The Cowichan River originates at the easterly end of Lake Cowichan in southwestern Vancouver Island, in the lush Coastal Western Hemlock zone. The river is fed by small creeks and has a varying pace; from swift rapids, to waterfalls, to wide, slow channels through expansive valley flats. The river ends its journey at the sea, in the drier maritime Coastal Douglas Fir zone.
The unique topography shows evidence of the area’s glacial past, including mounds of gravel left when the glaciers receded. River terraces, alluvial fans and a wide, sweeping estuary are created as the river carves out and deposits sediments along its length. There are impressive viewpoints, such as the ones at Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon that showcase the area’s unique geological history.
A wide variety of flora and fauna call the area home. Of particular importance is the River’s iconic salmon population, which has fed and sustained spiritually the Coast Salish people for millennia. Salmon are keystone species in the Salish Sea, feeding a range of animals, including the resident Orcas. After death their carcasses provide nutrients to the food web supporting a complex ecosystem from the smallest insects to eagles and bears – even sustaining the forests that surround the river.
The Cowichan watershed has been home to Coast Salish people for millennia. Cowichan People continue their close relationship with the river, relying on it for fishing, food gathering, spiritual wellbeing, shelter, medicine and other traditional and contemporary practices.
The Cowichan River Valley is the homeland of the Cowichan First Nation, a Coast Salish people. The Cowichan people continue their traditional use of the river and its associated ecosystems for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The river has always been used as a significant travel corridor leading to other watersheds and trading opportunities.
When settlers arrived, the logging industry became a vital part of the local economy as gigantic Douglas fir, hemlock, Sitka spruce and cedar trees were exported not only throughout North America but also as far away as Australia. The Cowichan River was especially vital during this time as it provided a means to transport the valuable logs to the coast. Today, selective logging methods based on greater than 80-year rotation patterns are used to sustain the forest.
The accessibility of the Cowichan Valley has helped it to become a leading locale for recreational activities on Vancouver Island. It is an international fishing destination, in the winter drifting for steelhead, angling and fly fishing for salmon and trout. The river is also renowned for spectacular nature viewing, kayaking, canoeing, photography, hiking, and beautiful campgrounds. Traditional dip netting and spear fishing can be seen in the fall by skilled Cowichan Tribes members.
Cowichan River Provincial Park is adjacent to an abandoned rail right-of-way that provides recreational opportunities for cyclists, hikers and horseback riders. Visitors can also enjoy the historic 20 km-long Cowichan River Footpath and a variety of campsites, day-use and picnic areas within the park. The restored 66-Mile and Holt Creek Trestles on the Trans-Canada Trail provide spectacular river views and the opportunity to imagine a time when cedar dug out canoes would travel the river using it as a highway. Used a river as a dominant form of transportation. Later, log-laden train cars would thunder along the tracks high above the Cowichan River.
Who Manages the River?
The Cowichan River is acknowledged as the ecological and cultural heart of the Cowichan Valley. Coast Salish people have been stewards of the river for millennia. Today Cowichan Tribes are assisted by a variety of partners including BC Parks, responsible for the CHRS program and managing the BC Park network, the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable, the Cowichan Watershed Board and many others working collaboratively to ensure a positive future for this iconic heritage river.
The name Cowichan comes from the word Quw’utsun, which is from the first people’s language, Hul’q’umi’num’ and refers to “warming your back”. The lower half of the Cowichan River is a rain shadow and has long warm summers. The upper watershed is a deep rainforest receiving up to 5 metres of rain a year.
For many years the Cowichan River was known to be a top angling destination for salmon and trout destination. In the early 1900s the status of Cowichan River fishing was posted in London, England fishing clubs. Fishers still come from all over the world to “drift” the river in river drift boats with guides.