Solo Paddling on the Fraser, from Rosedale to the Port Mann
Every year, for the past few years now, I have done a long solo trip on the
Fraser River. Two years ago, I put in at Fort Langley Park and paddled 45
kilometers to Gladstone Park in south Vancouver near the Knight Street
Last summer, I launched at Dewdney Regional Park upstream of Mission and
paddled 58 kilometers to Maquabeak Park just under the Port Mann Bridge.
year, I decided to do an overnight on the river.
In planning this trip, I used Canoe Trips British Columbia by Jack
The Vancouver Paddler by Glen Stedham. Chart number 3488 provided
navigational aid for some, but not all, of the river. I had also
of the maps from the Stedham book. My plan was to put in at the Rosedale
Bridge on the Harrison-Aggassiz Highway and paddle approximately 90
kilometers to the Port Mann. On route, I would camp at Crescent Island.
On a foggy, cool Saturday morning during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend,
my wife Marie and I drove down the Trans Canada through the Fraser Valley.
Marie graciously agreed to drive me to the put in and pick me up at the end
the trip, thus eliminating the need for a shuttle. To reach the Rosedale
we took Exit 135 to Harrison on Highway 9 north. The bridge spans the
about five minutes after turning off the Trans Canada.
It is possible to put in on the north side of the bridge. In fact,
launching on the
north side was my first choice as it offers direct access to the main
the river. But after driving across the bridge, turning, then following the
dirt road to the water, the best put in we could find was a sloping
leading down to a narrow, rocky, steeply inclined beach--not the best choice
19-foot kayak. We turned around, drove back over the bridge, and started
unloading my gear on the long, flat, gravel beach at Ferry Park located on
With the sun yet to fully show itself and a light wind blowing, my hands
getting cold as I packed my gear into the kayak. But as I contemplated the
I felt icicles form in the pit of my stomach, not on my fingers. Chart data
that water levels on this section of the Fraser drop off dramatically in the
peaking in June. But this does not mean that the current grinds to a halt.
galloping rush of water surged past the gravel beach. Broken trees floating
mid-channel hurtled by, carried along helplessly, it seemed, toward
Lower down the river broadens, deepens, and the current relaxes. But the
Rosedale bridge was the most easterly point at which I had ever put in to
Fraser. My research advised that on this stretch of the river I would
boils, standing waves, and whirlpools. While these phenomena of fast
water may represent opportunities for recreation for white water paddlers,
present hazards for a fully loaded sea kayak. The strong current would also
mean that there would be less room for error in trying to avoid these
But then I looked around and remembered why I had come this far up the
Fraser. As the fog lifted and the sun climbed higher into the sky, it
down upon a sumptuous display of autumn colours. The cloudless sky was
brilliantly blue and the cool air, tinged with the musty essence of fall,
charged with hope and renewal. Here was the river that First Nations
lived on, that dazzled the senses of the fur traders and gold seekers. Here
the river we had before we blighted it with industry and farms.
Roughly 500 meters downstream from the bridge, an island splits the river
two channels. To reach the main channel on the north side and to avoid
swept into the side channel to the south, I would have to ferry past the
Or, in other words, to paddle as hard and as fast as I could toward the
as soon as I launched. This is the disadvantage of using Ferry Park's
gravel beach as a put in. It would also be the first real challenge of the
snapped on my spray skirt, waved goodbye to my wife, and pushed the kayak
into the river.
Immediately I felt the river's grasp. From the beach Marie watched me ferry
across and said later that the kayak was "bouncing all over the place." It
driving a car on an icy street: a lot of lateral sliding while trying to
stay a steady
course, complicated by the feeling that you could spin out of control at any
moment. I began to seriously question my decision not to wear a wet suit.
five minutes of furious paddling that seemed considerably longer, I watched
well treed embankment on the north side of the river move quickly, ever so
quickly, perpendicular across the bow.
But soon I was far enough past the island that I could turn the bow down
was on my way. Now the task was to use whatever river reading skills I had
navigate safely around the hazards while trying to follow the river's main
From the put in at Ferry Park to its confluence with the Sumas River, a
of about 30 kilometers, the river braids around gravel bars and islands. By
watching ahead and simply letting the kayak run with the current, it wasn't
difficult to stay with the primary flow of the river. Where larger islands
appeared mid-channel, I found that the river tended to flow around them to
As far as the river's hazards are concerned, the first hour or so after
proved to be the most challenging. By keeping a sharp eye off the bow, I
usually see rapids, of which I saw two or three small sets, and standing
time to take evasive action. But there were situations in which I had only
seconds to first make a decision on how to maneuver around something and
then to get the kayak to respond in time. Running aground on a submerged
gravel bar was my biggest worry. But broad stretches of riffled water
snagged trees provided warning of these hidden hazards.
While paddling this tumultuous stretch of river, a line from Jack Wainwright
book kept running through my mind: the Fraser "is considered an easy river"
because all of its hazards are avoidable. The hazards are avoidable, it's
but I wouldn't call the Fraser an easy river. I found that because I was
fast and was, of necessity, so focused on what was coming at me, I couldn't
relax and enjoy the scenery. The current, the cold water, and the
this part of the river would have made a capsize a dangerous event. I
imagine paddling here during the high water months, April to August.
Ironically, on that jag of river where I could have benefited most from a
paddled without one--or more specifically, paddled off the chart that I had.
3488 covers the Fraser from where it is joined by the Harrison River to
Island. Upstream of the Harrison, the river is apparently uncharted. The
problem of navigating the turbulent waters at the Harrison-Fraser confluence
without a chart was one that I had spent some time, usually late at night,
about. But as it turned out, by simply going with the flow, I ended up in a
channel south of the confluence and was shielded from its effects by islands
An hour and forty minutes after putting in, I reached Island 22. Suddenly,
river was a commotion of boats and boat trailers. I had seen salmon jumping
my approach to Island 22. Now fishermen were everywhere, in all types of
boats, in hip waders casting from the gravel bars. Perched on a tree branch
jutting out of the water, a solitary eagle scanned the river, getting ready
to try its
luck. By Island 22, the river had slowed down considerably and the most
paddling of the trip was behind me. An hour later, I pulled out of the
lunch at Strawberry Island, immediately adjacent to Dewdney Regional Park.
had traveled approximately 38 kilometers in under three hours.
Reaching Dewdney Regional Park represented a watershed, so to speak. Here
the braiding, frenetic strands of rushing water were but a memory as the
broadens, flattens, and settles into its final descent to the Pacific. In
kilometers tides would begin to push up the river, slowing, stopping, and
down, even reversing the Fraser's heady flow. Here I was on familiar
had paddled this route before. Re-energized after a quick lunch and a walk
through the splendid fall colours, I was ready for the final leg of that day
journey: through Mission, past Matsqui Island, and on to Crescent Island. I
eagerly nudged the kayak off the sandy beach and back into the water.
With the tide now rising, the free ride the current had provided all morning
over. I reached Crescent Island two and a half hours and approximately 20
kilometers after leaving Strawberry Island. I was tired and could think
setting up camp and boiling a pot of tea. But first I had to land.
was formed by the collision of the Fraser and the Stave rivers. Where the
entered, the Fraser was jolted and mixed. Slowed down, it deposited some of
burden of silt, which acted as a further drag on the river, and more silt
deposited. The river is still building Crescent Island, and a long shallow
extends off the eastern point. To avoid getting stuck on this silt shelf,
learned the hard way, it's necessary to land on the northern side of the
But once landed, I could relax. An eerie assembly of escaped boom logs and
decaying trees mired in the silt off the point provided a resting place for
of cormorants. Mount Baker shimmered on the horizon. The river, now fully
engaged by the tide, resembled a long flat lake and glistened in the
mid-afternoon sun. As I set up my tent on the expansive silt beach, I
deer tracks leading from the nearby forest down to the water. An old Indian
prayer I once knew came to mind, thanking the Creator for beauty to the
the south, east and west: beauty all around. I sat in my folding canvas
called Marie to tell her to expect me at the Port Mann bridge, now only 30
kilometers or so downstream, just after lunch the next day.
A smothering morning fog forced a change in plans. Fog so thick that it
to congeal around my tent and chair, so thick that it completely obscured
river just a few meters away, had formed overnight. I had my breakfast,
camp and loaded my gear, and waited. I knew that the longer I was delayed
leaving the island, the greater the chance I would get caught in the rising
afternoon tide as I paddled the last stretch of river home. To miss the
tide, I had
planned to depart Crescent Island by 9:00am at the latest. But it was after
before I caught my first glimpse of blue sky above the mist. I didn't put
I met Marie at Macquabeak Park shortly after 3:00pm. It had taken roughly
same amount of time to paddle the 30 kilometers from Crescent Island to the
Port Mann as it did to paddle the 60 kilometers from the Rosedale bridge to
Crescent Island. On route I had used the large islands I passed as markers
my incremental progress: Macmillan, where I had to pause in the water to
the Albion ferry to cross in front of me, Barnston, then finally Douglas
Crawling on the water against the oncoming tide, I had plenty of time to
the remains of decrepit vessels tied up at rotting piers, rusting iron works
at the water's edge, decaying shacks with boarded up windows, and all manner
I still remember, about twenty years ago now, the very first time I saw the
I was living in Alberta, working as a writer in a country and western radio
and had decided to drive to Vancouver one summer for my annual two-week
vacation. I left home after work and drove through the night. Just as the
was emerging from over the mountainous horizon, I was roaring down the
freeway approaching the Port Mann bridge. I still recall my utter
Port Mann was the longest bridge I had ever seen in my life. And underneath
shimmering in the pastel light of daybreak, was this moving, living entity,
immense flow of muddy water.
I had an encounter with the spirit of the river on that summer morning long
passed, one that I've never forgotten. Now I seek out that spirit in a sea
Admittedly, the life of the river is harder to discern with scrapyards and
mills scarring its embankments, but the Fraser still lives. It has power to
transcend our transgressions. Next year, perhaps I'll venture further up
put in at Hope. But for this year, with my camping gear put away, my
trip on the Fraser is how my touring season ended.
Writer: Douglas Ekelund