With a length of 1,375 km, the Fraser is the longest river within British Columbia and the longest of the Canadian Heritage Rivers.
The headwaters of the Fraser River are high in the Rocky Mountains. Fed by spring snowmelt, the river passes through the rolling hills and flatlands of the interior plateau, through the Coast Mountains and Fraser Canyon, and eventually enters a broad flood-plain extending 130 km to Vancouver and the river’s mouth at the Strait of Georgia, part of the Salish Sea. Unlike many other large rivers worldwide, the Fraser has never been dammed on its main stem. It is, in this sense, a truly wild river.
The Fraser River Basin is 220,000 square km, about one-quarter of BC’s landmass, and encompasses 12 major watersheds with a complex network of tributaries and lakes.
The Fraser River and its estuary are home to many fish species, including White Sturgeon, which date back to the age of the dinosaurs. These remarkable fish can grow six metres long and live up to 100 years. The Fraser is one of the world’s most productive salmon river systems, supporting all seven species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Chum and Pink Salmon as well as Steelhead and Cutthroat trout. Pacific salmon, in turn, are known to support over 160 other animal species in BC. 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.
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. Over time, this silt has created the rich, productive farmland of BC’s Lower Mainland. The lower river channels require periodic sand dredging for marine traffic at Fraser River port facilities.
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 river’s abundance for food and trade. 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 canyon and valley, home of the Stó:lō people or “people of the river.”)
Exploration associated with the European fur trade began in the 1800s. Simon Fraser, for whom the river was later named, 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 prospectors and settlers. Immigrants included those from China who were pivotal in the settlement of Interior towns and in construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. The development of BC’s forestry and fishery industries led to the establishment of local sawmills and salmon canneries in the latter half of the century. An example is the Gulf of Georgia Cannery (http://gulfofgeorgiacannery.org), now a national historic site in Steveston.
Pacific salmon have always figured prominently in the lives and cultural traditions of BC’s Indigenous peoples, and that is still so today. In 2013 the importance of salmon in the eyes of all British Columbians was recognized by the Province of BC, which designated the seven Pacific Salmon species collectively as an official provincial emblem.
Outdoors enthusiasts love its whitewater rafting and outstanding fishing. These individuals have a wide choice of recreational opportunities on and along the Fraser River – from the serene to the exhilarating. People enjoy whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, power boating, fishing, walking, cycling and camping. A number of parks can be found along the river, providing ideal spots for picnicking, watching birds and wildlife, and photographing beautiful and varied landscapes.
The urban centres of Prince George, Quesnel and Lytton offer museums, artifacts, exhibits, trails and facilities to reflect 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 and see Hell’s Gate where commercial operators provide helicopter tours and cable car rides over the river. In the lower reaches, there are options for narrated riverboat tours or fishing tours, and a visit to the Fort Langley National Historic Site where costumed interpreters provide visitors with a glimpse into the river’s past.
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.
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 infrastructure and mitigation, 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.
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