No one was in Bute Inlet’s Southgate Valley when rock and ice above Elliot Creek launched itself 6000 feet down from the Homathko Icefield into a glacial lake.
Did anyone hear, see or feel anything?
First evidence: a photograph taken from a helicopter on December 10, 2020 by pilot Bastien Fluery. He’d heard a report of floods in Bute, and flew to the inlet’s mouth that was clogged with an unusual amount of debris. Flying north, up-inlet, he followed a trail of raw, broken and shredded wood until ten-miles east up to the mouth of the Southgate River he saw a vast alluvial plain spread out from the base of Elliot Creek into the river.
Elliot Creek flows from a glacial tongue of the Homathko Icefield and seismic data has indicated that at 6 am on November 28 , 2020, a massive slide of rock and glacier fell into the lake that fed Elliot Creek down to the Southgate River. Brent Ward, of the Centre for Natural Hazards Research at Simon Fraser University, confirmed that above the head of Elliot Creek; “a landslide from the west side of the valley hit the front of the glacier, then turned a corner and went into the lake. The area that failed was initially supported by the glacier, but with the glacier melting back and retreating, that slope was exposed.”
The collapse and resulting lake tsunami was estimated to have the power of a 4.9 earthquake. Lake water overtopped the moraine blocking its outlet and a wave up to 100- feet in height washed down the entire watercourse to the Southgate River carrying fractured boulders and shattered wood. It ripped the creek bed into a canyon and mowed down whole stands of timber. Along the Southgate, shredded wood was woven into thick mats that invaded and marooned clusters of still standing trees. Massive piles of interlocked rocks, trees and branches punctuated the alluvial plane. As the washout continued, silt and debris rushed down the Southgate and flooded down inlet. The slide took out an 80-foot logging bridge, moved a cabin 50 feet and mired machinery up to its doors in silt. The Southgate River and surrounding streams historically support Chinook, Coho, Chum and Pink salmon runs, as well as at-risk species like the Bull trout found in Elliot and Elliot Neighbor Creeks. Elliot Creek’s Coho habitat was now buried by gravel.
“The river itself will start to modify the sediments, but it’s going to have a serious effect on fish. A Chum run that goes up the Southgate may be better off because the river will probably re-establish,” Ward said. “It’ll come back, these landslides happen, but when you’re dealing with a four-year life cycle of a fish, it’s going to have a longer effect than that.”
Elliot Creek was one of eighteen, Bute Inlet, run-of-river, hydro dam and power- line projects proposed by Plutonic Power Corp in 2008. (1) My 1990s research for High Slack, a UBC Museum of Anthropology Art installation and the book High Slack: Waddington’s Gold Road and the Bute Inlet Massacre of 1864, led me to understand that alteration to this surprisingly mercurial landscape did and could cause avalanches and landslides. Any of the abrupt and extreme climate, wind and temperature fluctuations for which Bute is notorious, the diminishing winter snowpack and the proposed hydro constructions along its steep sides increased their likelihood. Concurrent with the 18 hydro projects, private companies applied for water extraction export licenses on creeks all along the precipitous inlet for bottling water. It was way too much wilderness intrusion! In 2009 I began the art project Water/Colour to bring attention to threats to this grand landscape.
From 2010 to 2020, my helpers and I collected water from waterways listed in proposed hydroelectric run-of-river dam and water extraction licenses applications, to make visual the threatened wild water geography in a time of increasing climate change. I made paintings on pH neural watercolour paper with the collected water alone to allow it to make whatever mark, tone or figured area it could. I included in the series an “oil painting” made with the inlet water’s unique marine lipid known as Bute Wax, because it’s property of extending over and into a surface indefinitely, and the mystery of it’s undiscovered inlet storage location and natural creation, mirrored the unpredictable and evolving nature of the fiord. Each water collection focused my attention acutely on the location and its inhabitants and the small paintings, acted as keys to the history and prehistory of the site. Photo essays were made of collection sites, relevant stories documented and remaining water samples preserved in a cabinet. As a “control” to wild water I collected water from sources heavily impacted by human occupation in Venice, London, Paris and Cortes Island. If any of the hydro operations commenced, I planned to collect water after any damage had occurred.
In July 2019 a new run-of-river application by #1172793BCLtd., said to be an Egyptian, New York-based hydroelectric company, for a dam and hydro operation was submitted to the BC Government. Their proposed construction of a dam at the head of the Heakami River that runs off a more westerly tongue of the Homathko Icefield into the Homathko River was alarming. Its tongue was melting back to bare rock and, according to Hakai Institute’s Bute Inlet monitoring, the icefield itself was impacted by climate change and insufficient winter snowpack. Since the ice field is an enormous freshwater storage and fresh water in increasing world shortage, it is our responsibility and in our interest to protect it from damaging intrusions to produce expensive power or from private attempts to turn our water “commons” into a private, plastic-bottled commodity. Now there is little snowpack, the icy-blue lips of glaciers lining the inlet are clearly visible in hot summers as one travels up Bute.
Bute Inlet falls within the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. A7p, Church House, their last occupied village, is at the inlet mouth. Their un-ceded territory extends from Campbell River on Vancouver Island throughout the Discovery Islands and up Bute Inlet on the mainland to the Homathko Icefield. The Homalco people have operated a bear watching operation out of the Orford River a third of the way up the inlet for some years and recently purchased a Homathko River facility as an eco-tourist resort.
After the landslide, Homalco Chief Darren Blaney’s first thought was for salmon whose eggs were within the gravel-smothered spawning grounds. “It is certainly one of our extra productive river programs … for Chum, Coho and Pinks, so it is a massive loss for us,” he said. The Homathko and Southgate Valleys support Grizzly and Black Bear, Goat, Deer, Lynx and Bobcat, Martin, Mink and Wolverine and endangered Marbled Murrelet as well as Salmon and Trout. Elk introduced to the Southgate Valley have done well. What creatures escaped landslide, flood and debris, what salmon eggs could survive such a scouring and burial?
After the visual evidence of Elliot Creek’s major restructuring, I inspected the bottle of water labeled “Elliot Creek, 2010” that Randy Killorean brought out by helicopter when he’d flown sports anglers in. The Elliot Creek sample, clear as the day it was collected, took on a renewed significance. What did Elliot’s water look like now? How would my 2010 and 2014 Southgate River samples compare to recent ones?
The Hakai Institute on Quadra Island had been collecting water before the slide and conducting LIDAR 3D surveys of inlet creeks. Following the landslide they flew a second LIDAR pass to compare the two Elliot Creek phases.(2) I sent an email about my project and desire for a post-slide water specimen. Bute researcher Ian Giesbrecht responded positively to the art/science aspect of my project and was interested in the clarity of the 2010 sample. Isabelle Demarais agreed to collect the water.
Jennifer Jackson, the Hakai Institute oceanography researcher, monitors the impact of climate change in B.C.’s fjords. “Over 70 years,” she said, “Bute Inlet’s deep- water temperature had risen by 1.2 C., but the 2020 landslide was so massive, it immediately caused half a degree of cooling in deep water below 350 metres. The huge amount of sediment that came down into the inlet is bound to change its nutrient ratios and impact the marine food web in the region. We saw changes in oxygen levels, but we’ll still have to piece together what that means for the food web. The ripple effects in both the marine and terrestrial environments are going to take some time to understand. However, it’s clear retreating glaciers were a factor in the landslide, which should raise concern for any coastal communities that could be at increased risk of natural disasters triggered by climate change,” Jackson said. “Especially First Nation communities living in similar areas.”
Bute Inlet and its valleys had not been thoroughly examined prior to recent Hakai efforts and surveys for Plutonic Power/s projects are known to have misread fish populations in at least one remote high creek. Randy Killorean flew into Whitemantle Creek in 2010 to collect water for me and catch and photograph a trout and its spawning ‘redd” because the creek had been deemed devoid of fish.
J: “Here’s a photo I took on my last fishing trip up Bute Inlet.
Went up the Homathko Valley to Whitemantle Creek running out of Whitemantle Glacier to catch the trout I’m holding.
The environmental assessment done on the Bute drainages for Plutonic Power claimed the creek was devoid of fish but this “redd” indicates recent spawning.” Rand”
The coastal inlets are the major engines of the BC coast, receiving ocean up- wellings right to their heads and feeding fresh water and nutrients back south. There are viable fish runs and animal habitat. We have not had enough secure data to start stripping the fiords apart with excessive hydro projects and, in November, 2020 nature’s action provided us with usable fact, not opinion.
In March, 2021 I picked up two Southgate River samples from Isabelle Demarais at the Hakai Institute. She gleefully held them out: #1. The Southgate River sample, down stream from Elliot Creek was a watery mud, the upstream water sample crystal clear. Facts, not opinions. Although the 2009 and 2019 hydro schemes had not yet gone ahead due to strenuous community protests and high costs, here was evidence of the effect climate change was having on the shrinking icefield and on fish habitat in ways I had been convinced would be caused by dams and scraped to bedrock power line corridors. Eleven years is a long time. I had changed, environmental attitudes were shifting and the climate altered beyond anything I could have projected. Indigenous people were reclaiming territory, demanding respect and the Water/Colour project evolved.
In the studio, new samples in hand I taped two sharply pointed triangles on hot- pressed, 300 pound, neutral pH, handmade, watercolour paper. Into the left form I laid down downstream water and, changing brushes, stroked the upstream water into the right triangle.
“Ah!” Isabelle said, “that shows the difference!”
After her April collect Isabelle handed me a jar of cloudy Elliot Creek water. She’d taken a photo of this sample site and of the flow of the mud plume into the Southgate at the inlet head. Now – to paint with that murky slide sample.
Fed by glaciers backing the east faces of Mts., Rodney, Superb and Sir Francis Drake on the east the side of Bute Inlet, Icewall Creek flows into the Southgate River opposite Elliot Creek, ten miles from the river mouth.
On August 1st , 2014, we boated out of Homathko Camp on the Homathko River and crossed the inlet head to collect water from the Southgate. There were only 5 people in the entire inlet head that day and we had not seen a boat since we headed north from the Orford River two days before. The silence was immense.
As we approached the Southgate we saw the entire top of the cliff at the southern river entrance had been blasted away for a log dump. At camp the night before Chuck Burchill had mentioned a plan for a new road to Icewall Creek so Interfor Logging could access old growth trees too big to helicopter out. The company was blasting their way up to the creek Randy had collected from in 2010. There was a new road down to a camp on the riverbank just inside the river and it appeared to continue up the river’s south side. There was an extensive road system up the north side and there had been a rail line there in the nineteen twenties.
We continued thoughtfully toward this camp precisely where several species of salmon enter the river to what are/were functioning spawning beds. A forestry engineer told me the camp had been blasted and bulldozed into existence during a previous year’s spawning. The entrepreneurial extraction cat was endlessly on the prowl when no one was looking.
I took my 2014 water sample from a back eddy at the river’s first bend. By August 2020 I could follow the new road via Google up toward the long, steep creek and doomed old growth. If, as Bute scientists claim, it is inevitable our altering climate will release more landslides in BC mountain ranges, Icewall Creek may rampage into the Southgate River as did the Elliot.
(1) Later Alterra, it is now owned by Innergex of Quebec.
(2) Hakai video – www.hakai.org/bute-inlet-landslide-the-extended-cut
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