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.
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.
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 Cowichan River’s impressive natural, cultural and recreational values secured its nomination to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in 1997 and subsequent designation in 2003. The 47 km river originates in Lake Cowichan in southwestern Vancouver Island, travelling through the moist Coastal Western Hemlock biogeoclimatic zone to the drier maritime Coastal Douglas Fir zone and several pockets of rare pristine Garry Oak areas, before emptying into the Cowichan Bay estuary. The homeland of the Cowichan Tribes (Quw’utsun Mustimhw), the river remains important to them to this day. A popular tourism destination. Cowichan River, also known as Quw’utsun River, is renowned for nature viewing, paddling, fishing, as well as for great footpaths.
The Cowichan River Stoltz Bluff Restoration Project
A Remarkable River Restoration Project
The 2006 rebuilding of the Stoltz Bluff on British Columbia’s Cowichan River is one of the most remarkable river restoration projects in Canada.
The challenges were daunting: divert a one kilometer stretch of the Cowichan River; dry out the channel; move more than 40,000 cubic metres of river sediment; keep 30,000 stranded fish alive; bypass 3,000 recreational river users during the summer, and return the river to its original course.
Why Undertake This Massive Project?
Silt from Stoltz Bluff had been eroding into the river for many years, resulting in a buildup of fine sediment that diminished the water quality and destroyed critical spawning grounds and fish habitat. In some years, the survival rate of Cowichan Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Salmon dropped below six percent.
Something had to be done.
Working in Partnership
Cowichan elders teach: “Nuts’amat Shqwaluwun” which means “Working together with one heart and one mind”. This teaching captured the approach for this project.
A coalition of local partners used the Cowichan’s heritage river designation to mobilize community and financial support. Facilitated by the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable, the restoration project involved Cowichan tribes, federal and provincial government agencies, industry, NGO and community representatives.
The project was completed in 2006 and since then, spawning grounds have been restored, water quality and fish numbers have improved significantly and recreational use of the Cowichan River has been greatly enhanced.
An Award-Winning Project
The CHRS National River Conservation Award of Merit was awarded to members of the Cowichan River project team in 2009 in recognition of their remarkable undertaking and of the multi-agency community stewardship approach to this river conservation project.
The 47 km main stem of the Cowichan River, which is known as the Khowutzun in the Coast Salish language, was designated to the CHRS in 2003, based on the outstanding cultural and natural heritage values of the river, as well as its recreational values. Many groups are involved in the management of this river, including the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Cowichan Watershed Board, and the Cowichan Tribes.
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The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Cowichan River Plaque Text
The Cowichan River - The first people of Cowichan came to earth from the sky. They found a rich land, warmed by the sun and nourished with a river teeming with salmon, which they called Quw’utsun Sta’lo’.
For thousands of years, this 47 km river has provided their descendants with abundant food, transportation and water. When settlers arrived in the mid-1800’s, they also relied on the gifts of the river and prospered through fishing, farming and logging.
The people of this valley have benefited greatly from the gifts of the river, reaping natural wealth from its waters and the lands it flows through, living on its shores, playing in its waters, and enjoying its beauty.
Today, the people of the valley are working together to give back to the river – to conserve the Cowichan.
Designation of the Cowichan River as a Canadian Heritage River is testimony to its significance as a national treasure. The commitment of local communities to conserving the river will be measured by the strength of the salmon culture. This plaque honours that commitment and the river.