Our home port is a marina on the North Arm of the Fraser, so the first and last hours of every trip we take are spent on the river. When we chug downstream in our boat at a speed of six or seven knots (10 km/h), the shoreline looks very different than it does from the windows of a car racing along the road at 50 or 60 km/h. Much of what we see is invisible from land. And because rivers are always in a state of flux, we never make the same journey twice.
The Fraser is a working river, full of both commercial and pleasure boat traffic, and as soon as we leave our marina, we are alert to potential hazards.
The North Arm is too shallow to accommodate ocean-going freighters, but it is a principal route for tugboats pulling barges and log booms upstream and down.
The barges might be loaded with rail cars or other types of general cargo, but most heading downstream are full of wood chips from the sawmills located in Richmond, New Westminster and further upriver. They are being transported to the few pulp and paper mills still operating on the coast - Campbell River, perhaps, or maybe Crofton on Vancouver Island. We often see them moored along the banks, waiting to be joined together in a train up to four barges long and pulled across the Strait.
While some of the log booms are small enough to be handled by one tug, others are up to half a kilometre long and require the combined efforts of a number of tugs to keep them moving. One or two do the pulling, while several others ride the herd like cowboys, making sure the boom stays together and nudging it along from the rear and the side.
The tugboat captains take advantage of the tides when timing their trips, and we have learned to do the same. A strong spring tide can add or subtract two or three knots to our speed, depending on which way we travel. We have learned from experience to always return to our marina on a rising tide. Because barges and log booms are not easily manoeuvrable, we know we must stay out of their way. But they are not the only hazards on the waterway.
We must be constantly on the lookout for floating debris, particularly logs and deadheads, that might seriously damage, or even sink, our craft. Deadheads are especially frightening because they are so hard to see. They are water-soaked logs that float along perpendicularly with just one end occasionally breaking the water’s surface to alert us to their presence. They have been known to punch holes into the hulls of luckless pleasure boats, a fate we will do our utmost to avoid.
Experience has also taught us to keep a constant eye on our depth sounder when we are on the river. The Fraser carries millions of tons of sand, silt and clay downstream every year. It deposits much of this material on the riverbed and on the ocean floor near the mouth of the estuary. The result is a constantly shifting river bottom and a huge expanse of tidal flats that stretch for miles out into the Strait of Georgia.
It is easy for a boater, unfamiliar with the river, to stray out of the dredged channel and run aground, and that is exactly what we did early in our boating career. We were heading upriver one morning and unwittingly wandered into the shallow area along the north bank. Suddenly, we realized that we were no longer moving and that our keel was buried in the soft, sandy bottom. To make matters worse, the tide was falling. This meant that if we remained stuck, we would have to wait close to 12 hours until the water rose again to a high enough level to float us free.
As luck would have it, a log salvager in the area, a dead ringer for Relic of the old *Beachcombers* TV series, noticed our predicament and pulled us free in time. We don’t know his name, but his boat was called *Buckshot*. We are still grateful he spared us the embarrassment and inconvenience of spending a whole day high and dry at the river’s edge, objects of pity and derision to all passersby.
This summer will be our tenth boating season, and by now, we are quite comfortable on the river. We remain aware of potential dangers, but are confident in our ability to avoid them. We can relax and enjoy the trip and the many points of interest along the way.
For centuries, even millennia, people have lived, worked and played on the Fraser River and along its banks, but history is a work in progress. Even in the short decade since we began travelling the river, there have been changes.
For example, for the past four years, the first thing we check out after leaving our marina is the Canada Line bridge that is being built across the Fraser’s Middle Arm, a waterway that separates Lulu Island and Sea Island. We can see the rapid transit bridge as we cross the entrance to the Middle Arm, and know from news reports that it is close to completion. Perhaps when we return from our final boat trip late this summer, it will be in operation.
The northeast part of Sea Island and the area now called Marpole directly across the river was once known as Eburne. Harry Eburne was one of Richmond’s early pioneers, involved in farming and business ventures both in Richmond and Vancouver. At one time, a busy little community bearing his name existed on Sea Island, boasting a post office/general store, a butcher shop, a blacksmith and a Presbyterian church. On the Vancouver side, the Eburne Sawmill operated for years just west of where a cement plant stands today. A swing bridge connected Eburne and Marpole, but it was demolished after the Oak Street Bridge opened in 1957.
Eburne has vanished, its land and buildings expropriated by the airport. For a while a building occupied by the North Fraser Port Authority sat on the site of the old Grauer’s store in Eburne. Its mandate was to oversee operations on the North and Middle Arms of the Fraser. As we were returning to our marina one day, a loud voice startled us by roaring through a loudspeaker mounted on the NFPA building, “Slow down! Reduce your wake!”
At first, we thought they were speaking to us, but realized that this couldn’t be the case as our boat cannot travel fast enough to create a noticeable wake. Then we saw a speeding powerboat with a huge roostertail of water behind it, the operator oblivious to the discomfort his wake was causing other boaters, not to mention the damage it was doing to the foreshore. Unfortunately, he probably couldn’t hear the message over the thunder of his engine.
No one remains to scold errant boaters, however, because on January 1, 2008, the North Fraser Port Authority amalgamated with the Vancouver Port Authority and the Fraser River Port Authority to form the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, with offices in Canada Place.
As we continue downriver, we come to McDonald Beach Regional Park on Sea Island. This is an off-leash area for dogs, and we can hear them barking before we see them. Professional dog sitters bring their charges here for fun and exercise, and some of the packs include six to eight dogs of all sizes, shapes, colours and temperaments. Their joy is contagious, and while I watch them race around and play, my own spirits lift.
On the north shore, we can see the Marine Drive Golf Course, the first of four courses that border the river’s edge. Nearby, lies the McCleery Golf Course, while the Point Grey Golf Course and the Musqueam Golf Course lie farther west.
In between the McCleery and Point Grey Courses is a strip of land that was once the site of the B.C. Forest Service Shipyard and Maintenance Depot. Boats belonging to the provincial forest ministry, which were used to monitor the activities of the coastal forest industry, were repaired and serviced here. An informational plaque tells us that many of the ministry’s boats were built in this shipyard, in operation from 1941 to 1981. It was the last one on the coast to construct wooden boats, some of which are now privately owned and prized for their uniqueness. Nothing remains of the B.C. Forest Service buildings. They have all been razed, and the site has been divided into large waterfront lots that will soon sport luxury homes.
Just west of this area is the site of the old Celtic Cannery that opened in 1897, the heyday of the salmon canning industry on the Fraser. After merging with B.C. Packers in 1902, the cannery continued to operate until 1917, after which it was used as a fish camp and then a shipyard. The aging buildings that still stand have been used in a variety of ways over the years, and the old dock in front of them is slowly deteriorating.
In contrast, Deering Island, which was once part of this site, is now covered with upscale homes enjoying a million-dollar view of the river and airport. They were under construction when we first travelled the river, looking raw and somewhat ugly in their bare newness. Since then, the landscaping has matured, and they are now quite attractive.
As we continue down river, Iona Island slips past on our port. A wastewater treatment plant is located here, as well as a regional park popular with birdwatchers and cyclists. The North Arm Jetty, under construction from 1914-17 and lengthened further in 1935, extends out from the island, past Sturgeon Banks and into the Strait of Georgia. It acts as a breakwater, calming the water on its north side, and making possible the Point Grey Booming Grounds, where acres of log booms are moored en route to sawmills farther inland.
The booming grounds are further protected by another breakwater extending out from Point Grey, and, tucked in between this wall and the log booms, is a little anchorage known as Coward’s Cove. If the wind is kicking up in the Strait and waves are too big for comfort, boats can hunker down here until the weather calms down.
It’s a lovely spot, with views into Howe Sound to the north, Mount Baker to the south and Vancouver Island to the west. There is much to see: boats entering and leaving the river, planes taking off and landing at YVR, and a plethora of birds - eagles, herons, gulls, crows and others - all searching for dinner in the river and near the shore. Seals raise their wedge-shaped heads near our hull to gaze at us with friendly, soulful eyes. Sometimes our nights are disturbed by the plaintive cries of their babies left alone on the booms or rocks while the mothers search for food. It’s amazing how much their call sounds like a child crying, “Mom! Mom!”
Coward’s Cove is a great destination for a day trip, but a heads-up is in order for newcomers. The first time we dropped our hook in that peaceful spot, we were startled to realize that many of the other boaters, as well as the hikers on the breakwater, were not wearing any clothes! Further investigation revealed that Wreck Beach, the Lower Mainland’s only nude beach, lay on the other side of the jetty. Nudity is optional there, however, and while we have visited the beach several times to stretch our legs, we haven’t gone native - yet!
JULY 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER