Kitsault River, Alice Arm

Kitsault River, Alice Arm

by | Feb 7, 2022

itsault River drains a watershed area of about 113,668 acres (46,000 ha), including the Kitsault Glacier that flows out of the Cambria Icefield and several smaller glaciers, and flows generally south for 23 miles (37 km) through the Coast Mountains to the head of Alice Arm, about 37 miles (60 km) south-southeast of Stewart and 1.7 miles (2.7 km) north-northwest of Kitsault, British Columbia. The name Kitsault is derived from the Nisga’a language, which means ‘at the inside’. Alice Arm is a fjord about 12 miles (19 km) long that branches off Observatory Inlet to the northeast. It was named in 1868 by Captain Daniel Pender in honor of Alice Mary Tomlinson, the wife of the Reverend Robert Tomlinson in charge of the Anglican mission near the mouth of the Nass River about 38 miles (61 km) southwest of Alice Arm. Northwest British Columbia has significant deposits of precious and base metal deposits including copper and gold in Triassic and Jurassic rocks of the Stikine terrane. The Kitsault River flows along the western margin of the Stikine terrane in the Canadian Cordillera. It lies in the Intermontane Belt that is bounded to the west by Eocene granodiorite and to the east by the Bowser Basin. Terranes of the Intermontane Belt were largely accreted to the western margin of North America during the Triassic and Jurassic. The Stikine terrane formed as a volcanic island arc during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic. Overlying the terrane are marine and nonmarine sandstones, siltstones, and conglomerates from the Middle Jurassic to mid-Cretaceous. Magma intruded the terrane during the Tertiary Period about 64 to 54 million years ago, and when this underground magma cooled, massive cores of crystalline igneous rock called the Coast Mountains Batholith were left behind that included plutons of quartz monzonite and granodiorite. The last major glaciation event that covered British Columbia was called the Fraser Glaciation. Climatic changes leading to the glaciation event began about 29,000 years ago. Extensive ice advances from mountains into valleys and fjords began 25,000 years ago and reached a maximum extent between 16,000-14,000 years ago known as the Last Glacial Maximum. Between 13,000-9,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated back to earlier positions. The Fraser Glaciation drastically altered the surface geology of British Columbia resulting in the present-day topography, and exposed the gold, silver, and copper mineralizations caused by the igneous intrusion of the Stikine Terrane. The retreat of the glaciers also exposed a wide coastal margin that was soon inhabited by humans.

Kitsault River and Alice Arm are situated within the traditional territory of the Nisga’a First Nation. Villages and fishing sites were located throughout the area including the Nisga’a community of Gits’oohl at the head of Alice Arm near the mouth of the Kitsault River. According to the Nisga’a creation story, the first people to inhabit the area were the Ẁahlingigat or ‘the old people’ who are the ancient ancestors of the Nisga’a. Archaeological investigations near the Nass River indicate the initial occupation of the area about 5,000 years ago. Observatory Inlet historically had an abundance of food including all five species of Pacific salmon and one of the largest runs of eulachon, a type of smelt, on the Northwest Coast. The migration of millions of eulachon into the estuary in March brought a welcome end to the long winter season when food preserves had reached their lowest levels. Using tools to catch the eulachon such as rakes and special nets, the fish were put into large bins and heated to render the prized oil or ‘grease’. The entire process took around one month to complete. This grease was a staple in the diet of the Nisga’a and their north coast neighbors, and so it was a valuable trade commodity. Summer was by far the busiest season as the Nisga’a moved between their camps on the river and its tributaries to access various salmon fisheries and berry patches on the land. Hunting and trapping for bears, mountain goats, and numerous other mammals began in the fall and continued into the early winter. Autumn trading expeditions were primarily oriented toward the inland Gitxsan and products they could offer in exchange for the Nisga’a’s largely coastal goods. With the onset of winter, the Nisga’a returned to their villages for a time of relative rest when the year’s food had been gathered and stored. In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver sailed into Observatory Inlet and made first contact with the Nisga’a. In 1834, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Simpson at the site of a traditional Tsimpsean village known as Lax-Kw’alaams, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Europeans began to explore Observatory Inlet in any detail. The smallpox epidemics of the late 1700s and again in the 1860s depopulated the villages of the North Coast. By the turn of the 19th century, the site at Gits’oohl was unoccupied. In 1888, Gitzault Indian Reserve #24 was designated at Gits’oohl by Peter O’Reilly who was the British Columbia Indian Reserve Commissioner.

In the early 1900s, prospectors were spreading out into Observatory Inlet, Hastings Arm, and Alice Arm. The first claims at the head of Alice Arm were staked in 1903 by Frank Roundy. Several claim groups were staked and small mines started. Most prospects were located within 1.2 miles (2 km) of the inlet as rough terrain and thick forests made it difficult to search any distance beyond the edge of the water. In 1908, two prospectors, Joe Wells and William Dilworth hiked up the rugged Kitsault Valley and over the pass into the Nass River Valley. They staked two claims in the Kitsault headwaters area in 1909. In 1910, rich silver deposits were discovered in the middle section of the Kitsault River watershed 14 miles (23 km) north of the head of Alice Arm by four Scandinavian prospectors, Ole Evindsen, Ludwig Eik, Ole Pearson, and E. Carlson. The discoveries, called the Dolly Varden claims, proved to be exceptionally rich in pyrite, galena, silver ore, and native silver. The name ‘Dolly Varden’ comes from the heroine of the Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge. A narrow-gauge railway was built that ran for 16 miles (26 km) from tidewater at Alice Arm to the mine site, enabling the mining company to transport equipment and supplies to the mine, and ore from the mine to a loading dock on Alice Arm for shipment to a smelter. The rich mineral deposits in the Alice Arm area led to a rapid influx of prospectors, miners, laborers, and the usual assortment of characters that follow mining booms. In 1912, in an agreement between the province and the Federal Government, Nisga’a lands on the west side of Kitsault River were transferred out of the Gitzault Indian Reserve and then sold in 1929 for building lots within the mining town of Alice Arm. To avoid the shallow tidal flats at the mouth of the Kitsault River, docks were constructed along the rocky, west side of the bay. The townsite of Alice Arm, with cabins, stores, cafes, storage sheds, and a large hotel, was located on the upper mudflats and hillsides 1.2 miles (2 km) further north. In 1919, the Taylor Mining Company took over both the Dolly Varden Mine and the railroad. Dolly Varden produced a combined total of 1.3 million ounces (36,854 kg) of silver. In the mid-1940s, the railway was replaced by a road. Today the prospects are still active but with limited activity. In 2000, the remaining land of Gits’oohl became part of the Nisga’a titled land holdings resulting from the Nisga’a Treaty. Read more here and here. Explore more of Alice Arm here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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