Solo the Fraser

Author: [ trailpeak ]   Contact Author: trailpeakThu Dec 11 17:31:13 UTC 2003

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 lower 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 Bridge. Last summer, I launched at Dewdney Regional Park upstream of Mission and paddled 58 kilometers to Maquabeak Park just under the Port Mann Bridge. This year, I decided to do an overnight on the river.

In planning this trip, I used Canoe Trips British Columbia by Jack Wainwright and The Vancouver Paddler by Glen Stedham. Chart number 3488 provided navigational aid for some, but not all, of the river. I had also photocopied some 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 of the trip, thus eliminating the need for a shuttle. To reach the Rosedale bridge, we took Exit 135 to Harrison on Highway 9 north. The bridge spans the Fraser 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 channel of the river. But after driving across the bridge, turning, then following the muddy dirt road to the water, the best put in we could find was a sloping embankment leading down to a narrow, rocky, steeply inclined beach--not the best choice for a 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 the south side.

With the sun yet to fully show itself and a light wind blowing, my hands were getting cold as I packed my gear into the kayak. But as I contemplated the river, I felt icicles form in the pit of my stomach, not on my fingers. Chart data indicate that water levels on this section of the Fraser drop off dramatically in the fall after peaking in June. But this does not mean that the current grinds to a halt. A galloping rush of water surged past the gravel beach. Broken trees floating in mid-channel hurtled by, carried along helplessly, it seemed, toward oblivion.

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 the Fraser. My research advised that on this stretch of the river I would encounter boils, standing waves, and whirlpools. While these phenomena of fast flowing water may represent opportunities for recreation for white water paddlers, they 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 hazards.

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 gleamed 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, seemed charged with hope and renewal. Here was the river that First Nations peoples lived on, that dazzled the senses of the fur traders and gold seekers. Here was the river we had before we blighted it with industry and farms.

Roughly 500 meters downstream from the bridge, an island splits the river into two channels. To reach the main channel on the north side and to avoid being swept into the side channel to the south, I would have to ferry past the island. Or, in other words, to paddle as hard and as fast as I could toward the other side as soon as I launched. This is the disadvantage of using Ferry Park's spacious gravel beach as a put in. It would also be the first real challenge of the trip. I 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 was like 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. For five minutes of furious paddling that seemed considerably longer, I watched the 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 river: I was on my way. Now the task was to use whatever river reading skills I had to navigate safely around the hazards while trying to follow the river's main channel. From the put in at Ferry Park to its confluence with the Sumas River, a distance 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 overly difficult to stay with the primary flow of the river. Where larger islands and bars appeared mid-channel, I found that the river tended to flow around them to the south.

As far as the river's hazards are concerned, the first hour or so after launching proved to be the most challenging. By keeping a sharp eye off the bow, I could usually see rapids, of which I saw two or three small sets, and standing waves in 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 littered with snagged trees provided warning of these hidden hazards.

While paddling this tumultuous stretch of river, a line from Jack Wainwright 's 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 true, but I wouldn't call the Fraser an easy river. I found that because I was moving so fast and was, of necessity, so focused on what was coming at me, I couldn't fully relax and enjoy the scenery. The current, the cold water, and the remoteness of this part of the river would have made a capsize a dangerous event. I couldn't 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 chart, I paddled without one--or more specifically, paddled off the chart that I had. Chart 3488 covers the Fraser from where it is joined by the Harrison River to Crescent 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, thinking 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 and gravel bars.

An hour and forty minutes after putting in, I reached Island 22. Suddenly, the river was a commotion of boats and boat trailers. I had seen salmon jumping on 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 difficult paddling of the trip was behind me. An hour later, I pulled out of the water for lunch at Strawberry Island, immediately adjacent to Dewdney Regional Park. I 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 river broadens, flattens, and settles into its final descent to the Pacific. In another few kilometers tides would begin to push up the river, slowing, stopping, and further down, even reversing the Fraser's heady flow. Here I was on familiar waters; I 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 's 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 was over. I reached Crescent Island two and a half hours and approximately 20 kilometers after leaving Strawberry Island. I was tired and could think only of setting up camp and boiling a pot of tea. But first I had to land. Crescent Island was formed by the collision of the Fraser and the Stave rivers. Where the Stave entered, the Fraser was jolted and mixed. Slowed down, it deposited some of its burden of silt, which acted as a further drag on the river, and more silt was deposited. The river is still building Crescent Island, and a long shallow shelf extends off the eastern point. To avoid getting stuck on this silt shelf, as I learned the hard way, it's necessary to land on the northern side of the point.

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 a colony 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 noticed 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 north, to the south, east and west: beauty all around. I sat in my folding canvas chair and 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 seemed to congeal around my tent and chair, so thick that it completely obscured the river just a few meters away, had formed overnight. I had my breakfast, struck camp and loaded my gear, and waited. I knew that the longer I was delayed in 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 9:00 before I caught my first glimpse of blue sky above the mist. I didn't put in until after 10:00am.

I met Marie at Macquabeak Park shortly after 3:00pm. It had taken roughly the 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 of my incremental progress: Macmillan, where I had to pause in the water to allow the Albion ferry to cross in front of me, Barnston, then finally Douglas Island. Crawling on the water against the oncoming tide, I had plenty of time to observe the remains of decrepit vessels tied up at rotting piers, rusting iron works sagging at the water's edge, decaying shacks with boarded up windows, and all manner of industry.

I still remember, about twenty years ago now, the very first time I saw the Fraser. I was living in Alberta, working as a writer in a country and western radio station, 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 sun was emerging from over the mountainous horizon, I was roaring down the freeway approaching the Port Mann bridge. I still recall my utter amazement: the Port Mann was the longest bridge I had ever seen in my life. And underneath it, shimmering in the pastel light of daybreak, was this moving, living entity, this 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 kayak. Admittedly, the life of the river is harder to discern with scrapyards and lumber mills scarring its embankments, but the Fraser still lives. It has power to transcend our transgressions. Next year, perhaps I'll venture further up river and put in at Hope. But for this year, with my camping gear put away, my two-day trip on the Fraser is how my touring season ended.

Writer: Douglas Ekelund Coquitlam, BC

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