Famed B.C. marine writer and photographer Alan Haig-Brown calls it “the defining river of British Columbia.”
As South Surrey’s Carol Blacklaws relates in the introduction to her and her husband Rick’s latest book – The Fraser: River of Life and Legend (Image West Productions) – its watersheds comprise a land area the size of Great Britain, providing a home for almost three million people.
At 1,375 kilometres, it’s also the longest river in B.C., the 11th longest in all of Canada.
To navigate its entire length would require an investment of considerable time and money, not to mention an enthusiasm for wilderness adventure involving (in the case of the Bridge River or Hell’s Gate rapids, at least) physical danger.
But the armchair explorer with a yen to experience the breathtaking grandeur of the river in its different sections and moods can now travel it comfortably, page by page, guided by the detailed knowledge of the Blacklaws, who previously teamed for In The Footsteps of Alexander Mackenzie, Archaeology and the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail.
In the new, profusely-illustrated, volume, Rick’s colour photos interpret not only the character of the river itself, but also the character of the people who live alongside it – many friendly portraits of farmers and river guides, log-cabin dwellers, First Nations residents, commercial fisher-folk, archaeologists and environmental scientists put an agreeably human face on the geography.
“It’s a river that has given opportunities to many people – there’s a gratitude for the river that’s entrenched in the culture,” Carol told Peace Arch News.
It’s a recurring theme in her free-flowing, often poetic text, which, as in her earlier book, evocatively melds informative fact with personal observation and experience.
As Carol recounted previously in In The Footsteps of Alexander Mackenzie, her life of adventure began some 40 years ago when she, as a recent SFU graduate, became a field assistant to Rick, an archaeologist working to locate sites in the rugged wilds of central B.C.
They fell in love and married, and her life changed irrevocably. As she explains in the introduction to the new book, where some marriage partners might expect a diamond and a romantic dinner on their 10th anniversary, she was not too surprised to be treated to a one-day raft trip down the Fraser from Yale.
Even drenched after clinging to the raft through the terrifying trip through the Hell’s Gate and Sailor Bar rapids, she was nonetheless entranced by the experience.
“That first day on the river unleashed a passion that would see me return year after year,” she writes in the book, noting that her narrative is actually a compilation of many trips she and Rick have taken since, all the way from the seldom-seen upper reaches in the Rockies near the Alberta border down to Steveston and the waters of Georgia Strait.
Some were academic trips and expeditions, she said, some were at the invitation of First Nations communities, and in others she and Rick travelled with students, friends and family.
“There’s not a lot of access to much of the river – you have to get on the river to see it,” she said.
“We’ve been gifted,” Rick acknowledged.
“We’ve met people on the Fraser who have become friends and provided us access to cross their land – we’ve been given a gift of passion and adventure.”
One of the reasons to create the book, Carol said, is the realization that, for many living here in the Fraser River estuary in the Lower Mainland, the river is taken for granted, something merely to be crossed by traffic.
“People refer to crossing the Alex Fraser Bridge – not the river itself,” she said. “But when you go up into the canyon, you find some of the most spectacular places in the world; places that should be preserved as historic sites, which is something the aboriginal community is very concerned with.”
Not only are some places absolutely unchanged from when Simon Fraser made his arduous 1808 trip down the river in search of a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean; there is also much evidence of aboriginal communities dating back thousands of years before that, she said.
The book also touches on some still-sensitive environmental and land rights topics, such as the 1950s damming of the Nechako River, which once drained into the Fraser, for the Alcan Kemano project and related power generation – resulting in, Carol writes, “an enormous, irreversible impact on agriculture, wildlife, eco-systems and fish.”
Compounding the comparative neglect of the river is the hazy geography of most urban dwellers – when travelling eastward they often believe they are looking at the Fraser when, after a point, they are actually following the course of the Thompson River, Carol said.
Rick relates that his fascination with the Fraser began with Haig-Brown, with whom he ultimately co-authored an earlier book on the river, the prize-winning The Fraser River.
“I originally wanted to do something on the Yukon River,” he said. “We were standing at the quay in New Westminster, and he said ‘Well, Rick, look five feet from where you are – the Fraser River is largely undocumented, and yet it’s the greatest salmon river in the world.’”
While most people know something about the river in their own backyard, “they don’t connect all the dots,” Rick said.
Above all, the couple hopes, their book will eventually help in expanding that knowledge – and perhaps encourage others to become as passionate about the Fraser as they are.
“I’ve come to the realization that you can’t get upset about people not knowing – we’re still a very young province,” Rick added.