Skagit Valley Park: Nature and culture


Skagit Valley Park went through multiple manifestations on the way to gaining its current size and status. During the High Ross controversy, approximately 1500 hectares of the valley was designated as Skagit River Provincial Park in 1970. This was replaced by the much larger Skagit Valley Recreation Area in 1973. Most of Skagit Valley Recreation Area was converted to class “A” provincial park in 1996.

Cultural heritage

Oral traditions and archaeological evidence show that humans have been using the Skagit Valley since shortly after the continental glaciers receded from this area at the end of the last ice age, approximately ten thousand years ago. 

The Skagit Valley is rich in many resources which indigenous peoples gathered. Hozomeen chert, a high quality toolstone, was quarried for thousands of years from multiple sites in the area, on both sides of what is today the Canada-US border. 

The 49th parallel which cuts across the Skagit Valley was not a boundary between different peoples prior to colonization, and now divides the traditional territories of many indigenous groups. The Skagit Valley is recognized as part of the traditional territories of multiple Coast Salish and Interior Salish peoples who maintain strong connections to this land.

Colonial history

The Oregon Treaty, signed in 1846, established the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and British North America from the Rocky Mountains to the Salish Sea, a continuation of the borderline previously established across the prairies. Two boundary commission teams, one British and one American, surveyed the Skagit Valley in 1858 to determine the location of the 49th parallel. 

A clearcut swath twenty feet (approximately six metres) wide marks the international border. The swath receives regular maintenance to keep it free from trees, and border monuments are placed periodically along the boundary. Monument 73 can be seen from the Silver Skagit Road.

A few settlers tried homesteading in the Skagit Valley on either side of the border in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Whitworth Horse Camp is named for a family who built a ten-room ranch house in 1906 in the meadow that lies just west of the campground. Illness befell the family and by 1911 they had abandoned their ranch.

Meanwhile, in 1910, two American prospectors, Dan Greenwald and W.A. Stevens, reportedly made a significant gold strike at nearby Steamboat Mountain (now known as Shawatum Mountain), which today lies partially within Skagit Valley Provincial Park and partially within E.C. Manning Provincial Park. Greenwald and Stevens founded Steamboat Mountain Gold Mines, Ltd. and began selling shares. 

Prospectors flocked to the area with merchants in Hope, Chilliwack and Princeton competing to supply the miners. Three rival townsites sprang up near the base of the mountain – Steamboat, Steamboat Mountain and Steamboat City. In May 1911 it was reported that between 300 and 550 men were prospecting in the area. 

However, despite all the activity, one thing was missing – gold. In June 1911 it was revealed that the area had been laced, or salted, with gold from elsewhere. The entire endeavor had been a hoax! By this time, Greenwald and Stevens had quietly sold their interests and returned to the United States. The Steamboat townsites were abandoned and the Steamboat name was tarnished. Local communities reverted to calling the mountain Shawatum, as it was named on the maps produced by the boundary commission surveys. The Halq'eméylem name for this mountain is Sleha:wetem, meaning "hunting place."

Skagit hydroelectric project

The early 1900s saw the beginnings of other plans that would result in more profound impacts on the valley. Following the invention of the electric light bulb in 1879, urban centres around the world began to undertake large-scale electricity production, frequently achieved by burning coal. Cities suffered high levels of air pollution as the unfiltered smoke from electricity plants mixed with smoke from cooking, heating, and other industrial activities. With rapidly growing demand for electricity in Seattle and the surrounding area, several private and public utilities raced to secure good sites for hydroelectric projects to expand production and improve air quality.

J.D. Ross, the Canadian-born superintendent of Seattle’s public electricity utility from 1911 until his death in 1939, worked diligently to secure permits for a hydroelectric project on the upper part of the Skagit River in Washington State. Seattle began work on the Skagit Hydroelectric Project in 1917. This project would eventually consist of three dams, each increasing in size – Gorge, Diablo, and Ross.

Construction of Ross Dam began in 1937. The original plans for Ross Dam consisted of four stages. The final height of the dam was to be 203m (665 feet) and would create a reservoir that would flood a large area of the Skagit Valley north of the international boundary in BC. 

In order to flood across the border, the project needed approval from the International Joint Commission (IJC), the organization that oversees water issues between Canada and the United States. Seattle presented its case at a hearing in the fall of 1941. At the time, Canada was two years into fighting World War II and the US joined the war a few months later. Abundant electricity for the war effort was an important concern. The IJC gave approval for Seattle’s proposal in January of 1942; however, Seattle would have to work out with British Columbia how it would compensate the province for the land that would be flooded.

Despite the concern for the war effort, electricity production didn’t begin until the third stage of Ross Dam was completed in 1949, after the end of WWII. Stage three was 165m (540 ft) tall and would flood only a small piece of land on the BC side of the border, approximately 257 hectares (635 acres). The valley floor was cleared of trees to prepare for flooding. The Silver Skagit Road that provides access to Skagit Valley Provincial Park was originally built to remove this timber from the valley. Seattle and the Province of British Columbia agreed to compensation for this flooding in 1954.

Before beginning work on the final stage of Ross Dam, or “High Ross” Dam, Seattle and British Columbia negotiated compensation for the 2225 hectares (5500 acres) of land that would be flooded in BC by the much larger reservoir. This agreement wasn’t signed until 1967. In the meantime, the access provided by the Silver Skagit Road had helped make the area popular with outdoor enthusiasts in the Lower Mainland, particularly fly fishers, and public attitudes towards the environment and resource development had seen a significant shift.

North Cascades National Park Service Complex in Washington State was established in 1968 after considerable effort by local recreationists and conservationists, notably the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C). The new park complex encompassed the land surrounding all three of the reservoirs of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project other than the tip of Ross Lake that extends into Canada. 

The news that a compensation agreement had been signed and Seattle intended to raise Ross Dam to its full height gained public attention in 1969. Many citizens on both sides of the border strongly opposed raising the dam and a protest movement quickly gathered strength. A group calling themselves the R.O.S.S. Committee (Run Out Skagit Spoilers) spearheaded the movement in BC, with N3C leading the American protest. Working together, along with other organizations and citizens on both sides of the border, these groups fought through the 1970s and into the 1980s to prevent further flooding of the Skagit Valley.

Eventually, the protestors achieved their goal. Canada and the United States signed a new 80-year treaty in 1984 limiting the flooding to stage three of Ross Dam. The cornerstone of the agreement was to replace the High Ross project with power from BC. The terms of the treaty are in effect from 1986 to 2066.

The 1984 treaty also established the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission. This international commission manages an endowment fund with the mission of improving and protecting the ecosystems, cultural values, and recreational opportunities of the Skagit Watershed upstream of Ross Dam. This area includes all of Skagit Valley Provincial Park and parts of E.C. Manning Provincial Park and North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

Conservation: Geography, geology and climate

Skagit Valley Provincial Park lies approximately 150 km east of Vancouver in the North Cascade Mountains. The Skagit River begins near Allison Pass in E.C. Manning Provincial Park and runs west to join the Sumallo River where it turns south and enters Skagit Valley Park. Shortly before reaching the international boundary with the United States, the river flows into Ross Lake, a reservoir created by Ross Dam in Washington State. 

The park covers 27,948 hectares of land and borders E.C. Manning Provincial Park to the east and North Cascades National Park Service Complex to the south. These parks form part of a significant area of connected protected lands that span the international border.

The Skagit Valley is a broad, U-shaped valley carved during the ice ages by advancing continental glaciers. Jagged peaks on surrounding mountains indicate where they protruded above the grinding ice that rounded off the lower mountains. The elevation where the jagged peaks begin indicates that the ice filling the Skagit Valley reached more than 1.5km thick.

Skagit Valley Provincial Park sits in the transition zone between the wet, moderate climate found on the western slopes of the North Cascades and the dry, more extreme climate of their eastern slopes. The rain shadow effect of the mountains to the west limits the annual precipitation to about half that of nearby Hope, but the area still receives about twice the precipitation of the Okanagan Valley on the eastern edge of the mountains. Most precipitation usually falls during the winter, creating deep snowpack at higher elevations. Summers are typically dry and warm.

Ross Lake is a hydroelectric reservoir and the water level in the lake changes dramatically throughout the year. This is the result of both human management and the local climate. 

As precipitation on the mountains falls as snow during colder months, more water is released through the dam than flows into the reservoir and the water level in the lake slowly drops. The lake usually reaches its lowest in mid to late April when snow stops accumulating and begins to melt. 

The amount of snowpack helps dam managers determine how low the water is drawn down. Winter "drawdown" may be as much as 30m (100 ft) or more below "full pool" (the maximum height of the reservoir). As spring gets warmer and snow on the mountains melts more quickly, the water in the reservoir can rise 30-60cm (1-2 ft) per day. The reservoir is approximately 36km long when at full pool. Many kilometres of lakebed are exposed during drawdown.

Conservation: Biodiversity

Skagit Valley Provincial Park covers a varied landscape from the valley bottom to high mountain peaks, with many different microclimates, patches of old-growth forest, and overlap of coastal and interior species. This creates a diversity of habitats and rich biodiversity within the park. Several species of flora and fauna (plants and animals) are at the eastern or western edges of their ranges. The north-south orientation of the Skagit Valley also makes it an important migration and dispersal route for many species, and a connection corridor between populations in British Columbia and Washington State.

The Skagit watershed is noted to support some of the greatest plant diversity in BC and is the only area on the mainland where Pacific Rhododendron is known to grow naturally. The valley bottom is dominated by the interior variety of Douglas-fir trees, mixed with Western Hemlock, Western Redcedar and stands of Lodgepole Pine. At higher elevations, stands of Engleman Spruce, Subalpine Fir and Whitebark Pine mingle with subalpine meadows that burst with colour from countless wildflowers during their short growing season. Four ecological reserves were created in the Skagit Valley for significant plant communities characterized by Black Cottonwood, Pacific Rhododendron, transitional interior Douglas-fir, and Ponderosa Pine.

Skagit Valley Provincial Park continues to support most wildlife species native to this area. Mule/Blacktail Deer and Black Bears are commonly seen along the road and around the campgrounds. Moose and Grey Wolves leave occasional signs of their passing. Cougars, Lynx and Martens search the valley for prey, but rarely reveal themselves. Close to a dozen species of bats live in the valley, some of whom are seen skimming the surface of Ross Lake at sunset.

Pacific Treefrogs chorus along the edge of Ross Lake at night, and Western Toads rustle through forest leaves in the dark. Common Garter Snakes can be found hunting for amphibians along the lake edge, and Northern Alligator Lizards are sometimes seen basking in the sun.

More than 150 species of birds use the Skagit Valley as a nesting area, a migration corridor, or a wintering ground. Common Mergansers raise their families on Ross Lake while the ethereal calls of Common Loons drift across the water. American Dippers and families of Harlequin Ducks work to find aquatic insects hiding under rocks in the Skagit River. Barn Swallows perform aerobatic stunts while hunting flying insects near the park buildings where they nest. Bald Eagles and Osprey soar above the lake hunting for Rainbow Trout near the surface of the water.

Collecting water from the numerous mountain streams that cascade down the surrounding hillsides, the Skagit River runs clear and cold, providing habitat for Rainbow Trout, Bull Trout and Dolly Varden.