Driftwood Creek – and the ways we cross it

Thanks to Alan Pickard  for sharing his research. Alan lived on the Telkwa Highroad for many years and has been researching its history for almost as long. Although he has returned to live in his home country of New Zealand, he visits regularly. He is writing a book he calls Place Name Stories Of The Bulkley Valley and the Driftwood name is one of the inclusions. This is what he has discovered.

Driftwood Creek, C’ide’Yikwah in Witsuwit’en, has its headwaters in the main, southwest facing basin of the Babine Mountains. It flows into the Bulkley River about 10 km down river from Smithers. Although driftwood collects in the beds of many rivers and creeks it remains unknown when the name Driftwood was given to this creek.

Only the Suskwa and Bulkley Rivers are shown on a 1866 Collins Telegraph map and documents. The Poudrier map of 1891 gives it the Witsuwit’en name Chi Noo A Kwa which must be what the surveyor Gauvreau heard during his walking survey through the Bulkley Valley in 1891; this presumably was a rendering of C’ide’Yiwah. Poudrier writes Big Rapid Creek in his 1892 survey field book for Driftwood Creek. Poudrier’s survey party met with some opposition from the First Nations people at Moricetown and they did not use First Nations people in their survey work. It seems Gauvreau used, or at least talked to at some length, First Nations people in 1891. Many of the details on Poudrier’s map of 1891 could only have come from Gauvreau.

A G [Father] Morice does not mention local creeks that cross the Telkwa High Road. It is most likely the name Driftwood Creek came from some of the pack-train or other travelers who passed through the Bulkley Valley from 1874 onwards. Camping places were most often beside creeks and these camping places were given local names, some of which will not have survived into the European settlement era. The name Driftwood Creek first appears in writing on J H Gray’s correctional survey field books for January 1906.

This crossing at the Nageli farm is just above the older one.

A bridge across Driftwood Creek is shown on J H Gray’s correctional survey field notes for 27 December 1906. This bridge is on Lot 844 on what was then the Hudson’s Bay Company ranch.* A 2 km road had been constructed on the true left of the creek from the Telegraph Trail crossing of Driftwood Creek to a place where a short log bridge could be put across using rocky banks on both sides. British Columbia Archives photo A-05288 dated 1905 is most likely the bridge across Driftwood Creek on Lot 844. Although there is a private farm bridge [the Nageli’s] at this location now, it was decided by the Highways Department that a bridge at the Lot 844 site would not be renewed in 1916. Therefore a bridge existed across Driftwood Creek on Lot 844 from 1905 to about 1916. It is unknown who took the 1905 photo and whether it is correctly dated. There was a photographer with the Provincial Mineralogist in 1905.

This early aerial photograph of what is now Eileen Shorter’s ranch shows the old king truss bridge over Driftwood Creek.

There is no mention of a bridge at the Telegraph Trail crossing (present Telkwa High Road) in any documents up to about 1916. Driftwood Creek is easy to ford at this point [just below Glenwood Hall] when the creek is not in flood. Many small bridges were built along the Hazelton to Aldermere trail/road from about 1905 onwards, and more and more money was spent on improvements of the road. Some King Truss bridges were built on this road from 1907 onwards. The problem for the Public Works Department, and later the Highways Department, was that the bridge on Lot 844 was on private land whereas the Telegraph Trail was a public right-of-way.

The name Telkwa High Road did not come into being officially until about 1920 although the name may have been locally used well before this. In the 1912-13 Public Works Report $761.35 was spent on the Driftwood Creek bridge but no specific location was given. It is likely this was the bridge on Lot 844.

In the 1919-20 Public Works Report $1,453.60 was spent on the Driftwood Creek bridge but no specific location was given. It is likely however that this was the bridge at the Telegraph Trail crossing, the present Telkwa High Road crossing.

The current bridge below Glenwood Hall and Shorter’s ranch was installed after the 1986 flood.

The bridge across Driftwood Creek at the Telegraph Trail crossing (the present road crossing point) “went out some time ago”; this from a Highway Department letter dated 5 September 1936. This letter discusses at which of the two locations a replacement bridge should be built.

This is likely near the crossing referred to in the 1905 report. This bailey bridge just below Park Road on Driftwood Road was another replacement after the 1986 flood. In his history of the Babine Mountains, Joe L’Orsa said locals numbered the bridges consecutively above this one, which was adjacent to the Harvey homestead. The “fifth bridge” was at Sunny Point.

From the 1905 Provincial Mineralogist Report; “Babine Range, 17 September 1905, P. McPhee, a local prospector, engaged as guide. The trail up to these claims leaves the telegraph trail about half a mile west of Driftwood creek, and cutting across the rolling
hills through pea-vine and fire weed higher than the horses backs, crosses Driftwood creek about two miles up from the trail . . . The trail follows the east bank of Driftwood up for a couple of miles further, through heavy spruce woods, when it begins to climb
the main mountain side by a steep and poorly cut trail, through the small jack-pine and
balsam trees.”

It is said C G Harvey cut the trail to the Babines and staked the first claims in 1903, but
this date is doubtful. C G Harvey was given the Crown Grant for Lot 859 at Glentanna
in June 1906 and his son said C G Harvey came in to Hazelton in 1907. It is therefore
likely that Pat McPhee knew of the route/trail into the Babines via Driftwood Creek
before Harvey.

From a letter dated 30 April 1937 in the Smithers Highways Department files, “ . . . The
Dieter [road] grade running north is a revival of the old miner route . . .” although note
that the Provincial Mineralogist says the route started half a mile west of Driftwood
Creek, which means the trail started about six hundred meters north of present day
Gilbert Road.

We always called this “the first bridge” – for many years after the 1986 flood there was no bridge here and access to the Babine Mountains was restricted to bike and foot traffic.

In the 1915-16 Public Works Report work was done on the Driftwood Creek Sleigh
Road; that is the road up Driftwood Creek. Four new bridges were built and a new
sleigh road. $1,696.30 was spent. In the report for the next year new work was done on
this sleigh road and $1,206.19 was spent.

The Interior News, 14 July 1920; A. P. McCabe returned to Smithers last week, having
completed the erection of five bridges on the existing route to the mining properties in
the Driftwood Creek section of the Babines . . . The crew on the bridges have been
turned over to Robert Mackin, who will extend the road for several miles as the
beginning of a truck line into the prominent claims of that district.

If the road accessing this bridge over Driftwood Creek on Snake Road is “less steep” than it used to be, it must have been very tricky in winter.

Driftwood Creek also is crossed by Snake Road. This road was first laid out in 1913. It is
unclear when the first bridge was built across Driftwood Creek on this road. In a letter
from the Department of Works dated 8 April 1921, a request for a “high level bridge over
Driftwood Creek on the Telkwa – Canyon Creek Road [Snake Road]” was turned down.
The road approaches to the crossing of Driftwood Creek on Snake Road were made less
steep in 1917. Snake Road was built about 1913.

*I’ll be writing more on this later.

I just had to add one more photograph of a Driftwood Creek bridge – the one currently providing access to the fossil beds at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park. It is the fourth one built in the 40 years we’ve lived here.

The song of C’ede’i Kwe

I started this poem a few years ago and set it aside, as I often do. Yesterday I sat in at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Smithers. Heartbroken at the stories, I was also proud of the Witsuwit’en welcome to the participants, proud of their healing spirits. We are so lucky to live in their territory. Somehow the music C’ede’i Kwe/Driftwood Creek makes as it forms the boundary between the territories of Wah tah K’eght and Woos seems to speak of both gifts and great loss. Of what passes and what remains. I offer this in the spirit of healing.



Around here, the creek across the road
sings the prettiest.
From the bedroom window it’s a blur of sound
but if you move closer –
say down to the picnic table in the canyon’s park –
it has a rise and fall
that seems to follow the rise and fall
of your breathing,
the pulse in your throat as the sun heats up your face
and the hand moving this pencil.
It soothes the chitter going on inside your head when you’re trying not to think,
trying to be here, be now,
as they say,
and not to wonder if that prickle on your ankle
is a late-season ant or fly or cranky wasp
disturbed by the arrival of your restless feet
under the table.

It’s like that in this small park.
Mostly refuge, mostly haven, mostly peace.
Until the sudden chaos of field trips or family picnics,
kids heaving boulders into the creek.
Burnt picnic tables, an overturned outhouse.
Lovers leaving crumpled tissues, an empty bottle.
That time there was the little black dress,
a rag on the morning grass, the police searching the underbrush
for the woman who picked it out of some closet
and slipped it on. What could she have been wearing
when she left this place?

When you go down to the shaded gravel bar
and crouch to listen,
individual songs emerge.
You close your eyes and try to single out
her voice. One clear chord
still echoing between the canyon walls.
You wait, watching for a sign.

This gravel bar has somehow survived
forty seasons’ floods and ice.
All the children tossing rocks into the water.
Another variation on the theme of kerplonk
that makes our grandson raise his hands in glee
aha, he crows, aha
his small body stretched tight, quivering
in wonder at the chorus he makes
with a handful of pebbles tossed high
to fall into the creek.
It’s a wonder there’s anything here but sand.

I’ll pack up my songs
and drive into town to sing, join voices
and sound a charm against the pain that sometimes happens
just across the road. Against the coming winter
when the creek sinks deep under the ice
so quiet, so still, that even the dipper has to look hard
to find an entrance into the concert hall.







A Review of the Driftwood Canyon Fossil Beds

by Tony L’Orsa*

Sheila and Lynn are celebrating having lived beside the Driftwood Canyon fossil beds for more than forty years and I have been asked to present a little of our current understanding of some of the stories that the fossils tell us. A few million years ago, the spot where they are living would have been beside or in a lake, rather than beside a creek.

The Driftwood Canyon fossil beds are a remarkable natural library. The pages of this library are thin layers of sediments that were deposited annually and upon which were imprinted the records of a few of the happenings at that place and time. That place was a freshwater lake and the time was about 51.77 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch on the geological time scale. The age was obtained from uranium-lead dating of the mineral zircon found in a layer of volcanic ash. The exceptionally well preserved fossils here offer us a few glimpses into a little-known part of Earth’s history.

Figure 1: Pages of history in the Driftwood fossil beds. The rocks shown above represent thin layers of mud, fine-grained silt, and local bands of volcanic ash that settled on the ancient lake bottom now exposed at Driftwood Canyon.
Image by A. L’Orsa.

The formation of the ancient lake now exposed by Driftwood Canyon approximately coincided with the onset of basaltic volcanic activity in this area about 51 million years ago. In this general area, there is some evidence that basaltic flows locally blocked river valleys and formed lakes. Basaltic mountains, such as China Nose Mountain near Houston, are remnants of some of these volcanic events and have their own stories to tell. Driftwood represents the most northern of dozens of fossil-bearing lake and swamp exposures of similar age that have been discovered southeasterly from here, through the Cariboo (Horsefly), Kamloops (McAbee), Falkland, Princeton and down to Republic, Washington. This discontinuous and time-restricted accumulation of fresh-water sediments, with many fossils in common, represents fragments of a relatively warm upland ecosystem, now collectively referred to by researchers as the “Okanagan Highlands” (including Driftwood). In addition, there are extensive lake deposits of similar age in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, which also contain many superb fossils.

The early Eocene was an interesting time in Earth’s history. Earth was experiencing one of its several “greenhouse” climatic events. The climate was much warmer and wetter, and there was probably no permanent ice at the poles. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to have been much higher than they are today.  Average temperatures were apparently a little warmer than in southern coastal British Columbia at present. Fossils of palms and members of the walnut family indicate an even warmer climate at lower elevations. Many of the trees listed below also grew in the High Arctic at this time, where exceptionally well-preserved fossil forests have been discovered, as well as fossils of alligators, turtles and many mammals. The “greenhouse” conditions peaked about 50 million years ago and then the temperature started to decline. By the end of the Eocene Epoch, Earth was rapidly cooling down to the “icehouse” conditions that we consider “normal” today.

Plant fossils that have been reported from Driftwood Canyon include alder, birch, cypress, elm, false larch (Pseudolarix), ferns (especially the floating fern, Azolla), fir, ginkgo, hemlock, oak, pines (note Pinus driftwoodensis), redwoods (Metasequoia and Sequoia), sassafras and spruce. Some of these tree groups still grow in the area, but many others now only grow naturally in warmer and moister climates in Asia (e.g. dawn redwood, false larch and ginkgo) or farther south in North America (e.g. oaks and redwoods).

Two examples of fossil tree leaves from Driftwood Canyon are pictured below, followed by pictures of their nearest living relatives. These pictures help to remind us that these fossils, although they may now appear rather dull, were once live, green and vibrant plants living in a lush lakeside forest.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia sp.).
Photo by Ken Pugh.

Dawn redwoods were common in western North America in the Eocene, but gradually became extinct, or so it was thought. In the mid-1940s, a Chinese forester found a few “living fossil” dawn redwoods in a forest in southwestern China, apparently on the verge of extinction. Seeds and seedlings were collected and now these trees can be seen in gardens and parks around the world, including in southern British Columbia.


The only known surviving dawn redwood species (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).
Image: Public Domain.

Ginkgos are another easily identified, but rarely found, fossil at Driftwood Canyon. They represent a “living fossil” that can be traced back more than 200 million years. Ginkgos are locally common in the sandstones of the Skeena Group that probably directly underlie the Driftwood Canyon fossil beds and outcrop in places downstream along Driftwood Creek. Although these trees had an almost worldwide distribution some 200 million years ago, for many years they too were thought to have been extinct in the wild, but they had been preserved in temple gardens and other cultivated places in the Orient. Recently they too have been found growing wild in a few Chinese forests. Extracts from the leaves have long been used in Chinese medicine.

One half of the leaf below can be seen at the Bulkley Valley Museum in Smithers. The other part is in a private collection.

Ginkgo adiantoides. Identified by Glenn Rouse, UBC. Scale in millimetres.
Image by A. L’Orsa.


The last known surviving ginkgo species (Ginkgo biloba). This young tree is growing in Halifax.
Image by Judi L’Orsa.


The scientist who has been at the center of plant fossil research at Driftwood Canyon in recent years is David  Greenwood, a specialist in plant fossils at Brandon University. He is the leader of the Okanagan Highlands Project. For more information on his work, click here for his website.

Insects reported from Driftwood Canyon include lacewings (note Pseudochrysopa harveyi, named in honour of Gordon Harvey by Bruce Archibald), March flies, crane flies, snakeflies, mosquitos, water striders, bees, wasps, gnats, earwigs, ants and termites. Some of these species are only found in warmer climates today. Bruce Archibald, Simon Fraser University, has recently been studying the insects from Driftwood Canyon and other Eocene sites. His website is here.

March fly Plecia (?) from Driftwood, private collection.
Photo by Ken Pugh.


Fish fossils found at Driftwood Canyon include the important “dawn salmon” Eosalmo driftwoodensis first described by Mark Wilson, who teaches at the University of Alberta. It is the oldest known fossil member of the salmon family. The dawn salmon has since been identified at a few other Eocene sites in British Columbia and at Republic, Washington. Other fish fossils found at Driftwood Canyon include suckers (Amyzon) and members of the bowfin, mooneye and trout-perch families.

Mark Wilson has not only worked on the fishes at Driftwood and other Eocene and older fossil localities, he has studied Eocene insects and he has studied the environments of deposition in Eocene lakes. To visit Mark Wilson’s website, click here.

Eosalmo driftwoodensis. Identified by Mark Wilson, University of Alberta.
Bulkley Valley Museum collection.
Image by A. L’Orsa.

Bird fossils are very rarely found, but an important discovery was made in 1968 by Patricia Pedley who split a piece of shale and found a fossil bird of the “rollers” family (Coraciidae; Primobucco). These birds have been found at other Eocene localities, especially in the Green River shales of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. They are extinct in the Americas, but members of this family still exist in warmer parts of the Old World. Most of the living species are in Africa.

Fragmentary fossils of a member of the hedgehog family and a tapir have recently been described by Jaelyn Eberle and others, and represent the only mammal fossils reported from Driftwood Canyon to date. Click here for a review of the article.

Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park was established in January 1967, after pioneer Driftwood farmer, Gordon Harvey, donated 14 ha of his farm to the British Columbia Government, which added 9 ha of Crown Land, to cover the key outcrops of Eocene fossils exposed by Driftwood Creek. This is a Class A park and removing fossils from the park without a permit is contrary to the Park Act. However, it was Gordon Harvey’s wish and understanding that fossil collecting by the public would continue, and there were no serious attempts to enforce the rules until recently. We have to follow the rules, but there may be a way to permit public collecting provided that important fossils are recognized and preserved for study. A good solution to this problem has been developed in Republic, Washington, at the Stonerose Interpretive Center (http://stonerosefossil.org/fossilhunting/visitors-information/) where limited supervised collecting is allowed and school children are encouraged.

Fossil discoveries at Driftwood and other places continue to make important contributions to our understanding of the development of life on Earth. Now, with the Earth possibly on track for a change back to a greenhouse climate, fossils can help us understand probable responses of plant and animal communities to that projected change. There is more work to be done and a few rocks are eroding off the cliffs every year, providing easy access to new samples. However, with very limited budgets and other interesting fossil sites calling for their attention, institution-based scientists can only do so much here. Fossils left weathering on the ground are not contributing to science.  Supervised fossil collecting by hobbyists and students might not only inspire potential new scientists, but might well bring us the next important discovery.


Books of Interest

Ludvigsen, Rolf, editor, 1996. Life in stone: a natural history of British Columbia’s fossils: UBC Press, 310 pages.

Tidwell, William D., 1998. Common fossil plants of western North America, 2nd edition: Smithsonian Institution Press, 299 pages.


*Tony is the elder son of Fortunat and Harriet L’Orsa who moved to Smithers in 1935. Both he and his younger brother, Joe, were born in Smithers. Tony is a geologist and has long had a special interest in the fossil beds found at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park. Thanks for this wonderful article, Tony.

Gordon Harvey – tenacity and transience

When we first arrived in Driftwood Canyon, Gordon Harvey had just died (December 1976) but his house, a shed, a bathhouse and a log barn were still standing.

Stories about Katherine, Peavine and their son Gordon Harvey are layered into Driftwood history. Peavine had a claim on Harvey Mountain (named after him) and any hikers going up the Harvey Mountain Road trail passes by the remnants of his cabin at one of the switchbacks. Gordon, in his memoir below, speaks of his father’s booming voice and real estate savvy. Wet’suwet’en stories speak of how he used that voice to intimidate them during the years when they were being steadily evicted from their homesites along the Bulkley Road (now the Telkwa-Moricetown Highroad).

Katherine played piano at many parties and was known to be pretty feisty. Some say the way she heated her house burned down three of them – if you’ve ever tried to saw logs into woodstove-sized lengths with a swede saw, you’ll understand her preference for opening the door to the woodbox, shoving in one end of a log, leaving the door open and just pushing it further in as it burned.

After his parents’ death, Gordon continued to live on the family property, another one of the valley’s eccentric bachelors. He told his family’s story in Bulkley Valley Stories, published in 1973.

Memories of Driftwood Canyon

My father, C.G. Harvey, arrive in Hazelton in 1907 where he entered the hotel business. He was one of the “Big Three” with “Black Jack” McDonell and Jack Sealy. He was also engaged in the land promotion business. Happy Turner wrote: “he was a good one to spy out the land and in no time, was on speaking terms with every section post in the district. He is still pushing in a tunnel on Harvey Mountain with a true prospector’s optimism.” He located, for Jack  Sealy, a large ranch in the Driftwood Creek area, which is now the even larger Bill Morris ranch. [This has since been split into several properties.]

Prior to coming to the Valley, he prospected in the Kootenays, California, Mexico and the Yukon.

My mother was born in London in 1882. In 1908, she came to  Canada, working in the law office of R. B. Bennett who was M.P. for Calgary West and later Prime Minister of Canada. On she moved to Vancouver and then north to Prince Rupert and up the Skeena by river boat to Hazelton. There she worked in the office of District Mining Recorder, S.H. Hoskins, father of the retired Ford dealer, Os Hoskins.

In 1912, she and my father were married and carried on the hotel operation until 1914. Then that summer they rode horseback to Smithers with me, their six month old son, strapped to the saddle.  When we reached the Sealy Ranch, the young foreman, Bill Kirton, recently arrived from England, took us by wagon over a rough mining road to our property on Harvey Mountain – on the way to Silver King basin. Sometime later dad broke his leg at the mine and we found him in the cabin administering his own first aid. He had taken apart a section of stovepipe and was using it as a cast. We pulled him out on a hand sleigh to receive medical help.

My mother and dad carried on mining operations under the most primitive conditions with hand drill, shovel and wheelbarrow. I worked in our mine when I was eleven. They stuck with what he described as the only “mine in the Babines” – others were only prospects.

How did my father get the name “Peavine Harvey”?

On one occasion, he was preparing exhibits of Bulkley Valley produce for the PNE at Vancouver. Included was a sheaf of our famous timothy hay and some wild huckleberries.

The night before he left, some “friends” stole into his hotel room and made some changes. In place of timothy, they put in a bundle of local peavine hay and replaced the berries with a box of rabbit manure. He didn’t discover it until he arrived at the PNE in Vancouver.

“Peavine” Harvey will be remembered for his booming voice – he was hard of hearing! A stenographer who worked for the Government Agent, Mr. Bryant, said the whole building vibrated when Peavine greeted the staff in the office. My mother, a bit of a woman about five feet tall, was an accomplished musician. She played background music on the piano for the silent movies, run by Wiggs O’Neill and held in the old town hall. We kids used to sit on hard wooden benches to view the weekly Tarzan cliffhanger.

I went to Driftwood school where Edna Vickers, 19, taught us. I was quite in love with her and informed my parents I’d be marrying her when I grew up. I  hadn’t figured on Roland Sykes beating my time – she walked out of my life when I was 13. In August ’72, they were back in Driftwood where many of us students had a reunion.

Gordon donated the land for the park.

Driftwood Canyon now has electricity – I paid my first bill in January, ’73. If you follow Babine Road to Sealy’s corner and turn west you will see a sign by the old school that reads, “Fossils”.  About two miles up, you enter a provincial park, “Driftwood Canyon Park”, which includes the fossil beds, crown land above it and the virgin wilderness to Silver King Basin. I have owned the original “Peavine” Harvey homestead since my father’s death in 1945. I have my private park, called “Lone Pine Park” whose visitors book contains five thousand names of people who seek the quiet beauty of Driftwood Canyon.



Ten years ago, visual artist Perry Rath and I (with the wonderful help of Dorothy  Giesbrecht) collaborated to make the weather from the west, a collection of my poems and his paintings. The paintings, many of which came from his In the Skin of This Land series, layer paint, photographs, maps and other texture to create an image that reflects the complexity of the ways we inhabit the land.

Perry’s partner, Taisa Jenne, lived with her family just up the road from us for many years and so he came to know Driftwood Creek and the Babine Mountains from the first days he arrived here.

Right at the turn onto road to the Jenne house stood the remnants of the Harvey home – a tumbling down barn and a tilting bathhouse. Using the old photograph from our collection and one of his own taken at the time, layering paint over topographical maps, Perry made Driftwood Vestige.


When BC Parks gave Driftwood  Canyon Provincial Park a facelift, designer Tom Grasmeyer created some beautiful interpretive signs along the path to the fossil beds. One of those signs acknowledged the ways in which the creek and the canyon have been a source of inspiration for many of us. Posted on a platform above the creek, it includes an image of this painting and one of the many poems I’ve written after a walk along the creek:

still waters

under the heel of its turn
the creek
digs a hole
swallows turbulence

the current does not diminish across its surface
but some aspen leaves
september golden
and spiral

how much
I wonder
does depth
slow you down

if the creek and leaves are right

a few cool seconds to linger
over the intricate arrangement of creekbright stones
submerged in water’s endless exhalation

                                                                       one breath singing in the long song to the sea

The creek is vibrant reminder of both transience and tenacity. The Harvey house is long gone and the old log barn has finally fallen. No more space for timothy or tractors. No more room for pirate treasure hideouts. By the time this summer’s grass is fully grown, it will have all but vanished.


The creek is rising

We woke up to snow this morning – and the roar of a rising creek. No rocks rumbling, though, so it’s not out of control. Last night we saw a pair of harlequins up by the log jam, sitting a few feet apart on a tiny gravel bar.  Just beside them, a willow branch was flailing in the current and we figured it had been ripped out upstream. Then a dark shape rose underneath it, dragged it over to the bank and disappeared. A beaver. We watched for several minutes, but it didn’t re-appear.

This morning, standing on the bridge at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park looking downstream – a pair of harlequins. We assumed it was the same pair we saw last night. Turning to walk up the creek, Lynn spotted another pair, just a few metres above the others – the first time we’ve seen two pairs at the same time on the same stretch of creek.

We’ve often speculated about their nesting habits – and wondered what effect high water has on them. I’ve excerpted this from The Bizarre Life of the Harlequin Duck by Gary Turback. It answers many of our questions:

Although classified as sea ducks, these avian mariners weigh anchor each spring and migrate inland to breed. The Pacific birds wend their way to rushing, tumbling mountain streams, while the eastern birds settle on turbulent rivers primarily in Quebec and Labrador but occasionally in Newfoundland. The Pacific harlequin is the only duck in the world that divides its time between sea and mountains.

In spring, breeding-age western harlequins–those two years and older–leave Pacific coastal waters for mountain streams in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. A few even cross the Continental Divide to nest. Researchers believe some harlequins journey from sea to summit as anadromous fish do–by following streams.

Harlequin society is matriarchal, with adult females returning salmonlike to their natal streams to reproduce. “While on the coast, a young female picks out a bachelor to take home,” says John Ashley, a wildlife biologist at Glacier National Park. Because nesting females are more vulnerable to predation than are males, plenty of unpaired males also show up on the mating grounds, although they rarely get a chance to breed.

A harlequin pair may remain together for years, apparently with great loyalty. In 1992 on Washington’s Morse Creek, Schirato and fellow Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Matt Nixon captured a female in a banding net, but her mate escaped downstream. Seeing his partner detained, the male returned to the net, repeatedly called to her and eventually became entangled himself. “I’ve never seen other ducks do that,” says Schirato.

In May or June, the female lays about six eggs in a nest expertly concealed in streamside vegetation, a hollow tree or logjam. The male now returns to the ocean, precluding any possibility of renesting if the eggs are destroyed. Oddly, some unpaired females choose this late time to migrate inland. “It’s possible,” says Ashley, “that these females might pass the ocean-bound males headed in the opposite direction.” The tardy females, which are young birds looking for future nest sites, do not mate.

With luck, a mated hen will produce a few new harlequins. “Generally, harlequin reproduction is rather abysmal,” says Reichel. “They don’t breed until they’re two years of age or older, they lay relatively few eggs, and they can’t renest if they lose their clutch.”

Mink, goshawks and other predators likely kill some ducklings, but probably a greater proportion of harlequin young fall victim to cold weather or high water. Raging streams do not bother the adults, however, thanks to swimming skills that sometimes seem almost fishlike. For them, no torrent is too turbulent. “Harlequins routinely navigate rapids–with water spraying and foam flying–that few kayakers would ever enter,” says Ashley.

The duck even feeds in the seething current, diving to force its way to the stream bottom. With wings held tight against its body and feet pumping rearward like propellers, the bird noses troutlike from rock to rock, searching for aquatic insects to eat. Meanwhile, the water churns around it. “It must be like swimming in a washing machine,” says Ashley. After 20 or 30 seconds, the harlequin bobs to the surface for air, then dives again.

For adults, the swift current provides the best defense against most dangers. When threatened, a harlequin simply swims into the watery maelstrom and is swept downstream to safety. On the relatively rare occasions when stream-dwelling harlequins fly, they remain low and follow the stream’s every twist and turn.

Practicing in quiet backwaters, young harlequins soon become adept at negotiating tricky currents. Before they learn to fly, however, their mother may return to the coast, leaving the youngsters to fend–and navigate–for themselves. “Some hormonal urge must tell the female to migrate now!” speculates Cassirer. “Fortunately, the young somehow know where to go when they later learn to fly.” The prevailing theory holds that hens (and the males before them) must return to the coast before their annual molt renders them flightless.

By late September, virtually all harlequins are in coastal wintering areas, where they congregate in substantial flocks and feed in the nutrient-rich intertidal zone. Often, they forgo protected bays in favor of the roaring surf. Violent water, it seems, is in their blood.