With a length of 1,375 km, the Fraser holds the title as the longest river in British Columbia. It passes through a variety of landscapes from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the rolling hills and flatlands of the interior plateau, through the Coast Mountains and Fraser Canyon, eventually entering a broad flood plain extending 130 km to Vancouver and the river’s outlet in the Strait of Georgia.
As it traverses the southern breadth of the province, it passes through diverse ecosystems. The wetlands of the Fraser River delta are an important staging area on the Pacific Flyway, supporting the highest density of wintering waterfowl and migrating shorebirds in British Columbia. The river also supports the most productive salmon fishery in the world. Its vast network of lakes and tributaries provide rearing and spawning habitat to millions of salmon from all six species endemic to the Pacific drainage. Another 29 species of fish inhabit the river and 87 more are found in the estuary.
Melting snow is the main source of the river, which has a high silt content that gives the river a milky appearance in the upper reaches and a grayish-brown colour near the mouth. Annual silt loads are estimated to be 20 million tonnes of silt, clay and gravel, with 3.5 million tonnes being deposited annually in the lower reaches of the river valley, and the remainder being carried into the Strait of Georgia. This silt has created rich farmlands but the river channels require periodic dredging to maintain deep sea marine traffic.
First Nations people have lived along this mighty river for at least 10,000 years, travelling its waters from community to community and relying on the rich abundance and diversity of plants, fish and other animals within the Fraser watershed. Pacific salmon have always figured prominently in the lives and cultural traditions of First Nations, and that is still so today. The river has borne different names in different regions, such as “Ltha Koh” (in the upper reaches, land of the Stellat’en people) and “Stó:lō” (in the lower reaches, home of the Stó:lō people or “people of the river.”)
Exploration associated with the fur trade provided the first European influence within the watershed. Simon Fraser undertook explorations in 1808 on behalf of the North West Company brought attention to the vast and rich territory beyond the Rocky Mountains. By 1827, the first fur trading post was established on the river at Fort Langley. It remained the centre of commerce and trade until 1858 when New Westminster was selected as the site for the capital of the mainland government.
Gold discoveries in the lower Fraser River Valley in 1858 and upriver in the Cariboo in 1861 stimulated a rapid increase in settlement and transportation along the river. The river still represented a major obstacle to travel between urban centres in the lower valley until the construction of the first major bridge over the river in 1891.
The Fraser River has played a huge role in the development of British Columbia, its settlement, transportation and economy.
The upper reaches of the Fraser are known for canoeing and kayaking. Outdoors enthusiasts love its exhilarating whitewater rafting and outstanding fishing.
The urban centres of Prince George, Quesnel and Lytton offer museums, artefacts, exhibits, trails and facilities that provide a wealth of opportunities for understanding the character and heritage of the region. Below Lytton, the river enters the scenic and historic Fraser Canyon. Visitors can take a day trip with one of the many rafting expeditions in the canyon, or at Hell’s Gate where commercial operators provide helicopter tours and cable car rides over the river. At Fort Langley National Historic Site, costumed interpreters provide visitors with a glimpse into the river’s past.
Who Manages the River?
There is no single management authority for the Fraser River. Different governments and authorities have responsibilities for activities that impact the Fraser River and the surrounding watershed – including transportation, flood protection, fish and fisheries, habitat protection, port activities, agriculture, waste management and pollutants, land use and zoning.
The non-profit Fraser Basin Council facilitates collaboration among governing bodies and other interests for the sustainability of the Fraser River and watershed..
The Port of Vancouver at the mouth of the Fraser is the largest port in Canada and the third-largest in North America. It facilitates trade with more than 160 world economies, and in 2014, handled 140 million tonnes of cargo valued at $187 billion.
The Fraser River Discovery Centre, in New Westminster, plays a key role in presenting the river’s contribution to the life, history, and future of British Columbia and its people. Read more about its education programs in our Success Stories.