A popular Elk Valley trail is slowly disappearing under the very trees it exists to showcase – and that’s likely how it will stay.
A little over 15km south of Fernie on Hwy. 3 lies the Ancient Cottonwood Trail – a 1.5km trail through old growth forest wedged between the rail line and the Elk River.
Cottonwoods are known for dropping limbs, and they have been doing just that, with limbs and entire trees across the path. Some sections of trail fencing is destroyed, and the path resembles more of an obstacle course for large stretches, making the trail near-impassable for the casual walker.
According to the owner of the land, the Nature Conservancy of Canada – that’s how it’s going to stay. The trail was formally closed since 2018, and there are no plans by the NCC to clear fallen trees or repair trail fencing.
While it remains open to public use, a spokesperson for the NCC said that they didn’t want to encourage too many people to use the trail, given the age of the Cottonwood trees along the trail, which were reaching the ends of their lives and have an increasing chance of falling.
Users that access the trail go past signage that warns them they use the trail at their own risk, while signage along the trail talks of the dangers posed by the aging trees.
Despite the trail being scrubbed from the NCC website, it still appears online with reviews on multiple other sites and information at hand from multiple sources, meaning the trail still draws in plenty of users, especially as interpretive signage on the trail remains.
A number of local groups and local users have been involved with its care over the years, but efforts required to clear the path today are more than a few volunteers can do.
While the Elk River Alliance has previously played a role, Lee-Ann Walker of the ERA said that “the abundance of huge fallen trees requires a professional forester and an industrial chain saw.”
“This is not work for community volunteers,” she said.
Given the NCC doesn’t encourage users to visit the trail, and such heavy-duty work would require permission, the trees across the path will likely remain and the path will re-naturalize.
The trees will instead be left to fulfil their purpose as ideal protection for the river bank against erosion: Cottonwood trees are known for the ability to protect river banks from erosion. The trees along the Ancient Cottonwood Trail are undisturbed by logging, and shield the rail line from the Elk River.
The path, which is easily reached by Fernie, still draws in visitors who take advantage of a more back-country experience climbing over and crawling under trees.
For Tourism Fernie, losing the trail would be a loss for the area.
“It’s a pretty special thing,” said executive director of Tourism Fernie, Jikke Gyorki.
“I know there wasn’t a lot of upkeep happening, which is unfortunate because there are some ancient trees in there which is special for people to experience.”
Gyorki said that it was a common scenario for tourism assets to be lost to time, as organizations couldn’t keep up with maintenance, but hoped that the Ancient Cottonwood Trail could come back as an attraction in the future.
“There’s definitely a lot to see and do (locally) but we’re still a small town. When we have special places like that … it’s an opportunity to learn about that side of a riparian zone and the importance of cottonwood trees.”
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