Oona River, Porcher Island

Oona River, Porcher Island

by | Jul 9, 2022

Oona River starts from an elevation of about 2,000 feet (610 m) and flows north-northeast for 2 miles (3.2 km) and then southeast for 2 miles (3.2 km) to the community of Oona River on the eastern shore of Porcher Island at the mouth of the Skeena River, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Prince Rupert and 13 miles (21 km) north-northeast of Kitkatla, British Columbia. Porcher Island is named after Edwin A. Porcher who served as Commander of HMS Sparrowhawk at the Esquimalt Naval Base on Vancouver Island from the spring of 1865 to 1868. The river name is from the Coast Tsimshian word for skunk cabbage, a plant that flourishes here. The community consists of several residences, a town hall, and a fish hatchery along the banks of the Oona River estuary that opens to Ogden Channel at the confluence with Grenville Channel and Telegraph Passage. A geological fault called the Salt Lagoon Shear Zone is roughly aligned with the lower Oona River channel and represents the eastern margin of the Alexander terrane. This shear zone separates Ordovician to Permian plutonic rocks of the Ogden Channel complex to the southwest from greenschist grade metavolcanic and metasedimentary rocks of the Ordovician Descon Formation to the northeast. Western Canada was repeatedly enveloped by the Cordilleran ice sheet during the Pleistocene. The Last Glacial Maximum peaked around 17,000 years ago and was represented by an ice sheet up to 560 miles (900 km) wide and reached elevations of 6500 to 9800 feet (2,000-3,000 m) and covered almost all of British Columbia, as well as southern Yukon Territory and Southeast Alaska. In western British Columbia, ice streamed down fjords and valleys in the coastal mountains and covered all of Porcher Island and large areas of the Pacific continental shelf that were exposed due to eustatic lowering of sea level driven by the growth of continental ice sheets on land. Some lobes at the western margin of the ice sheet extended to the shelf edge where they calved directly into deep water. The ice began retreating about 13,000 years ago exposing much of the landscape seen today.

The north coast of British Columbia was first inhabited by humans as the ice of the last glacial period receded. The origin story of the first people is they were descendants of a supernatural ancestor who came into this area from the north but by different routes and identified themselves simply as the Raven people. Another early group to arrive on the northwest coast were the people of Ts’oode, a group with no clan affiliation, who moved up the coast from the south. They ultimately spread throughout the region, becoming lineages and house groups of the Wolf clan. Included amongst the earliest people were the Gispwudwada clan or ‘saltwater people’. Their clan houses became extinct or were amalgamated with others and little is now known about their lineages except that they had the killer whale as one of their clan symbols. The last early people to establish themselves were the Eagle clan of the Haida. The ancestors of the Gitxaala claimed and occupied coastal lands including present-day Porcher Island. The Gitxaala are one of the 14 bands of the Tsimshian First Nations and today inhabit a village called Kitkatla on Dolphin Island, a small island about 2 miles (3.2 km) off the south coast of Porcher Island, and were historically known as Porcher Island Indians. They were also, in the early contact period, called the Sebassa tribe, for their paramount chief at the time, Ts’ibasaa. Gitxaała is a Tsimshian name derived from ‘git’ meaning ‘people of’ and ‘kxaała’ meaning ‘open sea’. Porcher Island was historically divided into four family territories with the eastern half claimed by the Kaswanlt’iibn, the northwestern part of the island claimed by the Gitwilgyoots, the central-western portion claimed by the Laxksitkwiyoon, and the southwestern part of the island claimed by the Wilunaxnox. The Gitxaała are reputed to be the first Tsimshians to encounter and trade with European fur traders and the first to use firearms.

The construction of Canada’s second transcontinental railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific, began in 1906 and spurred a flurry of settlement around Porcher Island and on nearby islands. At this time the governments of Canada and British Columbia were actively encouraging immigration into the west. If newcomers could not purchase a piece of land, they could acquire property by a process called preemption. The preemptions on Porcher Island coalesced into a number of communities, including Humpback Bay, Refuge Bay, Welcome Harbour, Hunts Inlet, Spiller River, Lawson Harbour, and Oona River. Oona River is one of the few coastal communities on Porcher Island that managed to survive the changing economy and technological shifts which have occurred since their original settlement. The other two settlements are at Hunts Inlet and Humpback Bay. Oona River was first settled by Scandinavian homesteaders in about 1907 in anticipation of the construction of a railroad to Prince Rupert. A sawmill was built in the 1920s and logging and fishing have been the main commercial activities. The village has long been a source of wooden boats for the salmon fishing industry. Scores of sturdy seaworthy vessels were hand-built from red and yellow cedar by early settlers and their descendants, and some can still be seen in use today. A small salmon hatchery at Oona River was built in 1980 and was so successful that the community received funding to build a larger facility. In 1999, the new hatchery opened as part of a resource center complex that includes salmon and shellfish rearing facilities. In addition, the complex has a wet and dry lab, a conference area, and apartments to accommodate seminars, workshops, and field schools. Read more here and here. Explore more of Oona River and Porcher Island 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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