Sunday, 5 March 2023


Cretaceous Plant Material / Three Brothers Formation
Vancouver has a spectacular mix of mountains, forests, lowlands, inlets and rivers all wrapped lovingly by the deep blue of the Salish Sea. 

When we look to the North Shore, the backdrop is made more spectacular by the Coast Mountains with a wee bit of the Cascades tucked in behind.

If you were standing on the top of the Lion's Gate Bridge looking north you would see the Capilano Reservoir is tucked in between the Lions to the west and Mount Seymour to the east on the North Shore. 

The bounty of that reservoir flows directly into your cup. If you look down from the reservoir you see the Capilano River as it makes its way to the sea and enters Burrard Inlet.

The Capilano River on Vancouver's North Shore flows through the Coast Mountains and our coastal rainforest down to the Capilano watershed enroute to Burrard Inlet. The headwaters are at the top of Capilano up near Furry Creek. They flow down through the valley, adding in rainwater, snowmelt and many tributaries before flowing into Capilano Lake. The lake in turn flows through Capilano Canyon and feeds into the Capilano River.

Today, for many, the Capilano River is the clear, cold water with which we fill our cups. But not so long ago, this Kia’palano, this beautiful river, was the entry point to Homulchesan, traditionally called X̱wemelch'stn, whose name means fast-moving water of fish and the domain of Douglas fir trees and the wild sacred salmon who spawn here.

Capilano Watershed & Reservoir
Sacred First Nations Land

This area was once the exclusive domain of the Coast Salish First Nations —  xʷmə?kʷəyəm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations until the early 1800s. 

The Musqueam First Nation are traditional hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking people who number a strong and thriving 1,300. Many live today on a wee slip of their traditional territory just south of Marine Drive near the mouth of the Fraser River. 

The Secwepemc or Shuswap First Nations are a collective of 17 bands occupying the south-central part of British Columbia. Their ancestors have lived in the interior of BC, the Secwepemc territories, for at least 10,000 years.

The Coast Salish First Nations have lived in this region for thousands of years — from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to north of Bute Inlet. They ancestors of those who live here today braved the cold, following the receding of the ice to forge new roots, build villages and strengthen their connections to this land.   
It is to the Squamish Nation that we owe the name of Capilano which is an anglicized version of Kia'palano. 

In Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim or Skwxwú7mesh, their spoken language, Kia'palano/Capilano means beautiful river

Chief Kia'palano (c. 1854-1910) was the Chief of the Squamish Nation from 1895-1910 — and Chief of the territory where this beautiful river flows — Sa7plek.
The Cleveland Dam — Capilano River Regional Park

Many things have changed since then, including the Capilano River's path, water levels and sediment deposition. For the salmon who used this path to return home and those who depended on them, life has been forever altered by our hands. The Capilano River still runs with Summer Coho, Spring & Summer Steelhead and Autumn Chinook. The small numbers of Spring/Summer Steelhead are maintained through catch and release and may one day reach their former levels of plenty along Vancouver’s North Shore. Elsewhere, we are beginning to see a rewilding of Vancouver with the return of the salmon to our rivers these past few years. 

It is a hopeful recovery from an amazing creature and their will to not just survive but thrive. Marina Dodis, a local film maker has done a wonderful job of recording that rewilding in her film, The Return. I'll pop a link below for you to watch it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

We have Ernest Albert Cleveland to thank for the loss of that salmon but can credit him with much of our drinking water as it is caught and stored by the dam that bears his name. It was his vision to capture the bounty from the watershed and ensure it made its way into our cups and not the sea. 

Both the water and a good deal of sediment from the Capilano would flow into Burrard Inlet if not held back by the 91-metre concrete walls of the Cleveland Dam. While it was not Ernest's intention, his vision and dam had a secondary impact. In moving the mouth of the Capilano River he altered the erosion pattern of the North Shore and unveiled a Cretaceous Plant Fossil outcrop that is part of the Three Brothers Formation.

Capilano River Canyon & Regional Park
Know Before You Go

The fossil site is easily accessible from Vancouver and best visited in the summer months when water levels are low. 

The level of preservation of the fossils is quite good. The state in which they were fossilized, however, was not ideal. They look to have been preserved as debris that gathered in eddies in a stream or delta.

There are Cretaceous fossils found only in the sandstone. You will see exposed shale in the area but it does not contain fossil material. 

Interesting, but again not fossiliferous, are the many granitic and limestone boulders that look to have been brought down by glaciers from as far away as Texada Island. Cretaceous plant material (and modern material) found here include Poplar (cottonwood)  Populus sp. Bigleaf Maple, Acer machphyllum, Alder, Alnus rubra, Buttercup  Ranvuculus sp., Epilobrium, Red cedar, Blackberry and Sword fern.

Capilano Fossil Field Trip:

From downtown Vancouver, drive north through Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Take the North Vancouver exit toward the ferries. Turn right onto Taylor Way and then right again at Clyde Avenue. Look for the Park Royal Hotel. Park anywhere along Clyde Avenue.

From Clyde Avenue walk down the path to your left towards the Capilano River. Watch the water level and tread cautiously as it can be slippery if there has been any recent rain. Look for beds of sandstone about 200 meters north of the private bridge and just south of the Highway bridge. The fossil beds are just below the Whytecliff Apartment high rises. Be mindful of high water and slippery rocks.

Visiting the Capilano Watershed and Reservoir:

Visitors can see the reservoir from Cleveland Dam at the north end of Capilano River Regional Park. You can also visit the Capilano River Hatchery, operated below Cleveland Dam since 1971.

IN THE HEART OF THE CITY, A WILD MIRACLE AWAITS — THE RETURN, a film by the supremely talented Marina Dodis

There is something astonishing happening in the city of Vancouver. Largely unnoticed amidst vehicle traffic, industrial sites and construction, wild salmon are returning to their ancient spawning grounds.

Once an important salmon bearing area, this watershed became severely degraded as the city grew. The run collapsed and was declared “dead”. As salmon are iconic for people in British Columbia, concerned citizens became engaged. The rewilding has begun to pay off. After disappearing for 80 years, people can now witness the autumn spectacle of these powerful swimmers fighting to reach the streams they hatched in. To have a salmon run taking place within city limits is almost completely unique in a metropolis of this size.

Filmed with a quiet, observing lens over many years, "The Return" takes us into hidden enclaves of wilderness within the city, where tiny salmon smolts shimmer beneath the water's surface. Now that they have come back, their future is in our hands.