The Peace River Country is fortunate in this respect, for a large part of it lies on the Interior Plains of North America at a surprisingly low elevation.
Bulletin No. 48 of the BC Department of Mines and Petroleum Resources tells us of the geological formation and something of the surface, which either favor or hinder agricultural development. We should remember that even rough, broken country and steep slopes — even muskegs — might be developed to produce food in the future. If the growing world food shortage worsens, we may be obliged to use less profitable soils to maintain life.
Furthermore, if the urban sprawl in the Fraser Valley continues, and dam-reservoirs engulf more of the Okanagan Valley, the plains of the Peace Country may become the major food producing area of British Columbia.
These plains are also located in a uniquely favored position. True, the Rocky Mountains line our Western fringes. In most cases, in the path of the prevailing Westerly winds, such a formation would cause heavy precipitation on the seaward side and desert or semi-dessert conditions on the eastern side, as in the Western United States and parts of the Southern Cariboo.
The Rocky Mountains, however, instead of being a long and nearly straight range, have a bend in them reaching far east in the Jasper region. The interior plain nestles in that jog as in the curve of a bent arm. From the Hythe-Beaverlodge area you can look straight south to Jasper National Park, while from Dawson Creek one has only to climb to the top of the Bear Mountain Hills a couple of miles south of town to see the icy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, again to the south. Near Fort St. John the mountain ridge begins to bend northwestward. At Hudson’s Hope the mountains lie to the west. This mountain formation would not of itself prevent a semi-desert if the winds were not affected by another fortunate phenomenon.
To the north, the great plain extends away to the Arctic region with little or no mountain formation separating it from the cold ocean. Therefore a drift of cooler air flows down this natural air-drainage pathway into the Peace River country. The air streams from the west, warmed over the Japan Current of the Pacific, do not deposit all of their moisture on the West Coast side. They flow over the mountains to meet the cool Arctic drift which, especially in summer, may be bearing a considerable amount of moisture picked up over the lakes and muskegs of the Territories. Rain or snow will again be precipitated in most years over the great inland plains of the Peace, sufficient at least to grow lush grasses and usually cereal crops. An observer will notice how many times the crop-saving thunderstorms move in from the South, formed on the cold sides of the Rockies where they intercept the Arctic drift.
The Rockies are pierced to the west by several low passes — the Pine, Peace, Sifton and Laurier Passes. West winds coming through these natural portals have lost less of their moisture, thus contributing to a greater rain and snowfall.
Another phenomenon of airflow also contributes to agriculture — the Chinook Wind. This pleasant interlude in the winter is usually heralded by a Chinook arch, a clear arc of sky under a heavy mauve-gray or greenish cloud formation in the southwest. This marks an area where a strong, warm Pacific wind is being thrust up over the mountains, vaporizing the clouds. The higher it goes in clearing the mountains the rarer the air becomes. Having cleared the peaks, the air begins its flow down the eastward side. As it’s density and pressure increases, it becomes warmer. As it flows across the plains, the temperature may rise from 50o below to forty or even sixty above in an hour or so, more slowly if the push from the west is less strong. [Note: This phenomenon occurs elsewhere, of course, but always on the lee-side of a high mountain range in the mid-latitudes. In Europe, it is called a Foen Wind.]
The snow begins to soften, then to turn to trickles of water. Much of it sublimates into invisible water vapor from the ice-stage without producing fog. Such conditions may prevail for a very few hours to several days. Therefore in most winters there comes a time when the snow all but disappears, and the animals can paw down to their natural foods, the grasses and ripened pea-vines. A sudden drift of Arctic air may freeze a crust on the snow to gash the legs of the elk, moose and deer.
Where the buffalo could feed all winter, as they still do in Wood Buffalo Park, ranch stock can do the same. The Indian could live on the buffalo, and the white man can ranch today. If the Chinook persists until all the snow is gone and a hard freeze follows, certain plants may suffer. Thus clovers, winter wheat and some grasses may be destroyed or severely set back.
Another geographical feature favors agriculture — the latitude. Summer days are hours longer than in the south and even the sunset-to-sunrise time is lighter. Under such conditions plants come to ripen several days earlier than in the southern prairies.
Finally our geological history favors agriculture. Over eons of time several invasions of the Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico covered the area. Deep layers of soil were deposited underlying bedrock, in some places up to 2000 or more feet deep. This alone would not have guaranteed an arable soil, except that the last glaciers — the Keewatin and the Wisconsin — pushed up ridges of soil that dammed back the flow of the melt-waters to form vast lakes. The Peace River valley was once occupied by one of theses lakes, now called Lake Peace. Once its level stood at 2750 feet above sea level. Water eroded sandstone rocks that were once along its old shoreline can be seen in many places. There are also conglomerate rocks of rice-grain-like, wave-polished beach gravel, now consolidated into slabs of varying thickness on the Pouce Coupe and Bear Hills. Where ancient melt-water streams bore the surface soil into the post-glacial lakes, great level beds of delta soil formed. The bed of one such lake can be seen in the fields of Rose Prairie, North Pine, Fort St. John and from Rolla away over to Spirit River and beyond to Grimshaw and Peace River in Alberta. On the Alberta side, the old seabed is as flat as the prairies of Manitoba’s Red River and stretch as far as the eye can see from the Burnt and Saddle Hills to the far northern horizon. On the other side lies the Grande Prairie, stretching from Hythe far east past Valleyview, High Prairie and McLennan.
Left-over bits of the old glacial lakes exist as Charlie, Swan, Horse, Flying Shot, Saskatoon, Bear Lakes and many smaller ones — typically shallow, mud-bottomed lakes with poor drainage. The muskegs that lie between these lakes have themselves been lakes in earlier times, but are now almost transformed into grassy plains.
Where muskegs and forests were burned off in the vast fires, set by Indians to increase grazing land or by natural causes, the soil may be thin. But much of the fertile soil still exists, as seen in the dark loams of the Rolla, Grande Prairie and other districts.
Still another natural feature contributes to agricultural possibilities. The Parsnip and Finlay Rivers join head-on to the west of the main ranges of mountains to form the Peace. The Peace River has from its very source a strong wide flow that has cut a deep trench across the beds of the old glacial lake. In times past it must have been much, much wider than it is now. Through some natural chance — some have said a fault in the bed-rock crust far below — the Peace River runs almost directly west to east across the plain, cutting its bed ever deeper and deeper. The underlying soils are light in color, so that they reflect back the sun from the north side into the valley forming a heat trap. Many rivers drain the uplands into this trench carrying rich topsoil into deltas and spreading it over the bottoms of quiet backwaters and shallow edges where the current is less strong. Due to the rock strata in the soil, the river has met resistance from time to time against further cutting, giving time for thick layers of rich alluvial soil to accumulate. Then having once more sawed through a resistant rock layer, the river leaves a flat or bench. The benches are high and have a well-drained surface, but are well provided with seepage water in the sand and gravel strata below. Such flats occur at Hudson’s Hope, Halfway, Cache Creek (Bear Flat), Taylor, and an older one at Baldonnel above Taylor, Dunvegan, and Shaftesbury above the nearly right-angle bend in the river at Peace River Town.
Here was where the old forts and trading posts were located and their gardens became famous. Long before a leaf has broken its sheath on the uplands the cottonwoods and aspens in the valley are well into the stage of infant, emerald leaf. Crops expected in regions far south in the United States come to maturity in the average year. This favors a market-garden industry that would be greatly enlarged in a county like Japan.
In one famous garden cultivated by the Beatties at Gold Bar, tomatoes sown directly into the ground ripened in a season that has many more frost-free days than the average, both in spring and fall. The tender squash, melons, cucumbers and corn were grown in such quantity that they were thrown in free in boat-loads of the staple vegetables destined for sale from Prince George in the south to Fort Liard in the north.