The Koeye River is located on the remote mainland central coast of British Columbia, approximately 30 nautical miles south of Bella Bella, in Heiltsuk traditional territory (see map). This intact temperate coastal rainforest watershed lies within the Great Bear Rainforest and has immense ecological and cultural value.
The Koeye River is unique in that it's a large mainland river that empties directly into outer-coastal waters, rather than into an inlet or fjord. The river mouth is located on Fitz Hugh Sound, which is mostly protected from offshore swell by Calvert and Hunter Islands. However, the channel between these islands, Hakai Passage, is located directly across from the mouth of the Koeye. The ocean swells that issue through the passage and travel across the sound have created a wide golden sand beach in the small bay at the mouth of the river.
While most larger rivers have tidal flats and estuaries located at the river mouth, Koeye is different. The Koeye estuaries - a series of low lying islands and meadows surrounded by braids of brackish tidal streams - are located well above the river mouth, upstream of a narrow gorge.
Koeye River hosts runs of all five species of Pacific salmon. Pink, chum, and coho salmon spawn in the continuous gravel beds that underlie the first several miles of meandering river. Sockeye and chinook travel further upstream to allow their smolt to rear in the deep lakes that feed the river.
The Koeye Valley is a veritable eden for wildlife. Grizzly bears, found in some of the highest concentrations on the coast, make use of the estuary forage, the lush riparian berry patches, and the prodigious salmon runs. A pack of coastal wolves finds ideal denning habitat in the 18,000 hectares of intact old-growth forest that still stands tall from mountain ridge to riverbank. The forest is also home to cougars, mink, ermine (short-tail weasel), martin, porcupine, and deer.
Koeye's long sand beaches, located on the Pacific Flyway, are host to an annual migration of thousands of shorebirds. The diverse and pristine environments of the Koeye are ideal year-round habitat for many other birds, including bald eagles. A nearby rookery hosts several species of marine birds.
The nutrient rich embayment and estuarine waters are home to a diversity of invertebrate life, including Dunguness crab. The marine waters near the river host an abundance of marine mammals, including humpbacks whales, killer whales, and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Beyond its incredible ecological values, the river valley is also home to a number of important cultural sites that link the Heiltsuk closely to the land and river. Our stories, passed down through countless generations, teach us that seven villages once existed along the river between the mouth and the lakes.
Though younger than the occupation sites in nearby Namu, the well-known village site near the Koeye River mouth offers evidence of thousands of years of continuous occupation at Koeye. The presence of our ancestors can still be seen in the culturally modified trees found near ancient footpaths along the river.
More recently, the valley has supported trappers and a few hardy homesteaders. Evidence of their presence still exists at an old Norwegian homesite. There are also the remnants of an abandoned limestone quarry. Starting in 1952, limestone from Koeye was mined and loaded onto a barge and delivered monthly to nearby Ocean Falls, where it was used to neutralize the output from the pulp mill. For many years a mixed labour crew including Heiltsuk men worked the quarry at Koeye until the mill declined in the 1970s.
During the next two decades the valley was largely unoccupied. With the homesteaders and miners having gone the way of the villages that came before, the valley was devoid of human settlement for the first time in thousands of years.
The building of Koeye Lodge in the 1990s brought a new threat of commercial development to the area. The lodge never operated commercially, thanks in part to Heiltsuk opposition. Ownership has since been handed back into Heiltsuk hands.
In 2007 the Koeye Watershed was designated a conservancy area by the government of British Columbia. Qqs Projects Society has had a hand in developing a Heiltsuk management model for this important watershed.
Thanks to the overwhelming success of Koeye Camp, the spiritual link between the Koeye River and the Heiltsuk has been restored. Koeye is again an intrinsic part of Heiltsuk identity.