Salish Current is exploring in a series of articles the Fraser River and its rich, varied and threatened life. This week, Part 1: Not the Columbia.
The Fraser is the Northwest’s great ghost river, largely invisible to those living below the 49th parallel, who equate “great river” with their own Columbia. The confusion between the two goes back as long as Europeans have trod these lands.
In 1793, on the way to completing the first known transcontinental crossing north of Mexico, the Scottish fur trader-turned-explorer Alexander Mackenzie followed a native path over a low spot in the divide that separates the Pacific and Arctic watersheds and today’s Alberta and British Columbia.
He and his voyageurs and guides steered their birchbark canoe down one creek, then a bigger one, then down what’s now called the MacGregor River, which brought them to a yet bigger river, Tacoutche Tesse, “the Mighty One” in the local Carrier tongue. After flowing northwest, Tacoutche Tesse turned south, and Mackenzie assumed it must be the celebrated Columbia. He reveled in being the first visitor to descend it, until rapids forced him to cut overland to the Pacific.
Twelve years later, Simon Fraser came to follow the “Columbia” to the sea. He and his voyageurs braved ferocious rapids, near-fatal capsizes, cliffside traverses on knotted hanging withes, and grueling portages. They were fueled along with way by an almost daily diet of salmon—dried, fresh, roasted, boiled, served with salmon oil and salmon roe. When they finally reached the river’s mouth, he was gobsmacked to discover he had not in fact spent the last two years journeying down the Columbia. As consolation, he became its new namesake.
Mackenzie and Fraser were in a way unknowingly prescient. Though it does not cross the border as the real Columbia does, the Fraser is intimately tied to the lands and waters to the south and the creatures (human and otherwise) that dwell on them and in them. The effects, welcome and unwelcome, flow back and forth between Washington, British Columbia, and their respective watersheds.
Fish, gold and floods
Washington’s three beloved orca pods are critically dependent on the Fraser River’s struggling Chinook salmon during their summer feeding off the San Juan Islands. Washington’s fishers depend on the much more numerous but likewise diminished Fraser reds, the world’s largest sockeye run and the river’s main commercial fishery. This summer, Canadian fishers watched and fumed as their Americans counterparts raked in the reds offshore while their own Department of Fisheries and Oceans, concerned about disappointing returns, shut down their harvest.
In the mid-19th century British Columbia itself came dangerously close to getting dragged into the American net by the weight of the Fraser River—in particular by the profuse gold found buried in its sediments. As California’s gold beds petered out, tens of thousands of forty-niners and other fortune-seekers poured across the border and up the river. Some talked of insurrection and annexation; considering the United States’ history of annexations and northward invasions, and what happened to Mexican control of Texas after gringos poured in, such rumbles couldn’t be shrugged off.
The 54-40 (“or fight”) border demanded by American expansionists would have conveniently run just above the Fraser’s northernmost bend. The 49th parallel, which the two sides eventually settled on, conveniently runs eight miles below its southern bend and five miles below its outlet at the Georgia Strait.
But water respects no borders. Though they now lie mostly in separate watersheds, northwest Washington and southwest British Columbia share a common floodplain, as residents were grimly reminded when the waters rose 32 years ago and again last year. Until 1924, when engineers diked and drained it to create new farmland, a substantial lake spread across the flattened basin now known as Sumas Prairie. In flood season this Sumas Lake grew, spreading north toward the banks of the Fraser and occasionally spilling south over the border to inundate the town of Sumas and the farmland beyond it.
Until several hundred years ago Sumas Lake received an even bigger infusion: the Nooksack River, the main outlet for Mount Baker’s melting snows. Near present-day Lynden, the Nooksack turned slightly northward toward Sumas Lake and the Fraser, carving an oversized channel that the punier Sumas River now occupies. Sometime in the past millennium, the Nooksack underwent what’s called an “avulsion” and turned west and south toward Bellingham Bay.
But as every homeowner with a leaky basement knows, water remembers; once it’s found a way, it tends to find its way back. In the especially rainy Novembers of 1990 and 2021, the Nooksack overran its banks and reoccupied its old channel, reconstituting Sumas Lake. In 2021, only the heroic efforts of 300 sandbag-slinging volunteers blocked the boomeranging Nooksack waters from drowning the pumping station at Barrowtown that keeps Sumas Prairie from reverting permanently to Sumas Lake. The 2021 flood was the most destructive in memory, ravaging homes and farms that had been spared for the last century.
Where water goes, people, trade and culture follow. Northwest Washington’s Nooksack Tribe and the central Fraser Valley’s Sto:lo First Nations are joined by many commonalities of language and, often, ancestry.
Two mighty rivers
The Fraser and Columbia both start as freshets on the western slope of the Canadian Rockies, passing less than 20 miles from each other. The Columbia then travels through one province and two states, and its tributaries drain two more. Thanks to that 49th parallel border settlement, the Fraser stays enclosed in British Columbia. Nevertheless, it hurtles and meanders its way through even more dramatic geographic and demographic shifts than the Columbia.
The Fraser starts a few stone’s throws from the continental divide (aka Alberta’s western border), heads nearly due northwest for 210 miles and then cuts sharply south for about 340 miles, descending a vertiginously steep black-rock canyon and emerging with a boulder-spitting roar at the chokepoint called Hell’s Gate. It then arcs lazily west to metro Vancouver.
Along the way it skirts the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies (Mount Robson), traverses vast empty or near-empty stretches of alpine meadows, canyon cliffs, dry forest and rainforest, sagebrush steppe and alluvial bottomlands, and finally a metropolis of 2.6 million people. Its largest tributary, the Thompson River, crosses Canada’s driest quarter, where seven inches of rain fall each year on land where prickly pear cactus is said to grow, a parade of signs warn of bighorn sheep crossing the highway and a replica Wild West town is available for rent as a film or TV set.
Seen from above, this unusual course looks like an inverted native fishhook, baited at the headwaters and tied to the line at the delta—a resemblance so apt you might wonder whether intelligent design steers geography, if not evolution. For this is a river of fish. One species, the white sturgeon, white sturgeon is getting scarcer (it’s now designated as endangered in the Upper Fraser and its largest tributary, the Nechako) but still remarkable—a living prehistoric monster, the largest freshwater fish in North America and perhaps the oldest in the world. Six species—the full house of Pacific salmon, plus steelhead—are remarkable for their numbers, even in these diminished times.
Around the middle of the 20th century, as Bruce Brown writes in Mountain in the Clouds, his seminal account of the assault on the Northwest’s salmon runs, “the Fraser supplanted the Columbia as the dominant salmon river south of the Yukon.” (With the Arctic warming at triple the global pace, the Yukon’s runs may have since fallen behind the Fraser’s.)
A river running wild and free
The reason for the first inversion is simple, though it’s just the start of the story: dams and the lack of them. The Columbia has been choked and tamed by 14 dams, three of them in British Columbia, plus nearly 50 more on its tributaries. Columbia salmon runs are less than a sixth what they used to be. The Fraser, by contrast, still runs improbably wild and free—”forever mad, ravenous and lonely” in the words of Bruce Hutchison, its best-known chronicler, “[and] in potential usefulness, the largest source of electrical power left in North America.” It has never been dammed.
That’s not for lack of trying. Over the years, engineers and policymakers have urged diverting Fraser water to the Columbia (to compensate dam-related losses there), damming the Fraser upstream from Prince George, and damming it 300 miles downstream in the Moran Canyon, beside Pavilion Mountain. In 1970 BC Hydro, which inherited the Moran project after an American effort failed in the 1950s, went so far as to sink test bores in the canyon. The Moran Dam would have formed a reservoir 160 miles long, towered half again as high as the Grand Coulee, and created twice as much installed power capacity. It would also have decapitated 70% of the Fraser basin’s spawning reaches and, by impounding silt, raising water temperature, and disrupting the river’s flow and timing, would have ravaged the even richer spawning grounds downstream.
Fortunately for the fish, the Moran and other Fraser projects arose a decade or three after the Columbia had been tamed. By then environmental rules, popular awareness, and political pressures had begun to change and, as Richard C. Bocking writes in Mighty River: A Portrait of the Fraser, “the highest tide of faith in engineering mega-projects had swept by.” Popular protest and scientific criticism swamped schemes to dam the Fraser mainstem.
That didn’t stop the damming of tributaries up and down the watershed, from the Seton and Lillooet Rivers in mid-basin to the Stave River and Wahleach Creek in the valley and, just outside metro Vancouver, the Coquitlam and Alouette. But the most important branches remain unbroken, with one exception: In the late 1940s, at the B.C. government’s urging, the Aluminum Company of Canada dammed the Nechako River, which merges with the Fraser at Prince George. At the far end of the 130-mile reservoir thus formed, Alcan drilled a ten-mile tunnel, 16 times the height of Niagara Falls, through the Coast Range, diverting 40 percent of the Nechako’s flow to drive turbines that power its massive smelter at Kitimat.
It was the reverse of the way the Columbia got its aluminum plants. There, the federal Bonneville Power Administration, desperate to sell surplus electricity from its new dams, lured aluminum companies with cheap, guaranteed contracts. [See also “Intalco restart: can ‘green’ aluminum get ‘clean’ power?” Salish Current, July 21, 2022.]
British Columbia instead offered up a still-pristine river as a sacrifice to industrial growth.
As Bocking tells it, the sacrifice in other terms was enormous. Alcan, asked to drill a tunnel under the dam to release some cold water into the drained Nechako channel and give its salmon a fighting chance, insisted instead on a spillway that inundated the homeland of the Cheslatta people. Alcan and federal Department of Indian Affairs gave the Cheslatta just days to sign over their land and clear out, for piddling compensation and unfulfilled promises of resettlement. Cheslatta trappers returned from their lines to find their villages abandoned and burned to the ground. Alcan battled every demand to release water, not because its smelter needed the extra power that water would produce but because it could sell it on to U.S. customers.
Still the Nechako’s endangered sturgeon and threatened chinook hold on, and new campaigns have rallied to give them a fighting chance.
Logged, diked and dynamited
But there’s more than one way to kill a river. Downstream, the Sumas Prairie and other fertile flatlands have been logged and razed and replanted, first with crops and pasture, then with housing tracts, shopping strips and warehouses. To safeguard these against the natural flood cycles that deposited that fertile soil in the first place, landowners and public agencies have modified nearly 1,400 miles of stream with some 1,200 floodgates, dikes and other flood control structures, which stop fish from passing but can’t stop fertilizer and pesticide runoff and the toxic dust of vehicle tires and brake linings from washing down to the waterways.
The river itself, by carving its deep gash through the mountains, gave an opening to railways and road builders seeking to link the orphan outposts on the Georgia Strait to the rest of Canada (and ensure they didn’t fall into America’s clutches after all). Incredibly, and brutally, they managed to pack two railways into the narrow canyon—the Canadian Pacific on the western and the Canadian National on the even more difficult eastern wall—plus the Trans-Canada Highway, oil and gas pipelines, and high-tension powerlines supplying the energy-hungry millions on the coast. There’s something deeply incongruous, even unsettling, about a mile-long train of coal or oil-tank cars snaking along the perilous canyon, with birds and riffles the only other sounds.
The first railroad, Bocking recounts, “was the instrument that brought British Columbia into the Canadian Confederation. The second, the CNR, nearly destroyed the salmon on the Fraser River.” Cutting costs and rushing to finish, its builders “literally shot the whole side of the mountain into the river,” an alarmed Marine and Fisheries agent wrote in 1913, “filling up numerous bays where fish used to rest.” The new obstructions “make it next to impossible for the fish to get through.”
Worse was soon to come. In 1914 crews blasting a tunnel filled Hell’s Gate with rubble. Local tribal people saved a few runs by carrying fish up and over the blockage in baskets, but others perished. Pink salmon were extirpated from the Upper Fraser. Salmon returns crashed at the river’s mouth, where the canneries that vacuumed up the arriving fish had colluded in covering up the trouble in the canyon. The government finally had to act; it blamed the usual scapegoats and banned traditional dip and side netting along the canyon.
Fish and habitat in a warming world
The continuing catastrophe led eventually to joint Canadian-U.S. management of the Fraser sockeye fishery, and finally, in 1946, to fishways being built along Hell Gate’s. Sockeye runs recovered, and then became erratic as a warming climate threw a new wrench into the river’s workings. Soaring water temperatures brought crashing salmon numbers in 1994, which was supposed to be a bumper year. (Sockeye runs typically peak and ebb on a four-year cycle.) Returns soared to century-old levels in 2010, and forecasters expected a strong run in 2022—which, indeed, they got on rivers further up the B.C. coast.
But the Fraser basin received a one-two climatic punch. Massive floods in November 2021 scoured the eggs out of many of the redds—the term for the nests created by spawning fish. Then an intense drought this year warmed the waters, turned river channels into barren sandbars, and pushed wildfire season into October. The total sockeye return, predicted at 9.8 million only reached 6.8 million.
A population explosion of bark-piercing mountain pine beetles, another symptom of climate warming, has left British Columbia’s forests riddled with dead tinder, fueling wildfires. They make life harder for salmon as well, by adding to the erosion caused by a century of commercial clearcutting. Soils that the lost trees held in place now wash into the streams, choking the redds. “It’s been a slew of insults,” said Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, which works to safeguard and restore habitat along the Fraser.
Even cherished refuges may not be safe much longer. Along the 50-mile “gravel reach” between Hope and Mission, nestled between two busy highways, sits an archipelago of bridge-free, undeveloped islands, the last undiked habitat in the valley, with prime Chinook, pink and sturgeon spawning and rearing grounds. But since 2016 some islands have been clearcut and purchased by prospective developers. “It’s the most important part of the river,” said Mark Angelo, an internationally celebrated river conservationist spearheading a campaign to secure protection for the islands. “And the most threatened.”
Even where human activity and negligence don’t intrude, the temperamental geology of the Fraser Canyon can wreak its own devastation. In June 2019 a natural slide dropped 3 million cubic feet of rock into the canyon at remote Big Bar, north of Lillooet, creating a new waterfall and new barrier to fish passage.
But still the Mighty One endures and, against so many obstacles, its fish keep returning. In coming weeks the Salish Current will explore the Fraser and its rich, varied and threatened life. Meet the people who cherish and defend it and discover the challenges they face and the creative solutions they’re finding for the “slew of insults” to North America’s greatest salmon river.
- Part 2: The flood and building back better
- Part 3: Saving wild salmon versus the net pen industry
- Part 4: The death of a thousand cut-offs
- Part 5: The bleeding Heart of the Fraser
—Reported by Eric Scigliano
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