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By Jane Cassie
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

We've driven the Fraser Canyon so many times over the last three years I could do it with my eyes closed. In fact, when my husband's behind the wheel, I sometimes do. This scenic highway is the link between our White Rock residence and Cariboo retreat and though the journey has become a regular routine, it's really worth staying awake for.

Usually we zip through in an effort to get to our lakeshore sanctuary, but on this warm sunny day, we take time for stops and exploration. In the process, we discover that this beautiful byway is a destination, in itself.

Photo 1 Hope is known as the chainsaw Carving Capital of Canada

Hope, the 'gateway to the canyon,' is a mountain-enshrouded enclave that any woodsman would love. In 1808 Simon Fraser had passed through this area in search of a waterway to the coast. Forty years later the Hudson's Bay Company had set up a fur trading fort. More recently -it's been named 'the chainsaw carving capital of Canada'. Go figure. With all the timber around, it makes sense to whittle a little wood. Eagles, grizzlies, wolves and bobcats are just a few of the chiseled images that are poised in park areas.

Photo 2 Town of Yale is known for gold panning

Historical tales weave a fine yarn when we check out the next two-bit town of Yale. It's hard to believe that this sleepy hollow was once the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Fran. When the miners hollered out, "There's gold in them thar hills," they must have all come running. Twenty hotels and fifteen saloons quickly rose from the dusty streets in this first incorporated town on B.C.'s mainland.

There are walking tours, gold panning demonstrations and museum memorabilia that share the stories. As well as checking out one of our province's oldest churches, St. John the Divine Anglican, we read about Andrew Onderdonk, a motivated pioneer who was contracted to get the Canadian Pacific Railway chugging through the canyon.

The historical saga continues when we pass through a dot on the map known appropriately as Spuzzum. Although it's certainly not 'a must see,' this place, interpreted as 'Little Flat' by the natives, was a toll station in the mid 1800s. At that time, primitive passenger boats were the only way to get across the canyon. As soon as gold rush mania took over, the cruisers were replaced by the Alexandra Bridge and this money maker evolved into the Wagon Road tolling station. Everyone had pretty deep pockets back then, even the highway workers!

Photo 8 Picnic sites along the way

We cross to the other side of the canyon and stop at the Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park. Although there's been a bridge at this locale since 'the rush', it's been replaced on four different occasions. After a ten minute stroll, we reach the remains of a tarnished relic, the predecessor to the one that we've just crossed. The wobbly silver-plated trellis beneath my feet leads to nowhere and feels more like a shaky scaffold. I edge out gingerly, and just long enough to provide a smile for that quick photo moment.

Photo 3 Alexander Lodge still stands today

After whizzing by the Alexander Lodge, an antique B&B from the gold glory days, our ribbon of highway seems to take flight to higher ground. While hugging up to the steep mountainside, we bisect evergreen thickets and cleave through tunnels of bedrock. "China Bar, Sailor Bar, Hell's Gate…" We call out each name in succession and, like a couple of kids, hold our breath while driving through the granite-gouged passageways.

Photo 4 Tunnels of bedrock

The claustrophobic canyon measures thirty five meters at the narrowest mark and the river below can run as deep as fifty meters during spring run-off. Two hundred million gallons of water forge through this narrow gorge per minute, a figure that doubles the volume of Niagara Falls.

Photo 5 Elvis Rocks the Canyon Eatery

It comes as no surprise that taking on this aqueduct for Simon Fraser and his men would have been a tad challenging. In order to conquer the feat, they had to string up bark ladders and tackle the torrents on make-shift rafts. After losing a few along the way, they were pretty sure the river resembled the gates of hell, hence the name.

Photo 6 Hells Gate Airtram

Photo 7 Hells Gate Airtram going down!

Today, getting to the other side of this gulch is a breeze. From our Hells Gate Airtram, we're privy to breathtaking views of both the canyon and the International Fishways. And while making the airborne decent from the highway to the river rock below, just like the rest of this Fraser Canyon journey, our eyes are wide open.


PHOTOS by Brent Cassie:

1. Hope is known as the chainsaw Carving Capital of Canada
2. Town of Yale is known for gold panning
3. Alexander Lodge still stands today
4. Tunnels of bedrock
5. Elvis Rocks the Canyon eatery
6. Hells Gate Airtram
7. Hells Gate Airtram going down!
8. Picnic sites along the way

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