1027 Tribute to the Fraser River

The Fraser: River of Life and Legend
by Carol Blacklaws and Rick Blacklaws

White Rock: Image West Productions, 2020
$39.95 / 9780994817518

Reviewed by Peter Grant


Of those who raft (and swim) the Mighty Fraser

In this album, appealingly balanced between text and pictures, Rick Blacklaws’ photos capture the Fraser River’s fabulous landscapes, especially its extensive grasslands with their vistas of tableland and so-subtle gradations of tone. A score of his photographs are so striking and fresh, they are worth the price of admission. The big river is 1,375 kilometres long, rising in the Rocky Mountains, passing through forestland and grassland, into canyons and across bottomland, draining one quarter of British Columbia (233,000 square kilometres). The Fraser runs through the very heart of the province, and this is Blacklaw’s sixth co-authored book about its lands and their people. The first, The Fraser River (Harbour, 1996), with text by Alan Haig-Brown, won a BC Book Prize. An archaeologist by training, Blacklaws has been a community college instructor and co-ordinator of the Fraser River Studies Program at Langara College.

Fraser River watershed
The Fraser River at Dunster in the Robson Valley. Photo by Rick Blacklaws
The Blackmans of Tete Jaune Cache. Blacklaws photo

Carol Blacklaws’ text is more about the people who congregate on the banks of the Fraser, plunging into its midst, celebrating the challenge of navigating the awesome length of it in Zodiacs. It’s no surprise to encounter a society of fluviophiles in a jurisdiction that contains Hell’s Gate, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, and so many other world-class whitewater rivers. There’s also a small bunch of doughty riverlovin’ swimmers who have swum the Fraser’s entire length. Blacklaws (whose second book with husband Rick this is) repeats a mantra about how lucky she has been to be a part of the happy crew who love rollin’ on the river. When evoking the beauties of the mighty Fraser in its many settings, Blacklaws’ prose progresses into rhapsody: “A river’s beginning is a cumulative masterpiece created by thousands of droplets of rain and glacial meltwater that join, collide and freefall down mountain slopes in an alpine water ballet.”

Words and pictures conspire to charming effect in profiling people who live beside the Fraser — the Blackmans of Tete Jaune Cache, the Culps of Dunster — and the pages fairly spring to life in those intervals. In essence, however, their book is a “compilation” of different trips the authors have made over several decades. Along with snippets of history and current events, it’s presented in a relaxed, mosaic form, organized as if narrating a discontinuous trip from headwater to estuary.

Mount Robson from the Fraser. Photo by Rick Blacklaws
Archie Chantyman of Quesnel. Blacklaws photo

The upper Fraser, while highly scenic, with Mt. Robson towering over its origins in the Rocky Mountains, is judged pretty tame for river rafting. For exploring the meandering “Upper Reaches” there are one-day rafting excursions from Tete Jaune Cache; jet boats are an option. (Linguistic aside: is “Upper Reaches” a real proper name? Only other place I’ve seen the term is The Fraser River, where it did not have the upper case-lower case treatment that confers namehood on an otherwise generic phrase.)

The exploits of the aptly named Fin Donnelly, two-time swimmer of the river (beginning at Tete Jaune Cache Lodge and excepting parts that are too rough) are introduced early on. We do not actually meet Donnelly in The Fraser: River of Life and Legend but, as the newly-elected MLA for Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and recently appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Aquaculture — Fin by name, Fin by calling — he is in the news these days. Donnelly was begetter of the Rivershed Society of B.C. conservation group and of the Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP). “The SLLP trips started in 2002,” Blacklaws writes, “and almost every year since, SLLP students, a blend of post-secondary students and young environmentally concerned adults, have come down the river because of Fin’s relentless desire to educate and protect the Fraser and its watershed.” That mission is limned by a fellow fluviophile, Jacquie Poschmann, quoted from The River Home (2015): “[I]n a moment that has shaped the course of many lives, Fin and Doug Radies developed a vision for what would become the Sustainable Living Leadership Program. It is hoped that SLLP graduates will be inspired to act as river watershed ambassadors and stewards, spreading the stories of their river journey and their ideas of how to lessen our environmental impact on nature by understanding a watershed in its entirety.”

(The passage quoted actually named Sharman Learie as the co-developer of the vision, while “now, thirteen years later” Poschmann introduces Radies, senior trip leader, as “help.” Was Radies not present at the Creation, as Blacklaws asserts? It’s a curious way to edit a quotation. The River Home, a chronicle of a single twenty-five-day SLLP trip, is well-written and cheap at $4 for the Kindle edition.)

Rafting at Soda Creek Bluff. Photo by Rick Blacklaws

In due course we meet Fraser River Raft Expeditions, one of a multitude of companies offering thrills, chills, and drenchings of silty river water. Its history is intertwined with SLLP, Fin Donnelly and the Fraser River Studies Program. Suffice to know that from the lading of the rafts at Cottonwood Park in Prince George, the operator’s guides and the passengers on four rafts — and their common cause — take centre stage. When the narrative arrives at the “Lower Reaches,” the focus shifts to a group of ten participants in the Sustainable Living Leadership Program who are paddling canoes from Hope to Jericho Beach, Vancouver.

Clearly what guides Carol and Rick Blacklaws’ encounters with the river is not luck, and certainly not mere thrill-seeking. Carol Blacklaws chants this litany: “More people need to trudge through the wet meadows … More people need to stand in the shadow of hoodoo cliffs … [M]any more need to descend into the Canyon … Pleasure craft need to be encouraged to access the diversity …” Missionary zeal is what moves the Blacklaws.

The mid Fraser. Blacklaws photo
Old Village at Leon Creek, Fraser River below. Rick Blacklaws photo

The cause of protecting the river and its drainage leads into such tangents as a catastrophic event many miles east of the river: the 2016 Mount Polley mine disaster, a flood from a gigantic tailings pond whose earth-filled sides failed, inundating Quesnel Lake with heavy-metal pollution. Quesnel Lake flows into Quesnel River, which is a tributary of the Fraser. So the deadly toxins spread. (Shockingly, no-one has been called to account for the disaster, which has been traced to the culture of no-fault Professional Reliance — otherwise known as putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop — enshrined in provincial legislation in 2018 but wreathed in neo-liberal radiance since Gordon Campbell took office.)

My own limited acquaintance with the Fraser intersects the Blacklaws’ at one particular place, the Bridge River Rapids. Less well-known than Hell’s Gate in the storied Fraser Canyon, the Bridge River enters the Fraser four kilometres north of Lillooet. We lived there in the late 1970s. It’s considered a uniquely dangerous stretch to raft. “Commercial operators are forbidden to run this section of the river with passengers on board,” Blacklaws writes. “This meant everybody except the guides had to get out and make a two-kilometre walk around the rapids. We were instructed to carry our day bags and life jackets.”

Rafting at Sailor Bar. Rick Blacklaws photo
Guides rigging rafts. Blacklaws photo

My experience of the Bridge River Rapids was different. One summer afternoon, my wife and I were lolling about in the Lillooet heat. The thermometer as often as not reached into the 40s. Rings the phone. It was a friend of Paula’s from back east. Duncan worked for a rafting expedition company. He was in town. The expedition had began on Chilko Lake and ended at the Bridge River Rapids. His team had shuttled the paying customers to the BC Rail station to catch the next Budd car to the coast. Now they were going to run the rafts down to the base, beginning with the Bridge River Rapids. Would we like to come along? Do bears poop in the woods? So began our first and only river-rafting experience. Was it fun? Sure! We almost died! A plume of water stood our seven-metre Zodiac perpendicular. A breeze could have flipped it over backwards. From there, we imagined, the torrent would have pried us loose of the rope-holds, held us under water for a few minutes, bashed us against the rock wall, and delivered our lifeless bodies to shore.

That paltry, jokey what-if does not end the tale, I am sorry to report. A few years later, in the Fraser Canyon, our friend did lose his life. His raft capsized in the China Bar Rapids. He and two others drowned. Duncan was just thirty, and a game guy if there ever was one.

Dry Canyon. Blacklaws photo

In this amiable scrapbook of journeys on the Fraser, however, you’ll read not a discouraging word. Some people died — Indigenous inhabitants of the canyon; some gold miners — but that was long ago. Missing is the history of the struggle for regulation triggered by the tragedy at China Bar. Missing: the toll of rafting that continued even after the advent of regulations in 1988 — e.g., “Two Rafts Capsize in Trial Run on Fraser River” (Hope [BC] Standard, April 9, 1975). “Three Die in Rafting Accident Sunday” (Hope [BC] Standard, May 9, 1979). “Rafting rougher than riders realize.” Six people thrown from raft on the Chilko River (The Vancouver Sun, July 6, 1982). “City man survives tragic raft mishap.” Man drowned in Thompson River near confluence with Fraser (Edmonton Journal, April 27, 1984). “Harder on the spot for raft photos.” Photographer Bob Harder documents Hell’s Gate spill that dumped 17 people into the water (Surrey Leader, August 15, 1984). “Tragedy Strikes on the Elaho.” “Probe pondered after rafting accident.” Five deaths (Vancouver Sun, July 2, 1987). “U.S. advertising executives die in raft accident.” Five men died on the Chilko River (Calgary Herald, August 4, 1987). “Deaths underline need for caution.” “Three days [after 5 men died] a West German rafter lost his life in the same stretch of Lava Canyon, at 35 km one of the longest stretches of white water in North America” (Williams Lake Tribune, August 20, 1987). “Death toll for rafters swells with high runoff.” Rafter on Tulameen River was third fatal BC rafting accident in two weeks (The [Vancouver] Province, July 16, 1991). “Whitewater rafting death ruled accidental.” 54 year old woman (The Vancouver Sun, May 1, 1998). “Calgarian killed while rafting.” Kicking Horse River (Calgary Herald, June 21, 2007). “Woman drowns river rafting.” Chilliwack River (Province, August 18, 2008).

There’s nothing in this book about the force of regulations — federal regs supplanted the provincial in 2008 — in terms of safety equipment and training for emergencies that rafting outfits have to provide, not to mention liabilities and waivers of liability and the actual level of risk involved in rafting. The latest whitewater rafting death in BC — from a search of newspapers.com — was eight years ago (“RCMP probes rafting death.” Fifty year old woman, Kicking Horse River, Province, June 26, 2012). Has rafting become so safe in the interval? In a celebration of rafting, it’s curious and unsettling to discover no mention of the industry’s risk management. By accident or on purpose?

Grasslands along the mid-Fraser. Blacklaws photo
Carol and Rick Blacklaws with a previous book. Photo courtesy Peace Arch News

Another curious gap: there are ranches, but no cattle — not a steer to be seen, and barely a reference. Of the Cariboo-Chilcotin grasslands in general, though, “Decisions made through history have worked together to isolate this fragile environment, permitting the Grasslands to retain an ecosystem integrity. … Fortunately, much is being done today to protect this region by ranchers, residents and conservation organizations such as the Grasslands Conservation Council of BC.” That cheery news is not supported by examples. Perhaps the issues are so complex, both biologically and politically, and of such antiquity that an example — such as the “exclosure” (fencing) of small areas for study as undisturbed benchmarks, as described in the compendious Grasslands of British Columbia (Grasslands Conservation Council of British Columbia, 2004) — would have consumed more column inches than such a tangential topic would merit.

Concluding the top-to-toe tour of the mighty Fraser, the author writes that “like other great rivers” it is “a metaphor for a long life lived fully,” from its “youthful source” to the “Lower Reaches that define the river’s old age” with its “plethora of ailments.”

After delving into this colourful work, I’m convinced the Fraser — upper, middle and lower — will repay many more visits.

Winter Beach at Yale. Blacklaws photo


Peter Grant. Photo by Tony Whittingham

Peter Grant is the author of seven books about Vancouver Island (in print: Victoria: A History in Photographs; Wish You Were Here: Life on Vancouver Island in Historical Postcards; Vancouver Island Book of Everything; Vancouver Island Book of Musts; Vancouver Island Imagine, with Boomer Jerritt) and is the proprietor of the local history blogs Oak Bay Chronicles and Spanish Influenza in Victoria, Canada 1918-1920. His most recent publication is, “A 1918 Influenza Outbreak at Haskell Institute: An Early Narrative of the Great Pandemic” (Kansas History, 43:2  Summer 2020). He lives in Victoria. Editor’s note: Peter Grant has also reviewed books by Ian Gibbs and Gwen Curry for The Ormsby Review.


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

The Fraser River Delta at Richmond. Blacklaws photo
The “Blue Line” in the Strait of Georgia where the silty Fraser water meets the saltchuck, looking north. Blacklaws photo


2 comments on “1027 Tribute to the Fraser River

  1. A truly great in-depth review of book that enabled me — a 50 year resident of BC — to FINALLY begin to understand what this immense bioregion is about!

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