Touring the valley of fire and ice with Dr. Cathie Hickson

To kick off the Wells Gray World Heritage Year, volcanologist Dr. Catherine Hickson took people on a tour to Wells Gray Park on Sept 1

A crowd listens as Dr. Cathie Hickson (r) explains the geology of the lava flows that helped form Helmcken Falls during a tour of the volcanic features of Wells Gray Park on Sept. 1.

Margot Venema

To kick off the Wells Gray World Heritage Year, volcanologist Dr. Catherine Hickson (with co-hosts Dr. Tom Dickinson, Dean of Science at Thompson Rivers University and Trevor Goward, lichen specialist) took 50 people from Clearwater, Kamloops and as far away as Salmon Arm for an educational volcano tour to Wells Gray Park on Sept. 1.

Along the route Hickson explained how volcanoes, lava, rock, and masses of water from melting glaciers had formed the unique landscape we see in the park today.

The first stop was Spahats Falls.

“Spahats Falls is a mini Helmcken Falls,” Cathie Hickson said. Glaciers carved it 10,000 – 20,000 years ago when at the end of the ice age they melted within 200 years, freeing up massive amounts of water that filled the already existing Clearwater Valley and carved out the valley around Spahats Falls.

Lava cascaded down from the slopes of Raft and the Trophies and when it cooled it formed basalt.

“Basalt will form columns when it meets the glacier melt water that fills the valley and the faster the lava cools the smaller the columns are,” said Hickson.  “The falls drop over a lava bench that was created by many layers of basalt.”

Geologists can tell time by how layers are built and with trace element chemistry they can even follow lava back to its volcano.

Cathie HicksonThe group stopped for a short lunch at the Clearwater Valley Viewpoint where more volcanic features were highlighted. Here Trevor Goward called attention to the fact that a logging company plans to log parts of this valley. He encouraged people to write letters to stop these plans.

At Second Canyon Hickson showed an example of a lava flow and what basalt looks like when it interacts with water.

After a short stop at Dawson Falls, it was on to Helmcken Falls.

“If Pyramid Mountain wasn’t where it is, Dawson Falls and Helmcken Falls wouldn’t be here,” Dr. Hickson said. “The volcano blocks the water from flowing down Blackwater Creek and since there is no valley the water flows over the surface.” Helmcken Falls will cease to exist if the flow of the river ever changes. This could happen in a couple of hundred years.

Helmcken Falls, the fourth highest waterfall in Canada, has an enormous grotto that was formed by Murtle Lake water and lots of it. As was explained at Spahats Falls, the rock is layered because of the heat, cooling, and pressure.

At the Green Mountain viewing tower, Dr. Hickson showed and pointed out the multitude of interesting volcanic features that can be seen in the area.

“The term ‘tuya’, which stands for a sub glacial volcano that erupted through the ice, comes right here from B.C.,” she said. (The name comes from Tuya Butte in northern B.C.)

From the viewpoint, the impact of the two major forest fires of 1896 and 1926 also became clear. Everything you see from the tower burnt, in total 90,000 hectares. Since caribou like to live in older forest their population crashed in the 1940s because of the increase of predators as the forests rejuvenated as a result of the forest fires. Moose and deer like a younger forest and so not much later there were too many moose. With the aging of the forest their numbers are decreasing and it is expected that the caribou, an endangered species, will make a recovery.

This valley is unique.

“It is important from a World Heritage perspective,” said Dr. Tom Dickinson, “because this is a place, because of its remoteness, where things can be measured against what is happening in the rest of the world.”

The day ended at the Upper Clearwater Community Hall with dinner, dessert, and more presentations from Dr. Cathie Hickson, Dr. Tom Dickinson and Trevor Goward on the Wildlife Corridor Land Conservancy, the Wells Gray Master Plan, the new Wells Gray TRU Wilderness Centre to be built next year, and the plan for Wells Gray World Heritage status.


“This is the beginning of the Wells Gray World Heritage Year,” said Dickinson. Throughout the year 20 events will be organized. “We will have well known people do presentations. Help us make this valley into something very special.”



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