Westham Island: Swimming in the Fraser

Saturday, May 9, 2020

My brother’s place has the Fraser River just outside of his backyard so he’s paddled that section many times. I have paddled it a few times so lately we have been keen to explore different parts of the Fraser River. I have previously paddled around the northern arm so I was keen to explore the southern arm and so was Vital. After looking over a map I decided that a paddle from Richmond to Westham Island would be interesting and Vital and the tides agreed with me.

Here is also a fascinating piece on how the Fraser River played a key role in the formation of what is modern-day British Columbia. Though it should be acknowledged that Indigenous people have inhabited these lands long before the more recent colonization by Europeans.

We departed from the No. 2 Road Fishing Pier and Float which was closed due to the pandemic and fenced-off when we arrived. We opened a section of construction fencing to get out to the dock. We justified ourselves because it was so early in the morning and no one was around so there was no possibility of a crowd. In my understanding of the virus, the pandemic restrictions are to prevent the spread of the virus which is going to be dependent on exposure time and concentration, both of which would be modulated by a large crowd. With a near-zero chance of spread, ourselves as pre-symptomatic transmission as the only real possibility, we felt we could bend the rules and venture out on the empty dock.

We paddled east toward the tip of Shady Island before turning south to make our way across the Fraser. There was a definite change in the current as we rounded the tip of the island and entered the faster-moving water of the Fraser’s large arm. As we progressed into the channel we saw what at first we thought was a BC Ferries boat from a distance. We reasoned that it must be coming into a shipyard for repair. But as the vessel became closer and clearer we realized it was not a BC Ferries vessel, but rather a Seaspan cargo ferry. It was approaching fast so we decided it would be best to let it pass. At this point, the two of us started to drift further apart with Vital riding the current further downriver to get behind the ferry sooner, whereas I had was treading water in the current staying further upriver and waiting for the ferry to pass.

After the ferry passed we continued onward. I had surveyed Google Maps before our trip but, apparently, not well enough. I did notice that there were some stones ahead from the jetty in the middle of the channel the projects from the west-most tip of the South Arm Marshes but I failed to realize just how prominent they were. I approached, with what in hindsight proved to be too much speed, and was perhaps slightly distracted by a speed boat on the south riverbank heading out to sea. That is when my board stopped abruptly! My fin had hit something and when my board stopped I, however, did not. Unprepared for the impact, I lost my balance and stumbled forward. The next thing I know I am shoulder deep in the Fraser for a brisk morning swim! Vital looked on from a distance confused as to what the heck had happened!? You can see where I travel over the jetty, mind you, we were paddling at high tide so it was less evident on the water than the map suggests, just before the 2 km mark on the map at the bottom of the post. In hindsight, I am thankful that I did come down on the jetty. I collected myself and we continued.

We cut across to the north shore of Westham Island and then paddled up and into the cove that leads in towards the Alaksen National Wildlife Area. We spotted an eagle up high in a tree but no other birds of note. We paddle to the end of the cove before turning back to head out to the river again. 

From there, we decided to continue upriver to see what else we could explore. We did come across another eagle. This one was resting on some pilings along the riverbank so it was much closer but took flight as we approached.

We came across a small channel but decided against exploring it as it appeared it would take us back where we came from. It was also unclear how far it would take us. The paddling was becoming more challenging and the waters appeared to be getting lower towards the middle of the channel where the marshlands are. The tide was heading out so it was time to head back. Vital decided to brave some shallow waters through the marshlands so that we could cut across the river at an angle rather than head back on the L-shape path we came over on. As I had already had my swim and was less versed in the ways of the Fraser I was less cavalier. I kept close behind him and tracked his path. We made it over what looks like land on the Google Map View below but it was water when we crossed.

Back in the deep of the Fraser, we did a double-check for ships before making our crossing and taking advantage of the outgoing tide.

We packed up our boards and decided we should drive down Dyke Road to survey for any future paddling spots. Vital had ridden through the area on his bike before so he had a vague sense of what was there but we knew it would be better to review the area with paddling in mind. That is when we drove by Finn’s Slough. I had no idea it even existed. For Vital it reminded him of passing the area on some of his rides. When I got home I looked into it a bit more and found that it has a very interesting history.

You never know what you might do or learn when you are out exploring on a SUP.

Our Route

Screenshot of Google Fit activity tracker around Westham Island and the South Arm Marshlands in the Fraser River.

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