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The story of the Fraser River: A 'symbol of life' that can also be violent and deadly

The infamous Hell’s Gate and the rapids of the Fraser River. (Itsik Marom/Alamy)

They call it Search & Rescue, but it’s really Search & Retrieve – and even that doesn’t happen every time the Mighty Fraser sucks a human down into its hydraulic trap of roiling currents and undertow.

Some bodies are never found.

Barry Gannon on the Fraser River by Hope, B.C. (Roy MacGregor/The Globe and Mail)

Barry (Icon) Gannon has been volunteering with the unit for 31 years and, apart from a fly fisher who fell in one day right in front of where they were launching the Search & Rescue jet boat, he has no recollection of them ever actually saving anyone.

Those unfortunate enough to fall or jump into the Fraser River upstream from the little mountain town best known as the setting for the Sylvester Stallone movie First Blood don’t have a chance.

Not even Rambo himself could make it through the Fraser Canyon, a stretch of river where, as far back as 1808, explorer Simon Fraser noted was a place “where no human being should ever venture for surely we have encountered the gates of hell.”

Mr. Gannon and two other volunteers – Troy Leech and Jim Lasser – are out for an early spring training run along the Fraser, well before the freshet from the high mountains raises the water level another storey or more and turns the canyon and Hell’s Gate into a tourist attraction where visitors tend to stare down and shudder.

Even on this day, in low season, the 435-horsepower jet boat is tossed about like a Pooh stick in the current. Over a 40-kilometre practice run, the heavy steel boat grinds over newly formed shoals and bounces off a drifting log as it wrestles through rapids and strong current. At one point, driver Mr. Lasser completes a “Gypsy turn” – all but standing the jet boat on its nose as he spins it in an instant from heading north to heading south.

All three men talk at length about their deep love for the Fraser. They mark their calendars by the salmon runs, brag about the size of the sturgeon, marvel at the river’s spectacular beauty the higher one goes into the mountains, and they stand in awe of its power and how quickly and certainly it can take a human life.

“It’s a job I wouldn’t do for pay,” says Mr. Leech. “I would never make that an occupation, what I do with the rescue team. But when I realized there wasn’t anybody doing it, that’s when I joined the group and started doing it as a volunteer.”

Sonny McHalsie is Cultural Advisor at the Stó:lo Nation office in Chilliwack, B.C. The office is behind him. (Roy MacGregor/The Globe and Mail)

“We lost lots of people and they were never recovered,” says Albert (Sonny) McHalsie, cultural adviser at the Sto:lo Nation offices in Chilliwack, some 50 kilometres downstream from Hope.

“They’re still down there.”

Every summer, sometimes more often, the Hope volunteer group heads out to scout the shores and eddies for a victim. Their small victories come in finding the body.

“It brings closure to the families,” says Mr. Lasser. “Somebody’s got to do it. We do it for the families.”

On up the river, the jet boat roars past the jutting points where First Nations families set their nets and wind-dry their catch on roughly fashioned racks, past the various “bars” where, in 1858, the Fraser River Gold Rush turned the shores into tent cities, past looming Lady Franklin Rock at Yale, so named for Lady Jane Franklin, widow of the lost Arctic explorer, and where the treacherous Fraser Canyon begins.

Not much farther up, still bouncing off swells and twisting between whirlpools, the jet boat spins and turns back within sight of the churning rapids that, farther upstream, include the world-famous Hell’s Gate: a 35-metre-wide chasm where the water can be more than 150 metres deep, with more than 15 million litres per second pounding through.

The rescue volunteers do not enter the actual canyon.

“What’s the point?” says Mr. Gannon. “You’re only collecting bodies, anyway.”

Fin Donnelly had the craziest idea:

He would swim the length of the Fraser River. And five years later, he would do it all again.

He would be tackling what has been called “one of the world’s great rivers,” a river that has its source near Fraser Pass of the Continental Divide, more than a thousand metres above sea level and running 1,368 kilometres to where it empties into the Strait of Georgia.

It begins in the mountains beyond Prince George and twists and tumbles down through vast tracks of wilderness and deep canyons, as well as past small communities like Quesnel, Williams Lake, Lilloet, Lytton, Boston Bar, Yale and Hope. Below Hope it flattens out and grows placid, the silt the river has carried from the B.C. Interior forming deltas and creating some of the finest agricultural land in the world.

The river passes through much larger centres – Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Surrey, New Westminster and forks north and south around the island of Richmond – by which point the Mighty Fraser is dominated by ports, cranes, ocean shipping, towering bridges, railway tracks and the industrial sprawl that spreads all the way to Vancouver.

“The Fraser River, which seems absolutely hostile to man and all his works,” novelist Hugh MacLennan wrote more than 40 years ago, “has been as important to British Columbia as the St. Lawrence has been to Quebec.”

To underline this importance, and to remind British Columbians of the natural treasure they had come to take for granted, Mr. Donnelly decided if he could swim the river, he might draw attention to the fragility of such a remarkable resource.

Given that roughly two-thirds of the population of British Columbia live along the Fraser and its tributaries, it seemed only right to Mr. Donnelly that those who dwell along the water should have an appreciation for what they have been given.

Swimming down the river, however, was unthinkable to many who heard of his crazy idea. According to Stephen Hume’s superb biography of the river’s namesake, Simon Fraser’s suggestion that he and his men would descend the river was met with incredulity by the natives Fraser’s party encountered near the source. They warned that “the river below was but a succession of falls and cascades, which we should find impossible to pass, not only thro the badness of the channel, but also thro the badness of the surrounding country, which was rugged and mountainous. Their opinion, therefore, was that we should discontinue our voyage and remain with them.”

Fraser continued on and, nearly two centuries later, Mr. Donnelly found similar resolve. He was, after all, a competitive long-distance swimmer, first with a local club in New Westminster, then for the University of Victoria swim team. In the 1980s, he was doing two 10-kilometre workouts a day in the university pool.

He was also becoming deeply engaged in environmental concerns, first with the “War of the Woods” that was ongoing over clear-cutting timber. He was convinced that humanity was “on a collision course” unless people woke up to the importance of “sustainability.”

In 1995, he swam the river in a wetsuit, even tackling some of the rapids, though he wisely elected to get through Hell’s Gate with the help of one of the river-rafting companies. It took him 21 days, 20 of which were spent in the water. Five years later, he began his swim farther upstream and, over four weeks, spent 25 days in the water.

His intent was merely to “start the conversation” about the river, about water quality and sustainability. It worked, with some 120 articles being written about his crusade and scores of radio and television interviews as he travelled along the course of the river.

“In the first swim,” he says. “I had to deal with pulp effluent and raw sewage. I got sick just south of Quesnel at a time when part of the community was dumping raw sewage. Not only could I taste it but I could smell it – and sometimes see it. The river was a chemical soup.”

Five years later, he found “some real, tangible improvements.” Matters had improved, though not nearly so much or as quickly as Mr. Donnelly and others were hoping.

“The Fraser is a symbol of life,” he says. “It feeds life. It’s a historical river – a heritage river – that allowed First Nations to survive and prosper along its banks and later allowed others to flourish and provide sustenance. It’s also one of the best salmon rivers on the planet.”

Fraser River as it meets the Pacific Ocean where Delta meets Richmond. (Alamy)

Mr. Donnelly never thought he would become involved in elected politics, but after his second swim, friends urged him to run for local council. He did, and won, and won again. In 2009, a federal by-election was called for the riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam and he ran for the New Democratic Party – and won. He was still winning last Oct. 19 – the riding now known as Port Moody-Coquitlam – and today serves as the NDP fisheries critic.

“I never thought I would end up here,” he says of his office on Parliament Hill. “I was very pessimistic about making change.”

Now about to turn 50, Mr. Donnelly remains deeply committed to his initial cause. The Rivershed Society of BC, which he founded in 1996, is dedicated to having people make sustainable lifestyle choices when living in sensitive areas like the Fraser River Basin.

Mr. Donnelly says he is not without hope – “If we can get it right. It will depend on decision makers and people around this community.

“I will continue to work on the river.”

“It’s a tough river.”

So says Marvin Rosenau, a fisheries expert who teaches at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and has worked on the freshwater fisheries of the province for more than 35 years.

Dr. Rosenau was born in Chilliwack, where his grandfather settled in 1948, the year of the Fraser’s Great Flood. An exceptional runoff that year flooded thousands of hectares in the Fraser Valley and carried away barns and houses and livestock. Bodies of bloated cows were found floating in the mustard-coloured smear that spread far out into the Strait of Georgia.

Every year, says the scientist, 20 million tonnes of sediment are carried out into the gulf. Canoeists ferrying across the river where its flow is strong say they can hear the silt rubbing like sandpaper along the gunwales of their vessels.

“Because the Fraser is such a muddy river,” Dr. Rosenau says, “it frightens the daylights out of people. They don’t know what’s below the surface. It’s scary.”

But what is below the surface is one of the world’s great salmon fisheries, with runs of five different species stretching from late spring through late fall. It is also home to 45,000-50,000 sturgeon, many of the dinosaur-era fish gigantic enough to attract sport fishers from around the world.

Dr. Rosenau witnessed firsthand the incredible powers of the Fraser back in 1993 when he was aboard a jet boat on patrol so that he might count the number of dead sturgeon in the water. The boat flipped in the current, throwing those aboard out. All but one had life jackets on. His body was never found.

Because of work done by the likes of Dr. Rosenau and pressure applied by the likes of Fin Donnelly, the Fraser River fishery is today highly regulated. Hydroacoustics and sonar along the river let scientists know what species are travelling in what numbers, thereby triggering commercial fishing in the lower reaches and, for the most part, ensuring that salmon reach upstream beyond Hope, where First Nations have the right to fish with gill nets and dip nets.

In the early 1900s, scientists believe, as many as 60 million sockeye salmon would enter the Fraser at spawning time. That number has considerably diminished, with some years the run seemingly threatened.

The Sto:lo Nation has a chart on the 1997 catch, showing that Canadian commercial fishers took more than 12 million salmon, American commercial boats took more than three million and the Fraser River aboriginal fishery caught just over one million – meaning commercial fisheries were taking more than 90 per cent of the catch that once was the main source of food for the many First Nations along the waterway.

Anthropologists believe that salmon was once so important to these people that the annual salmon consumption of First Nations along the Fraser was close to 500 kilograms a year, now fallen to much less than half that figure.

Prior to 1913, salmon somehow powered their way upstream through Hell’s Gate, but that year the salmon run came to an abrupt halt when a railroad construction crew thoughtlessly blasted tonnes of rock into the canyon, thereby tightening the passage and increasing the flow to a point where the salmon could not get through. Millions of salmon died. More than two decades later, Canada and the United States created the International Fishways and a “ladder” was constructed allowing the salmon to pass through a somewhat protected portion of the rapids.

An aerial view of the Fraser River Delta. (Alamy)

The idea of a “ladder,” however described, was rather coincidental, as Simon Fraser and his men, unable to canoe through the rapids, were guided by First Nations along the canyon walls where, terrified, they clutched ladders made from plant roots as they made their way along the notched rocks.

As for the salmon farther downstream, a continuing concern of Dr. Rosenau and his colleagues is that many of the streams along the lower Fraser have vanished as urbanization spreads. Such streams were vital to salmon reproduction. He calculates that 20 per cent of such streams have been lost forever, while 62 per cent are endangered.

“We need to get more to their spawning grounds,” he says.

With diminishing salmon runs, Dr. Rosenau says, public interest also diminishes somewhat. This, he feels, is unfortunate, as the Fraser River and Delta are about much more than fish. The tidal flats around Richmond, he says, make this part of the river “one of the most important estuaries in the world” for birds.

“People don’t really realize the treasure they have in this river,” he says. “But the ecological value of this river is never less than fantastic.

“The Fraser has extraordinary capabilities. It’s the pump, the battery, the juice that makes this whole ecosystem go. We have to give it a chance.”

World Wildlife Fund Canada has studied the ecological health of this heritage river and says it still produces more salmon than any other river on Earth. Fishing throughout the Fraser Basin is worth more than $300-million a year and the area contributes some 80 per cent of the province’s economic output.

“Keeping the Fraser healthy is vital to a healthy and prosperous ecosystem, economy and culture in B.C.,” says Elizabeth Hendriks, WWF-Canada’s vice-president, freshwater.

But a report card produced by the environmental group is hardly optimistic. While they rate the overall health of the river as “fair,” the threats from pollution and habitat loss are deemed “high.”

“The Fraser River has paid a high price for our comfort and prosperity;” B.C. author Alan Haig-Brown wrote in his 1996 book on the river, “its health is in serious danger. We have poured into it mill effluents and other industrial waste, chemicals and super-nutrients from huge farms, and poorly treated sewage and chemical street runoff from towns and cities. We have contaminated the river’s groundwater, throttled streams and tributaries with dams, choked waterways and fishways with waste from logging and harmed the very surface of the river with air pollution.

“Fortunately, it is not too late to save the Fraser.”

And yet it remains a continuing battle.

A year ago, while fishing on the river below Hope, Dr. Rosenau heard the sound of a backhoe working, made his way up a stream and came upon a small gold-mining operation. Once the ministry of the environment heard about it, they moved quickly to close down the operation.

“This isn’t 1852,” he says with a sigh of despair. “This is 2016.”

“We can’t even spit in the river!” says an excited Sonny McHalsie.

The cultural affairs adviser and historian of Sto:lo Nation is talking about pollution and First Nations response to the delicate condition of the Fraser River.

The 60-year-old historian tells a Salish story that was handed down orally to his generation. It concerns a scourge of body sores – smallpox? – and how a boy became so despondent that he decided to kill himself. He walked into the Fraser north of Hope and slipped down through the currents to a people who lived under the water. They healed him and returned him with a message of personal hygiene that included no spitting.

“It’s a cultural law,” says Mr. McHalsie.

What others need to understand, he says, is that “Sto:lo means both his people and is their name for the Fraser. We are the river and the river is us.”

There are 29 Sto:lo communities of various sizes along the length of the Fraser. Most First Nations have some involvement in the salmon fishery, but they, largely due to geography, stand in line waiting for the salmon runs to run the gamut of Canadian and American commercial operations. Then, they must compete for the salmon that do get through with those who come for the sport fishing, a situation that can lead to tensions.

“There are still lots of problems,” says Mr. McHalsie. “The commercial industry gets to go out there first and that doesn’t go down too well.

“Where is the conservation in the fish that go up the Fraser? It’s last in line, I’m afraid. By the time First Nations gets to fish the salmon, they’ve already put big holes in the runs. We almost feel they time it deliberately. Where’s the fish?”

Mr. McHalsie says much of the impetus for conservation has come from the native population. “It was us who put the ban on sturgeon,” he says. “It’s strictly catch and release for the sport fishery. We only keep them if they happen to die in our nets.”

Matters, however, have slowly improved. There is more consultation, more science applied to the opening and closing of the various salmon runs.

“I’d have to say that over the last few years they do have to connect with us.”

The most impressive, and perhaps effective, connection has been made by the RCMP.

Back in 1997, Mountie Ed Hill and First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers combined forces in an attempt to establish an addiction recovery centre for the province. Their “VisionQuest Journey” raised awareness, and funding, by paddling three large canoes down the Skeena River and along the coast to Victoria.

A ship rides through the Fraser River in Vancouver on Saturday November 12, 2011. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

In 2001, the Mountie led the “Pulling Together Journey” of the big canoes from Hope, where he had long been posted, to Gibsons, where he is now retired from the RCMP and pursuing a new career as an artist. This journey was not to raise money for the addiction centre, but to raise awareness and ease tensions between police and First Nations, especially among the youth.

“We were talking ‘reconciliation’ long before it became vogue,” Mr. Hill says.

“You are touching a river that is more alive with culture than any river in Canada. We’re all travelling together and learning together. The river is our teacher.”

That first journey was so successful that a Pulling Together Canoe Society was formed and the canoe journeys have since become an annual event. The society’s mission statement is “to enhance understanding between Public Service Agencies and Aboriginal Peoples by Canoeing the traditional highway, strengthening our future relations”

The journeys began with five large canoes and a handful of ground crew to assist. Last year, there were 25 canoes in the trek and 500 people involved.

“It’s so big now,”Mr. Hill says, “that we’re looking for ways to downsize it.”

RCMP Constable Linda Blake, who has recently transferred to Ottawa to join the Prime Minister’s security detail, serves as vice-president of the society. Of Métis heritage herself, she says the journeys have had a remarkable effect on First Nations youth.

“They might find themselves quite surprised to be paddling in a canoe with a police officer,” Ms. Blake says, “but when we began this, we didn’t really understand how powerful it could be. By day three, you can actually feel a shift in the camp. Youth develop a sense of pride and an understanding of their culture. The police become more aware, more understanding.”

Earl Moulton, another retired Mountie who with his wife, Maureen, helps organize each summer’s Pulling Together journey, says they have pulled into First Nations villages and seen elders openly weeping at the sight of the big canoes and the young paddlers.

Mr. Moulton was a key RCMP commander at the 31-day Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995, when 400 Mounties were deployed to the B.C. Interior after members of the Ts’Peten First Nation occupied ranch land that they declared was both sacred ground and unceded territory. The ugly confrontation ended without loss of life, but the open tensions Mr. Moulton saw between police and First Nations persuaded him that something had to be done to improve relations.

“When you see the distance we’ve travelled since,” he says, “we’ve laid a lot of groundwork for change.”

There remains much to be done, from cleaning up the river to ensuring the sustainability that Fin Donnelly swam for becomes reality. It is no small task, but then the Fraser is no small river.

“If you’re on the Fraser during the freshet,” Mr. Moulton says, “and if you put your ear to the top of your paddle with the blade still in the water, you can actually hear the big rocks being moved along the bottom by the force of the current.

“You have to treat the Fraser with respect.

“This river is always moving, always changing.”

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