller animals.
The Purcell Conservancy Park preserves a way of life as well as natural values. Guide-outfitters and residents have accessed the east side of the conservancy with pack trains for many years to hunt a sustainable wildlife population and for sightseeing expeditions. On the west side cultural artifacts from the early mining period are still in place along the lower Hamill Creek and Fry Creek canyon is often visited by local hikers.