Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 19: Ootsa Lake 1936

“We started collecting the creatures that would document the biology of Tweedsmuir Park.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The Cowans headed north to Ootsa, a rich network of rivers, ribbon lakes and sloughs that the Cheslatta T’en had been navigating for millennia. Three and a half million acres stretching from Ootsa Lake to Monarch Mtn., had been declared a provincial park, named after Canada’s then Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir (author and Scotsman John Buchan). The Tweedsmuirs were visiting the following summer to explore and open ‘their’ namesake park and the Cowans had the happy job of reconnaissance to “find out what lived there.” They were the first biologists to do any biological inventory work in this area. Tragically it will be the only work ever done there, since 16 years later 92,000 hectares of the rich valley bottomlands were flooded for the largest hydro-electric project of its time in North America – the Kemano project. The Kenney dam turned the Quanchus Mountains into virtual islands surrounded by a circle of five lifeless reservoirs – the Ootsa, Tahtsa, Whitesail, Eutsuk and Tetachuk.

But in 1936 the dam was nowhere on the horizon as the provincial government had officially designated the area as a park. The Tweedsmuirs, both avid naturalists, were to follow the Cowans’ route a year later, a trip which they wrote up in National Geographic Magazine. Tweedsmuir wrote: “I have now travelled over most of Canada and have seen many wonderful things, but I have seen nothing more beautiful and more wonderful than the great park which British Columbia has done me the honour to call by my name.” 

Pygmy shrew

The Cowans arrived July 10 at Ootsa village and hired George Kempple, and his 24-foot skiff. In the first few days, they spotted 45 species of birds, including the unusual Rusty Blackbird. On July 16, loaded up with gear, they headed west to the junction of the once-Tahtsa and Whitesail rivers, a low-lying delta land with dense growth of Red-osier Dogwoods and giant Black Cottonwoods. Cowan spotted both Sora and Virginia Rails and remarked, “All along the Tahtsa is a wonderful place for birds.” Breeding waterbirds such as loons, scoters, harlequins, grebes, goldeneye and mergansers were plentiful in the delta. Warblers, crossbills, thrushes, waxwings and woodpeckers were abundant along the riversides. Eagles were frequent companions as were moose and, less frequently, beaver foraging in the wetland sloughs. Kempple was pointing out gull breeding colonies on river islands, muskrat sloughs and weasel country.

They ran down the Whitesail River to the Eutsuk portage where they trapped for small mammals, scaled a mountain and stopped by a trapper’s cabin to pick up some skulls. Movement was slowed to the pace of hand poling as the rivers widened into the shallow sloughs and they had ample time to observe birds. A large amount of local information was being exchanged about the animals, the land and the tightly-knit but scattered community of natives and settlers. The inter-ethnic relationships were strengthened by trading – bonds which coalesced against the threat of hydro. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan pushing traincar (1936)

The Kempples introduced Jack and son John Shelford, who “was very interested in the birds and mammals and does some amateur taxidermy.” Jack Shelford’s life was written up by his son Cyril Shelford, who eventually became a provincial cabinet member and fought the dam in the 1950s. In the biography From War to Wilderness, Cyril describes how his father and uncle, British soldiers traumatized by the Boer war, came to Ootsa to “get away into the wilderness, where he could get himself together – and where for months on end, he wouldn’t see anything except wild animals and birds that he thought were more civilized than humans during wars.” Tipped off by John Shelford, Cowan caught a Least Weasel, a new provincial record. Cowan wrote to his boss, Kermode: “I have been extremely busy hereabouts and have taken some very nice things, including a fine specimen of Microsorex hoyi intervectus, one of the rarest of North American animals and the smallest mammal in the world.” 

Least Weasel specimen : adult male

Cowan’s mammal list is long for this region, with help from the trappers. Casualties from trapping were relatively small compared to the future casualties from the flooding by dams, which was an unprecedented killer. The wider tragedy of the destruction of wildlife, their habitat and a cultural way of life to the Cheslatta still remains largely untold. In the face of this huge industry, it is hard to imagine an opposing voice having any weight. But Cowan was a pragmatist and presented himself to policy-makers as a moderate, taking the line that there were substantial revenues to be lost in the flooding of these valleys. He made an appeal at “an emergency meeting” of MLAs in 1950 . He also argued in the Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects in 1952 that wildlife was a renewable resource with major economic benefits: “The wildlife resource is the primary source of food and wealth for the Indians and Eskimos of Arctic and Subarctic Canada but with increasing exploitation of these areas it will progressively lose this position.”

But in 1952 there was no recognition that the hydro projects would have profound impacts. The flooding of the Ootsa, Kootenay, Columbia and other major river systems led to Cowan’s growing unease with the impacts of northern developments on wildlife and those who depended on it for their subsistence. By 1979, when Cowan was named International Conservationist of the Year, he had identified that the most important direction of the environmental movement for the future would be to rein in these massive developments and enable aboriginal people to access “life-supporting wildlife” in the face of diminishing species populations.

Cowan finally met Lord Tweedsmuir in 1939, when the Governor-General visited the museum. In Kermode’s annual report for the museum, he stated that “His Excellency was greatly interested in the exhibits of the fauna and flora of this Province, especially those found in the area confined to Tweedsmuir Park.”

Ermine specimen : adult female
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