THE HARRISON RIVER: UNSPOILED AND UNKOWN
The Mighty Fraser and the Thompson Rivers are among the natural wonders that define British Columbians. They weave through our memories of geography lessons and vacations. But I yearned to explore another river-a shorter, less-storied river, with none of the drama of discovery that singles out the others, but which carries more than its share of BC history between its banks. I had my chance in May 2012 and toured the Harrison River by water with a private guide.
The jet boat's outboard screams as we shoot round Whippoorwill Point. The Harrison is wider than I expected and running full and fast through a forested canyon.
Snow melt has turned it turquoise, and a strong wind is knocking up whitecaps. The boat butts into the chop with bone-jarring thumps.
Guide Bill shouts above the noise, "Unusual weather! The river is typically placid." The Harrison has been a working river for over a century, navigable for vessels during the freshet. Today tugs bustle about with log booms and later fish boats catch salmon. In summer tour boats ferry visitors on fishing expeditions and ecotours, and take a lucky few to stay at B&Bs accessible only by water.
However, I see today's river through the eyes of thousands of gold-hungry prospectors who roared through here from 1858 to 1860. A wreck of an old paddle-wheeler lies rotting by the bank and reminds me of the hazards and deprivation they endured. The miners were bound for the northern end of Harrison Lake to bushwhack the 174-kilometre, Douglas Trail to Lillooet.
Around a bend, Bill shouts and points. "See those orange drawings on the rock?"
He deftly handles the boat in the gusts so I can see the ancient pictograms. "These have been carbon-dated. They're thousands of years old," Bill says as he cuts the engine.
Experts speculate that pictograms mark First Nations' fishing rights or have spiritual significance. I can identify an owl or maybe it's a cat, two stick men with heads surrounded by halos, and a nautilus-shaped spiral.
The nearby Chehalis First Nation claim the pictograms as theirs-they believe one may be a Sasquatch as this spot has more sightings of the elusive animal than anywhere on Earth. Truth is we will never know their origins, but today the drawings whisk me to the distant past of this wild place.
The mountains recede as we pass the Chehalis River mouth and its First Nation reserve. A large white cross on the opposite bank marks their Catholic cemetery. Here they laid the victims of the smallpox epidemic to rest in 1863-a sad symbol of the decimation the disease brought to so many First Nations in BC. Now the cemetery is abandoned.
The boat pitches and yaws in the waves as Bill navigates Harrison Rapids.
Pilings line one side; on top of one, an osprey nests and, next door, a Canada goose. I worry how her goslings are going to manage the ten-metre drop to the river.
The river widens and then narrows before pouring into the Fraser. I recognize the Pretty Estate Resort where yesterday I played a round at Sandpiper Golf Club and lunched at the River's Edge.
Nearby in the fall, thousands of bald eagles congregate to feast on spawning salmon and I promise to return for the spectacle. Here too is some of the best sturgeon fishing in BC.
"From August on, you can catch five types of salmon and in early spring, cutthroat trout," Bill says. "With flies."
"I'm not into fishing."
"Well, seeing that you prefer history, you'd be more interested in Kilby. The provincial park is on that point over there." Bill gestures to a sandy beach with a handful of campsites-a quiet, beautiful spot that is a popular get-away for RVers.
Behind it lies Kilby Historic Site, the heart of old Harrison Mills. The 1906 general store, hotel, and farm of the Kilby family is now a BC museum that keeps our memories alive of the once booming mill town and transportation hub.
We start our 13-kilometre return to Harrison Hot Springs. Both the river and I are quieter-we're running with the wind and waves, and I'm processing the expedition.
Paddle-wheelers may no longer ply the river carrying gold prospectors to seek their fortune or vacationers to the hot springs, but I've experienced the same breathtaking scenery they saw and relived some of BC's history. The Harrison is as unspoiled as it was a century and a half ago.
IF YOU GO
A car is essential to enjoy Harrison-Agassiz, two hours from Vancouver. If you want to experience the tours and adventures they originate in Harrison Hot Springs.
IMAGES AND CAPTIONS
All images © Julie H. Ferguson 2012
Image 1: HarrisonCanyon.jpg Harrison River empties Harrison Lake at its southern end through a wide, but steep-sided canyon, in the Coast Mountains of BC.
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