From its source high in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, the scenic Kootenay River rushes southward through forested valleys and narrow gorges, passing flower strewn meadows and towering hoodoos on its journey to the lowlands of the Rocky Mountain Trench.
At Canal Flats, it comes within one kilometre of the mighty Columbia River. From there, it meanders past stands of lodgepole pine and aspen, banks of sage brush and native bunch grasses, eventually winding its way south to Montana where its name changes to Kootenai. It flows into Idaho, crossing back into Canada near Creston, entering Kootenay Lake and then emerging as a river once again in the vicinity of Nelson. The Kootenay completes its 781 km (485 mi) journey at Castlegar, where it merges with the Columbia.
The Kootenay River figures largely in the history of this region. In 1808, David Thompson, a trader, surveyor and mapmaker for the North West Company, left his headquarters at Kootenai House near Invermere to explore the length of the river and initiate trade with the Flathead Indians. He used the river as a highway, following the well-trod path of Native Americans through British Columbia, Montana and Idaho. Thompson’s exploration of the Kootenay eventually lead to his discovery of the mouth of the Columbia River, fulfilling a life-long dream.
Navigation on the Kootenay River was very important in the 1890s before the completion of the Crowsnest Pass railway route. The river formed a natural route for travel south from British Columbia to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways built across the northern states in the 1880s and 1890s.
The early sternwheelers that operated on this route were primitive vessels with few luxuries but they were serviceable and generally reliable. These independently owned vessels carried ore south into Montana and brought supplies from the railroads back north to Fort Steele, which was then the most important town on the Canadian side of the border. Eventually the sternwheelers became obsolete, as they could not longer compete with faster and more efficient railway travel.
The Kootenay River offers a myriad of recreational activities, from paddling exhilarating white water rapids to fly-fishing its backwater eddies and serene tree hung pools teeming with rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout.
Spend a day wandering around historic Fort Steele panning for gold on the banks of the river or retrace David Thompson’s portage at Kootenai Falls in Montana. Spectacular scenery and adventure can be found around every bend of this beautiful river.