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By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

It is one of those perfect days - brilliant sunshine, powder blue skies and a soft breeze that carries the scent of summer on its breath. Along with a group of friends, I board The Native, a pretty paddle-wheeler moored on the Fraser River alongside the New Westminster boardwalk.

"The Native" paddle wheeler, berthed at New Westminster quay

The scene along the waterfront is lively: a whiskered old man, hat at his feet, plays Up A Lazy River on his mouth-harmonica. A teenager on skates, whizzes past me; a woman in a business suit, cell phone to her ear, strides along briskly; a chubby toddler poses for his parents who coo to him in Chinese.

The Quay at New Westminster

Boats at the New Westminster wharf

As we settle down on the boat, a horn signals our departure, the captain's voice booms over the PA system as he welcomes us aboard, and the paddles begin to churn. Our hostesses bustle around taking orders for the bar and a buzz of animated conversation floats across the deck as we cast off on our two-and-a-half hour cruise upstream.

Crossing the Fraser - by bridge and barge

At first glance, the Fraser river is muscular-an industrial waterway shouldering log booms, tugs and barges to the lumber mills lining its route through the Fraser Valley. But the Fraser is much more than that. It weaves through the lives of the 2.4 million people who live and work along its 1,375 kilometre route from the rugged mountains deep in the heart of British Columbia, to the Delta where it empties into the Gulf of Georgia. It nourishes a unique ecology of plant, fish and bird life, and has been a partner in the Province's history and development over the past two centuries.

"Braided" Log boom

Busy boom-boat nudging logs into place

As the scenery unfolds, so does the history of the Fraser River ... the old gold rush days, (when there were more paddle-wheelers along the Fraser than on the Mississippi) are gone, but the Fraser remains at the heart of B.C's economy, the lumber industry in particular. Logs braided into raft-like booms, lie against the shoreline, and cheeky little boom-boats dance around them, nudging errant sticks into place. Self-important tugs draw barges piled high with wood chips or sawdust-perhaps not as shiny as nuggets or gold-dust, but in today's marketplace, almost as valuable.

Three Bridges and Skytrain

Approaching the Patullo Bridge and the Railway Swing Bridge

We move smoothly under the first of several bridges that span the river - Surrey's Skybridge which from this angle looks like a giant harp, with its strings aslant against the sky. Just beyond this is the venerable old Pattullo bridge opened in 1937. Its orange Meccano-construction-like archway, is a familiar sight to commuters who drive its lanes every day as they stream into New Westminster from Surrey. Also, along our journey this morning, is the century-old Fraser River Swing Bridge that still carries freight and passenger trains; we edge through it's narrow port-side corridor.

Paddle wheels at work

Breaking into open water past the bridge, the river is a pastiche of impressions. An osprey sits on a piling, its feathers ruffled by the breeze. A speedboat buzzes past us like an angry hornet. A goods train worms its way along the distant Surrey shoreline. Hugging the bank, a log salvage barge, its crane outstretched like some ungainly pterodactyl's beak, retrieves an errant deadhead. Wild grass, alder and cottonwood trees doze gently on small islands in mid-channel and up ahead, the coastal mountains smudge the sky in blue and grey silhouettes. Powder-puff clouds drift lazily overhead.

Cold cuts and salad lunch buffet

We help ourselves to a buffet of cold cuts and salads, as the gates to what was once the B.C. Penitentiary come into view on our left. No longer a grim fortress, this has been transformed into a romantic restaurant-"Dublin Castle" complete with fairy-tale like columns and ramparts;

Dublin Castle Restaurant

Coquitlam's Mary Hill lies further inland, its deforested slopes and jumble of tightly packed buildings, a scar against the hillside. The historic Fraser Mills lumberyard and buildings that existed along the river's edge are folded away into the past now, and in its place, I'm told that a residential subdivision may take shape in the next few years.

Under the new Port Mann bridge, the old bridge in the process of dismantling

Past TimberWest's log sort area, the new Port Mann bridge looms against the sky. We glide under its mammoth concrete arches, and just beyond its stanchions, the old bridge is a crumbling mess of concrete and steel rods. Now in the process of demolition, it will soon be the stuff of history, of faded photograph albums and anecdotal tales told by Fraser Valley old-timers.

Dredger at Surrey docks

But the Fraser River endures, an inscrutable witness to the passage of time and change-coupled to B.C.'s past, and forever linked to its future.


More information about the many delightful Paddlewheeler cruises :

PHOTOS: Margaret Deefholts

1. "The Native" paddle wheeler, berthed at New Westminster quay
2. The Quay at New Westminster
3. Boats at the New Westminster wharf
4. Three Bridges and Skytrain
5. Approaching the Patullo Bridge and the Railway Swing Bridge
6. Dublin Castle Restaurant
7. "Braided" Log boom
8. Cold cuts and salad lunch buffet
9. Paddle wheels at work
10. Busy boom-boat nudging logs into place
11. Under the new Port Mann bridge, the old bridge in the process of dismantling
12. Crossing the Fraser - by bridge and barge
13. Dredger at Surrey docks

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freelance travel writers Jane Cassie and Margaret Deefholts

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