By any standards, the Fraser River embodies a natural and human heritage as magnificent, far reaching and significant as any other river in the world. It embraces the heartland of British Columbia’s ecological, social and economic diversity and brings to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System important features of Canada’s river heritage.
From its headwaters on the Pacific slope of the continental divide within Mount Robson Provincial Park, it flows along a remarkable 1375 km course to the ocean in the southwest corner of the province. The entire basin drains one third of the area of the province and is home to 2.4 million people – 63% of British Columbia’s population.
With the most productive salmon fishery in the world, the Fraser River has been a focal point in sustaining a comfortable lifestyle for centuries. For thousands of years, many First Nations occupied well-defined areas along the river benefiting from the fish, wildlife and vegetation associated with the river environment. In more recent times, First Nations were joined by explorers and settlers who similarly harvested the resources of the region using the river itself for its rich fishery, for transporting other resources and as a support for agriculture and community life.
With settlement, industries and urban areas grew along the river to the point where today the economic activity within the Fraser River Basin accounts for 80% of the provincial and 10% of the national gross domestic product.
With the Fraser River in the backyard of such a vast proportion of the provincial population, recreational activity associated with the river is also significant. Fishing, boating, rafting and a host of riverside activities are common throughout the river course depending on the availability of public access. Many parks in a variety of river environments provide a focus for recreational activity. As a scenic attraction, the Fraser River commands attention along many public byways including the Trans Canada and Yellowhead highways.
As the largest river in British Columbia, the Fraser River is well known. From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to its outlet in the Strait of Georgia, its 1375 km length traverses many of the typical landscapes and embraces much of the varied character of the province.
Certain segments of the river’s course are readily distinguished. The upper reaches of the river refers to the headwaters and Rocky Mountain segment upstream from Prince George, where the river flows through a broad, mountain-rimmed trench. From Prince George to Lytton, the river traverses the rolling hills and flatlands of the interior plateau following a more meandering course. The segment from Lytton to Hope passes through the Coast Mountains and contains the famous Fraser Canyon. At Hope, the river enters a broad flood plain extending 130 km to the coast and Vancouver.
The current Fraser River basin reflects a multitude of influences dating back over millions of years. From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, composed of ancient folded sedimentary rocks, the river follows the Rocky Mountain Trench to the Interior Plateau and mountain system made up of a much more complex pattern of younger volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Further south the river cuts through several large areas of flat-lying lava before entering the Coast Mountains, an area of more recent volcanic rocks. The lower valley is described as a coastal trough, with flat or gently dipping sedimentary rocks which have been filled in with material left by glaciers from three different glacial periods and material carried by the modern river. As a result, bedrock is buried to depths of 200 – 250 m below sea level.
Melting snow is the main source of the river resulting in a monthly flow that varies from over 7,000 cubic meters per second (cms) during the spring runoff to 850 cms during the winter. High silt content is an important characteristic giving the river a milky appearance in the upper reaches and a grayish brown colour near the mouth. The salt wedges (salt water from the ocean pushing its way under the fresh water up the river) and tidal action at the river mouth are more significant during periods of low flow. Annual silt loads are estimated to be 20 million tonnes of silt, clay and gravel, with 3.5 million tonnes being deposited annually in the lower reaches of the river valley and the remainder being carried into the Strait of Georgia. As a result of the silt shoreline habitat is abundant and rich farmlands have developed. However, the river channels require periodic dredging to maintain deep sea marine traffic.
Traversing the entire southern breadth of the province, it is not surprising that the Fraser River embraces a wide range of ecosystems supporting a high diversity of the plants and animals common to British Columbia. There are two components of the ecosystem diversity of the Fraser that are of special significance: wetlands and aquatic habitat. The wetlands of the Fraser River delta are the largest in British Columbia. The delta is an important staging area on the Pacific Flyway recording the highest density of wintering waterfowl and migrating shorebirds in British Columbia. More than 300 species of migratory and resident birds utilize the lower Fraser Valley. Other segments of the river, in the Interior Grasslands and Rocky Mountain Trench, are similarly important for the productive wetland habitat they provide, critical to a variety of mammals, birds, amphibians and insects.
Aquatic habitat is equally significant. The Fraser River system produces more salmon than any other river system in the world. Its vast network of lakes and tributaries provide rearing and spawning habitat to millions of salmon from all six species endemic to the Pacific drainage. Ten million salmon return each year to various parts of the Fraser River system. In addition, 29 other species of fish inhabit the river and 87 more are found in the estuary.
The Fraser River’s dominant impact on the development and life of British Columbia is as vividly apparent today as it was in the past. Throughout centuries of habitation, the ancestors of today’s First Nations established communities within clearly identified territories along the entire length of the river. Each group, distinct in its language and traditions, had a fundamental link to the river as a source of water, food, and spirituality. Plants and animals associated with the river environment provided the basis of life for these people and the river also provided a transportation link between them. Interior groups tended to be more nomadic than those people living in coastal areas where larger, more permanent settlements were common. Long before the coming of European settlement, the interior peoples relied heavily on the big game of the plateau region. However, increasingly, as conditions along the river evolved with time, the salmon became more abundant and the people grew more reliant on fish both as a food staple and as a resource for trade. A wealth of archaeological remains have been discovered in villages, cemeteries and camps which depict the life of these early people along the river.
Exploration associated with the fur trade provided the first European influence within the watershed. Simon Fraser’s 1808 explorations on behalf of the North West Company brought attention to the vast and rich territory beyond the Rocky Mountains. By 1827, the first fur trading post was established on the river at Fort Langley. It remained the centre of commerce and trade until 1858 when New Westminster was selected as the site for the capital of the mainland government.
Gold discoveries in the lower Fraser River Valley in 1858 and upriver in the Cariboo in 1861 stimulated a rapid increase in settlement and transportation along the river. Steamboat service was established up the river to Fort Hope and Fort Yale and connecting trails and roads were developed throughout the Fraser Valley. The influx of people necessitated the growth of agriculture, forestry and commercial services of all types. Fears of annexation by the United States, in response to the gold rush and sudden influx of immigrants, resulted in the formal establishment of the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1858. Soon afterwards, in 1866, the mainland colony joined with the Vancouver Island colony and Victoria became the capital.
Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway within the Fraser Valley began in 1881 and was extended all the way to the port of Vancouver by 1887. It quickly became the dominant form of transport for passengers and freight causing the decline of stern-wheeler service on the river. The river still represented a major obstacle to travel between urban centres in the lower valley until the construction of the first major bridge over the river in 1891.
The Fraser River has played a huge role in the development of British Columbia, its settlement, transportation and economy. Today the port of Vancouver is the largest in Canada and is the Pacific outlet for exports valued at $38 billion per year. The transportation corridors and urban growth associated with the Fraser River are the key to this modern economy.
As with other aspects, the breadth of recreational opportunities is also influenced by the scale of the Fraser River, its diverse character and its accessibility. In the upper reaches, recreation is focused on the undeveloped mountain character of its basin. The river itself is well known among canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts for its exhilarating white water and also provides outstanding opportunities for fishing. In the basin as a whole, people participate in a host of other backcountry activities such as hiking, camping, packpacking, nature study, hunting, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
As the Fraser River traverses the interior of the province, recreation is influenced by a more pastoral environment. In the urban centres of Prince George, Quesnel and Lytton and their surrounding rural landscapes, museums, artefacts, exhibits, and trails provide a wealth of opportunities for understanding the character and heritage of the region.
Below the community of Lytton, the river enters the scenic and historic Fraser Canyon. Recreation in this segment reflects the vast numbers of highway travellers who want to see the canyon and experience the power of the river. Visitors can take a day trip on one of the many rafting expeditions in the canyon, or at Hell’s Gate (the narrowest constriction in the canyon) commercial operators provide helicopter tours and cable car rides over the river. Picnic sites, parks, trails and viewpoints add to the public access along this dramatic stretch of river. The historic communities of Yale and Hope are also popular points of interest for many travellers.
In the lower Fraser valley and delta, day use activities often associated with parks, wildlife areas and trails adjacent to the river in both rural and urban environments provide a year round link to the river for the vast population of this area. Opportunities for picnicking, cycling, walking, bird watching, nature study and historical appreciation abound. Fishing and boating are also very popular.
Access: For much of its length the Fraser River is paralleled by some of British Columbia’s major highways. Along the Rocky Mountain Trench in the upper reaches of the river the Yellowhead Highway (#16) parallels the river into the city of Prince George. Between Prince George and Lytton the Cariboo Highway (#97) provides the major access with many side roads leading to specific access and recreation sites associated with the river. The community of Quesnel is located along the banks of the Fraser and provides river oriented activities and historical appreciation of the importance of the river to that community’s history. North of Williams Lake the highway follows the river more closely providing many views and direct access to the river over much of the distance to Prince George. The Marguerite ferry is an interesting historic access point along this section of the river.
From Lytton right to Vancouver the river is paralleled by the Trans Canada Highway. In the lower Fraser Valley, this highway follows the south shore while Highway #7 follows the north shore into Vancouver. Along this section of the river, passenger rail service follows the river through the Fraser Canyon and along the lower valley to Vancouver.
Visitors travelling by air to British Columbia land primarily at Vancouver International Airport which is located on the Fraser’s delta on an island between the main and the north channels. Other airports at smaller centres along the river, such as Prince George and Quesnel, also provide air access to visitors.
Services: Many provincial, regional and municipal parks and trails provide recreational access to the river throughout its length. Local tourism offices in the major urban centres along the river will respond to inquiries for specific detailed information on access, accommodation, facilities and activities.
Maps: National Topographic Series Maps (1:250,000) - 92 G,H,I,P,O; 93 A,B,G,H,I,J; 83 D,E. Available from: Canada Map Office, 615 Booth St., Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E9, Tel: (613) 952–7000 (http://maps.NRCan.gc.ca); and, Maps BC, Legislative Buildings, Victoria, BC, V8V 1X4.
Visitors traveling by air to British Columbia land primarily at Vancouver International Airport which is located on the Fraser’’s delta on an island between the main and the north channels. The City of Richmond is home to historic Steeveston Village, and a number of other sites highlighting the fascinating history of this area. Other airports at smaller centres along the river, such as Prince George and Quesnel, also provide air access to visitors.
Services, Permits and Regulations: BC Government licenses and permits are required throughout the basin for activities such as hunting and fishing. In addition, much of the land along the river is privately owned and public use and access is limited. Access to government information in a variety of Ministries is facilitated by a central assistance program called Enquiry BC (800-663-7867) which will put people in touch with specific programs and government offices throughout the province.
The Fraser Basin Council is an organization established to develop plans and coordinate management of activities within the Fraser Basin to maintain and improve the long term health and productivity of the river. Contact: Suite 1257 409 Granville St., Vancouver, BC V6C 1T2, Tel: (604) 605-3450. (www.fraserbasin.bc.ca)
Tourist/Recreation Information: Tourism British Columbia Tel. (800) 663–6000 (http://www.travel.bc.ca/)
Outdoor Recreation Council of BC #334 – 1367 West Broadway Ave. Vancouver, BC V6H 4A9 Tel: (604) 737–3058 (www.orcbc.ca)
National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819–994–2913, Fax 819–997–0835. E-mail address: email@example.com
BC Parks, 2nd Floor, 800 Johnson St Victoria, BC V8V 1X4 Tel: (250) 387–5002 (www.bcparks.com)
Strategic Forest Planning Section Forest Practices Branch Ministry of Forests, P.O. Box 9513 Stn. Prov Govt Victoria, BC V8W 9C2 Tel. (250) 387–6653
BC Protected Areas and BC Heritage Rivers Program (http://www.wcel.org/frbc/Part4/part4_2.htm)
Check out “www.fraserriverdiscovery.org” for a virtual tour of the lower Fraser.
For a wealth of information on the Historic Village of Steveston, BC, at the mouth of the Fraser, check out www.steveston.bc.ca, and www.tourism-richmond.com. The Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site , also located at the mouth of the Fraser, has an interesting website at www.parkscanada.gc.ca/cannery.
British Columbia, 1996. The Fraser. Public information document. Fisheries Branch, Min. of Environment, Lands & Parks. Victoria, BC.
Charrington, John A. 1992. Fraser Valley: A History. Harbour Publishing. Madeira Park, BC.
Hume, M. 1992. Run of the River. Newstar Publishing. Vancouver.
Watmough, D. 1992. The Discoverer’s Guide – Fraser River Delta: Exploring the Living River. Lone Pine Publishing. Edmonton
Wright, R.T. “Fraser River Odyssey: In Simon Fraser’s ‘Footsteps’to the Sea”. Explore magazine. No.16. pp. 6-16.
Finkelstein, Max, “Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie”, 2002, Natural Heritage Books
Waite, Don,” Fraser Canyon Story” (A Gold rush trail book), Big Country Books, 1988
Harris , Lorraine , Gold Along the Fraser , Big Country Books, 1984
Haig-Brown, Alan, and Rick Blacklaw (photographer) The Fraser River , Harbour, 1996