Canada’s most remorseless torrent, the hurtling, roaring Fraser seems hostile to man and all his works. Yet Fraser salmon support a huge fishing industry; Fraser silt has created one of our richest farming areas; and Fraser gold attracted the men whose descendants built British Columbia

HUGH MACLENNAN November 21 1959


Canada’s most remorseless torrent, the hurtling, roaring Fraser seems hostile to man and all his works. Yet Fraser salmon support a huge fishing industry; Fraser silt has created one of our richest farming areas; and Fraser gold attracted the men whose descendants built British Columbia

HUGH MACLENNAN November 21 1959


Rivers of Canada

Canada’s most remorseless torrent, the hurtling, roaring Fraser seems hostile to man and all his works. Yet Fraser salmon support a huge fishing industry; Fraser silt has created one of our richest farming areas; and Fraser gold attracted the men whose descendants built British Columbia


NO EASTERNER, least of all one from the small, mature and coherent province of Nova Scotia, is ever likely to feel at home beside the Fraser River. It is alien to everything in his background, and so is its land. Great men have passed through its story, but they did not grow out of the country on which, for brief moments, they partially imposed their wills. Wild and wonderful experiences have been recorded in some of the towns along the canyon and up tributaries like the Thompson, the Lillooet and the Quesnel, but some of those towns are ghosts today and the descendants of the men who once thronged them live elsewhere. It took the Swiss centuries to establish a real, human relationship with the Alps. It will take Canadians at least half as long to do the same with the Rockies.

This is the most exciting country in Canada, and I don’t see how anyone could visit it without longing to return. Its beauty makes you catch your breath. But it was a westerner, Bruce Hutchison, who remarked that the beauty of the most spectacular parts of the Fraser is that of a nightmare. This is the most savage of all the major rivers of North America.

The Fraser’s total length is eight hundred and fifty miles, its course the shape of the letter S drawn by a man in delirium tremens. It rises at 52° 45' north latitude in two small branches fed by Mount Robson’s glacier just west of the continental divide, and the moment these feeder streams unite, they find a course in which to run. There in the absolute wilderness of the northern Rockies the drama of the Fraser begins.

Though the ultimate destination lies hundreds of miles to the southwest, the Fraser begins its career by charging northwest in a wide, wavering curve along the Rocky Mountain trench. After about two hundred miles, the rushing waters encounter the northern spur of the Cariboo Mountains, sweep in a fierce arc around them, then plunge directly south. Twisting furiously, with only a few brief interludes of relative calm, the Fraser roars four hundred miles down to the little town of Hope, B.C., which began its existence as a Hudson's Bay Company post and was well named, as so many of those posts were, when one considers what awaited a traveler going north before the roads were built. At Hope the river at last breaks out of its mountain trap.

To the geographer, what happens here is one of the most exciting natural spectacles in Canada. Within a mile the entire character of the river changes and this tyrannosaurus of a stream turns sweet and gentle. In a broad valley shining under the sun, with a width about the same as the St. John below Fredericton, the Fraser winds calmly through the loveliest farming valley in the land. The air is balmy,

the cattle as sleek as in a Cambridgeshire meadow, the snow' peaks Olympian in the safe distance. During these last 80 miles the river traverses most of settled British Columbia, for it is in this beautiful corner, and in the twin cities at the estuary, that the bulk of British Columbians live. At the end the Fraser is like old King Lear with the rage gone. But before the ocean swallows it, receiving its water through a surprisingly small delta, the river makes one final assertion of its true character. For miles it stains the clean brine of the Georgia Strait with the dirty yellow silt it has torn out of the mountains all the way from the top of the Cariboo to the canyon’s end at Hope.

“If a river could flow' on the moon,” 1 thought as 1 flew over the black canyon, “it would probably look like this.”

The idea is not so far-fetched as it sounds, because from twenty thousand feet a lot of the land around the central Fraser looks just as chaotic and devoid of purpose as the moon’s surface seen through a telescope. Those peaks which inspire you when you stare up at them from the green bottom of a friendly valley are harsh, barren ridges of rock where nothing can live. The valleys where the elk browse and the little streams cascade are cruel

scars. From the air the Rocky Mountains are seldom beautiful.

Yet the air is the best place to study the Fraser if you want to understand the logic of its course. On the ground, traveling that fantastic highway which has grown out of the old Cariboo Road, the river seems to be coming at you from all directions and the road beside it twists like a spiral stair so that on a dull day, without the sun to tell you your course, you often don’t know whether you are traveling north or south. But from the air the twists in the river are seen to be perfectly natural.

The problem of every river is to reach the sea by the shortest possible route, and this may vary from a gentle winding in a set direction to a tortured course through every point in the compass until the goal is reached. It all depends on the terrain. The Fraser’s terrain is the worst of any major river in America, possibly of any in the world, and so is its problem.

From the air you see how it solves it. As all of its course save the final 80 miles lies in a mountain labyrinth where peaks and ranges jostle each other, the Fraser must outflank ridge after ridge, and in some places bore its way through sheer walls of rock. From the air you see it like a very yellow, very thin snake that looks as

though it had died after having had a convulsion in a rock trap. From the air there is no life in it. and it does not seem like a river at all.

On the ground there is life in it all right, and life in the region, too. Here the colors are so bold and wonderful—sage green, orange of sandstone, viridian of fir and hemlock, blue of translucent skies. Wimbledon green on the rare benches where the cattle graze — that a visitor from the East feels he has been translated into a larger, brighter, more exciting existence. The wild flowers are lovely along the Fraser, the wind sounds as though the mountains were breathing, the dawns and sunsets arc such that you can only stare at them in silence. Then you look down the steep trench — in places you look

down thousands of feet — and you see the intruder. That furious frothing water scandalously yellow against the green — where did it come from and how did it get here?

This savage thing! On all major rivers you expect the occasional turbulence, and you assume that all mountain streams arc cataracts. But rivers like the St. Lawrence quickly level off after their rapids, and mountain streams like the Kicking Horse are shallow and short. The Fraser is neither short nor shallow. It is a hundred miles longer than the Rhine, it is one of the deepest rivers in North America and it flows with cataract force for more than six hundred miles with only a few interludes of relative quiet. In a sense the Fraser does not flow at all: it seethes along with whirl-

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it roars like an ocean storm but ocean storms peter out and the Fraser's roar goes on forever"

pools so fierce that a log going down it may circle the same spot for days as though caught in a liquid merry-goround. It roars like an ocean storm, but ocean storms peter out and the Fraser's roar is forever.

This is the most remorseless force of nature in Canada, and its effect on the person who travels beside it is curious. As you drive north in your car you twist for hour after hour around one hairpin bend after another. Some of these curves

around abutments of the cliff can turn the knees of a height-shy traveler to water. Í am glad that I was able to travel from l ytton to Lillooet before the road was made a super highway past Yale, past Spuzzum and Boston Bar, up

through Lytton to Lillooet that curving highway takes you, sometimes through little tunnels in the cliff itself, once or twice in a hairpin twist with an unguarded edge and a drop of thousands of feet straight down—the road is as exciting as the river itself. You remember that in some of those towns, now quiet and half alive, thousands of desperate men used to live as dangerously as soldiers in war when they panned this river for gold. A little beyond Lytton the road leaves the river, and if you wish to follow the water you must leave your car and take to the Pacific Great Eastern railway. Miles to the north, the road and the river join once more at Macalister.

All this time and all these miles the Fraser has been working on you. Sometimes you are so close to the water that its yellow malevolence boils into your subconscious, but most of the time you are so high that it seems as static as it does from the air. It is perpetually the same, perpetually yellow and perpetually an intruder into that gigantic scene. Almost never does it seem to belong where it is. Yet it is there, and after you have spent several days beside it, the Fraser intrudes into yourself also, and you are apt to see it in your sleep.

The Fraser River, which seems absolutely hostile to man and to all his works, has been as important to British Columbia as the St. Lawrence has been to Quebec. This is another of the wonderful facts about it. In his classic book on the river. Bruce Hutchison argues that the Fraser has practically created the province. So, in a sense, it has, but in a manner awe-inspiring to people from quieter regions.

Fraser salmon, which supported an Indian culture long before the white man came, today gives British Columbia a richer fishing industry than that of the three Maritime provinces combined. The life-cycle of the sockeye salmon is one of those natural dramas so suggestive that the very symbolism of it cuts too close to the human knuckle for comfort. Everyone knows about the fish ladders at Hell’s Gate, about the river literally bulging with life when the big runs come in, about the tributaries turning bloodred as the fish expire while giving life to a new generation, about the bears that wade into the shallows to eat them, about the males fighting with each other for the privilege of death beside the females of their choice, about the stench that pollutes the wilderness when the bodies decompose. In the upper reaches the salmon are too far gone in the death process to be eaten by humans, and the great catches are made in the sea when they are bright and strong swimming into the estuary, or in the lowermost reaches near Mission before the final death-rush begins.

Fraser gold, discovered in 1858, produced an epic of suffering worse even than the record of the Klondike. Terrible though the Chilkoot was, it was not so cruel as the Fraser whirlpools down which those heroic fools tried to bounder on rafts. The amount of gold taken out of the sand bars and lodes at Yale, Boston Bar, Barkerville and up the Thompson and Lillooet was trivial compared to the suffering and heroism that paid for it, nor were the individual fortunes more permanent than gold-rush fortunes anywhere else.

But the Fraser gold had two by-products of infinite importance. The river in the end carried thousands of disappointed miners down to the estuary where they were deposited like sediment with neither the will nor the means to return. Many of them stayed permanently, and added themselves to the nucleus of humanity which built Vancouver w'ithin three generations into our third-greatest city. The second by-product was the Cariboo Road.

In 1861 that human dynamo Governor James Douglas realized that unless help on a vast scale were provided for the obsessed lunatics digging and panning up the Fraser, thousands of them would die of starvation and cold. He ordered his Royal Engineers to build a supply route into the interior, and the result was the most spectacularly dangerous highway in Canada. When the engineers finished their work, the Cariboo Road was a ledge in the cliffsidc 385 miles long and eighteen feet wide. In places the drop from the unguarded lip was thousands of feet, and many a horse and mule, and quite a few men, hurtled off and down to the end of their troubles. One imaginative teamster even introduced camels to the Cariboo, thinking they would be more sure-footed than horses and mules, but their smell so frightened the other pack animals that his scheme had to be dropped.

“It’s like nothing on the continent”

So far as the stampede was concerned, I this famous road probably did more harm than good: it provided an excuse for thousands more to join the hordes of gold-hungry men already working. But when the stampede petered out and the hurdy-gurdy girls and the chiselers went south, when the roaring shack towns turned into bleaching ghost towns, the road was there. It led saner men into the interior to build lumber camps and establish the vast ranches which make British Columbia’s Dry Belt a rival in stock-raising to the American southwest.

Eraser silt, deposited over millenia in the delta and the valley behind New Westminster, enabled the growing population of the west coast first to feed itself and later to develop an agricultural exporting industry. Acre for acre, the arable land of the lower Fraser Valley is among the richest in all Canada.

The economic development forced on the province by the Fraser led inevitably to the construction of railways, and here again the river turned out to be the key to the engineering problem. The two transcontinental lines, after threading the Rockies from the Kicking Horse and the Yellowhead, use the canyon for their final runs into Vancouver. And the Pacific Great Eastern, the most exciting railway this side of Switzerland, swaying at dizzy heights along the cliffs, goes north to Prince George and finally links the Pacific coast to the Peace River country.

The world knows little about the Eraser's history — neither does Eastern Canada, for that matter — and I would guess there are two reasons for this ignorance. In the first place, nobody can imagine what the river is like unless he has seen it with his own eyes, for there is nothing else resembling it on the continent and I doubt if there is anything else resembling it in the whole world. In the second place, people everywhere have been conditioned to think about western North American exploration and settlement in terms of the pattern established in the United States. The Americans have told their story in hundreds of novels,

short stories and movies. Our stofy has hardly been told at all.

If "epic" is the word the Americans use. we should find a stronger one. for the American west was an open pasture compared to the mountains of British Columbia. The covered wagons could roll toward the American west over a plain swarming with buffalo, and the passes in their Rockies are wide and easy compared to the nightmare of the Fraser Canyon. While the Americans could use horses and wagons, our pioneers had to use canoes. Our men sometimes had to

portage craft and baggage over ridges thousands of feet high, and the roads they built later had to be blasted out of sheer cliffs.

Nothing. I thought as I stared down at the Fraser from the road above Hell’s Gate, more sharply points up the contrast between the American and Canadian experience than the fact that, for a time, steamboats were used in the canyon itself. If the record were not proved beyond dispute, nobody seeing the canyon could believe it. The little boats had to be dragged laboriously upstream by

winches and by hundreds of men hauling on cables from the shore, engines roaring and sometimes exploding from excess of pressure. But those crazy, dangerous steamboats at least saved the backs of the men.

Our pioneers, later our engineers and technicians, circumvented the river's obstacles even though they never tamed the river itself. The challenges they met were never adequately described by them, nor do 1 think anyone can tell their story as it truly was. But to some extent we can guess what they achieved by ac-

quainting ourselves with the river itself, and by looking at some of the vital facts about it.

The mountains through which the Fraser finds or carves a path are far from the world's highest, but they cover a huge area and they lie pretty far north. They are also extremely varied. For miles above Lytton the river passes through the so-called dry belt of British Columbia where the traveler is astonished to encounter the sage bush, tumbleweed and county-sized ranches associated with the American southwest, and is warned against rattlesnakes on rocky trails. Little rain falls here, and if all the Fraser's course lay through country like this, its volume of flow would be moderate.

However, many of the ranges sloping in chaos in the general direction of the Fraser are exposed to moist Pacific winds, and in winter they collect billions of tons of snow. By mid-June most of this snow has turned into running water. The Fraser, draining an area of 91,600 square miles (barely 3,000 square miles less than that of the United Kingdom) has to carry all this runoff to the sea.

“The mere statement of these facts,” a geographer said to me, “tells all you need to know about the river.” If I had possessed a geographer’s imagination, it might have done so.

“When you reach Lytton,” a British Columbian told me in Montreal, “be sure to stand on that little bridge where the Thompson enters. It’s a wonderful sight. Thompson water is blue-green and Fraser water is yellow gumbo. You can see them both together — two separate streams in the same course.”

The Fraser swallows the Thompson

I thought I knew what he meant, for on the Mackenzie I had seen what I believed was something similar. For two hundred miles below Fort Simpson, the brown water of the Liard keeps to the left while the grey - green Mackenzie water flows along on the right. It takes the Mackenzie — and it is a very powerful stream — all this distance to absorb its chief tributary.

When I stood on the Lytton bridge the sight was indeed wonderful, but it bore no resemblance whatever to what I had expected. The Thompson is the Fraser's chief tributary, a major stream in its own right, a mountain stream also, and it does not so much enter the Fraser as smash its way into it like a liquid battering ram. From the bridge I saw its water plunging into the Fraser just as the man said, blue-green into the Fraser’s yellow froth. Then it completely disappeared. The Fraser swallows the Thompson in less than a hundred yards!

As soon as you pass beyond Lytton on the way up the river, you see evidence of the Fraser's power in what it has done to the land. Above Lillooet it has carved out a minor Grand Canyon. Farther up in the plateaus of the ranching country it is almost subterranean: you can travel for miles across the ranges and think no water is anywhere and then suddenly you come to a trench and stare far, far down and there is that infernal yellow line frothing along.

But it is at Hell’s Gate, its passage made still more narrow by blasting for the railway, that the prolonged violence of the river reaches its climax, and the best way I can think of to describe its ferocity here is to make some comparisons with the volume of water that flows in the St. Lawrence.

The mean flow of the St. Lawrence is 543,000 cubic feet per second, the Fraser’s 92,600. But the width of the St.

Lawrence at Victoria Bridge in Montreal, before it has received the Richelieu, the St. Maurice or even the bulk of the Ottawa, is nearly two miles. The width of the Fraser at Hell’s Gate, after it has received the Nechako, the Blackwater, the Chilcotin. the Quesnel. the Lillooet, the Thompson and nearly all its less famous tributaries, is approximately forty yards! This means a good fisherman can cast a line across a river carrying nearly one sixth the flow of the St. Lawrence!

But there are days on the Fraser which are not average, days which come after steady sunshine and a succession of warm nights have melted the mountain snow in a rush. Then the Fraser becomes absolutely incredible.

During the flood of 1948 a flow almost equal to that of the St. Lawrence was recorded on the Fraser; in the worse flood of 1894 the (low was estimated at 600,000. In other words, there was at least one occasion when 57,000 more cubic feet of water per second went through the gap at Hell’s Gate than passes between Quebec and Lévis.

What this meant to the gentle valley below Hope amounted on both occasions to a national catastrophe. Thousands of acres were awash, barns and houses were carried away, cattle were drowned and the bodies of cows were seen floating in the yellow smear spread for miles into the Strait of Georgia. But in the black canyon little was changed because its walls are so steer and its trough so deep it could hold all the rivers of North America without overflowing. In the twisted gorge the Fraser boiled and roared at prodigious depths and at velocities exceeding twenty knots. It churned millions of tons of sand in its whirlpools, its backwashes tossed giant logs like splinters end over end; it killed God knows how many salmon by exhausting the life out of them or by hurling them clear of the water against the rocks which broke their spines. It wore several more inches off the little islets which survive in the channel like wrecked iron ships.

I was not on the Fraser when this happened, but if I had flown over its canyon then I doubt if I would have seen anything out of the ordinary at twenty thousand feet.

This river was navigated — at least most of it was — by human beings in canoes, and of all the facts connected with the Fraser, this is the hardest for those acquainted with the river to believe. It was later navigated — if you could apply such a word to such an insane venture—by a few stampeders who built themselves rafts intending to float down with the current. They found themselves trapped in the canyon and held on because that was all they could do. But these men did not really navigate the river; they were simply swept along like the logs that go down to the mills today. Nor did the French adventurer who swam it last year swim it in the sense that Marilyn Bell swam Lake Ontario. Equipped with a frogman’s outfit, he also was carried down like a log.

But the voyageurs legitimately navigated nearly all of it. First Alexander Mackenzie entered its upper waters in 1793 with the party he finally led through to the coast. He was not sure where he was, for no white man had been here before, but he soon enough learned that this was the worst river in his experience. His canoe was wrecked in the upper canyon near Fort George and he and his men were nearly drowned. He patched his craft and continued, but at the point now called Alexandria he stopped. His intuition warned him that in-

superable danger lay ahead, and he went overland to Bella Coola in the nick of time. A few miles more and he would have passed the point of no return.

Fifteen years later, in 1808, a Highlander far different from the poetic Mackenzie, the stolid Simon Fraser, followed in the path of the man he tauntingly referred to as “Sir A.M.K.“ and went all the distance to the delta. Like Mackenzie he also did not know what the river was like or even what river it was. He believed it was the Columbia, and he had entered it with the specific mission of ex-

ploring it to its mouth in order to establish British rights to the entire Columbia region. When he entered the canyon and the river whirled him. he believed he must go through or perish. What he achieved was the climax of the long, wonderful story of the fur-trading voyages which began when Champlain padpled up the Ottawa from Montreal to the Chaudière Falls. Fraser's was the most terrible and fabulous inland voyage in the history of North America.

Tiny in their birch bark canoes, the voyageurs stared up thousands of feet at

the walls of that black gorge. The river roared so loud they could not hear each other speak, it twisted so fast they could never prepare themselves for what lay around the next turn. When they watched the shore line flashing past, they realized that no canoe, for that matter no ship hitherto built, had ever traveled at such speed and survived. They were spun like tops in the whirlpools, and when backwashes swept them ashore they portaged over cliffs thousands of feet high, for they could not survive if they stayed still, and they did not believe it possible

to return. Finally they reached Hell's Gate, and here their experience inspired the most celebrated passage in Fraser's Journal:

“I have been for a long period in the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human being should venture; yet in those places there is a regular pathway impressed, or rather indented on the very rocks by frequent traveling.”

This so-called pathway had been made by Indians who had been in the region so long that the village now called Lytton claims to be the oldest permanently settled place in North America. Fraser and his men. their canoes abandoned on the shore, crawled sideways with their packs along the cliff hanging on to twisted vines "formed like a ladder or the shrouds of a ship.” Somehow they got through, and lower down they bought Indian dugouts and so reached the sea.

It was typical of Simon Fraser that when he reached the delta he was as disappointed as Mackenzie had been when he came to the larger delta on the Beaufort Sea. Whatever else this awful river might be, Fraser knew it was not the Columbia. Not being able to foresee the future, he assumed that his mission had failed, and turned back.

The return passage was in some ways worse than the passage going down, though at least its horrors could no longer surprise them. The Indians turned hostile and bombarded them with rocks. Their supplies were nearly gone, their clothing was in rags, their shoes holed and torn, their bodies exhausted. At one moment—and it was a great one in Canadian history—the dour Fraser made his Scots and Canadiens take this oath: "1 solemnly swear before Almighty God that I shall sooner perish than forsake any of our crew during the present voyage.”

They got through. At the northern end of Hell’s Gate they found their canoes intact, and those incredible men launched them and paddled and dragged them all the way back the way they had come.

Simon Fraser and his party, on their way back against the river, reached Fort George in thirty-four days!

Out of that voyage grew the story of British Columbia, which unfolded so rapidly in the next hundred and fifty years that British Columbians themselves seem unable to realize how astounding their progress has been. It took generations for eastern cities like Quebec and Halifax to grow, but Vancouver and the little towns of the lower Fraser Valley leaped up in a moment of time. Today the province's university is one of the greatest in Canada; as late as World War 1 it was only an experimental extension of Montreal’s McGill. Vancouver is now Canada’s third city; a century hence it may well be her first. Mountain time and Pacific time are out of joint for the easterner, who has tended to take two steps backward for every three he takes ahead.

But progress, not even with all the instruments of science behind it, can ever change the character of the province’s chief river. It will always be possible to see much of it as it seemed to the voyageurs, and it will never be possible to tame it. So long as mountain snows melt, the Fraser will roar, for even if the black canyon were walled the water would find or make another one. and the Fraser would still be the narrowest and the most savage of all the major rivers on this continent, iç