Category Archives: Canoes

Whaleboats down the Fraser River

How many American gold seekers drowned while trying to cross the Strait of Georgia or in the Fraser River? Getting to the gold diggings on the Fraser River was not easy. It took two days of paddling from Victoria just to reach the Fraser River. Some used canoes, rafts and even whaleboats. Once they made it to the mainland, there were several dangerous rapids to run on Fraser River.

Dangerous rapids

Governor Douglas wrote in a May 19, 1858 despatch to Lord Stanley, the Colonial Secretary in London: “Many accidents have happened in the dangerous rapids of that [Fraser] river, a great number of canoes having been dashed to pieces and their cargoes swept away by the impetuous stream, while of the ill-fared adventurers who accompanied them, many have been swept into eternity.”

What happened to the 8,000 men who didn’t return?

The Alta California newspaper reported that 27,534 people sailed directly to Victoria from San Francisco between April 1, 1858 and March 31, 1860, and 19,051 returned during that same period. What happened to the 8,483 persons who did not sail back? Did they return by another route, did they settle in Washington Territory or did they lose their lives by accident?

The Alta California article, printed on May 26, 1860, went on to say that the free port of Victoria was still importing large amounts of American goods yet  “the white population of Victoria and British Columbia” was no more than 6,000. Clearly they weren’t counting all the blacks who emigrated!

Whaleboats down the Fraser River

L. F. Bodkin was one of the American miners who struck it rich on Island Bar north of Spuzzum in 1858. He stayed and worked through the winter then in March 1859, he prepared to head back east with about $2,000 worth of gold dust.  He canoed down the Fraser River and at Fort Hope he embarked in a whaleboat along with several other miners. They had just rowed past  the mouth of the Harrison River when the whaleboat hit a snag and flipped over. Everyone made it out alive, but Bodkin lost his gold.


Just the previous month, Captain Brock of the ‘Gold Hunter’ found the body of a fifty year old man from San Francisco in the same vicinity and buried him “on the point of the first riffle above the Harrison River”.

Immediately after that disaster, Bodkin returned back to the bar and worked it for another year and a half, this time accumulating about $4,000 in gold dust. This time though, he wasn’t so lucky.

On August 15, 1860 Bodkin attempted to canoe down the Fraser River with his gold dust and a load of fresh beef to Boston Bar. He was just four miles from his destination when he attempted to run a “small but dangerous riffle” and the canoe capsized. Two others, “an Indian and Chinaman” managed to hang onto the overturned canoe until they were rescued by some miners three miles downstream.

Bodkin, his beef, and all his gold were gone.

1808: Mutiny on Simon Fraser’s expedition

Simon Fraser’s expedition nearly dissolved into mutiny. It wasn’t long before the voyageurs came to the conclusion that this route wasn’t the best one after all. The river was so treacherous that their birchbark canoes were falling apart.

The voyageurs weren’t pleased at the prospect of carrying everything on their backs and borrowing canoes from the Native tribes they encountered along the way.

As Fraser’s expedition progressed down the river the Carrier and Secwapmec people warned him that the river he was following could not be navigated by canoe. Fraser, however, did not believe them.

If Fraser had listened to them, he would have learned that the best way to the coast was to follow Seton and Anderson Lakes from the junction of the Fraser River and Seton River, to the portage at Pemberton and then to follow the Lillooet and Harrison Rivers south to the coast. This route was the one that the Stat’imc had used to trade with coastal Ucwalmicw for centuries.

But Simon Fraser pressed on to a village called Camchin, at the confluence of two great rivers. This was the site of the future gold rush town of Lytton.

Below is the second page from my graphic novel that I’m working on, Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush.

Mutiny on the Fraser River

Mutiny on the Fraser River – Cartoon Introduction to the Fraser River Gold Rush – graphic novel

Famous Canadian Canoe Historian – Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney - Canoe Historian

Tappan Adney – Canoe Historian

Tappan Adney (1868-1950) is widely recognized as one of the foremost canoe historians. At a time when traditional canoe building was fast disappearing, it is surprising to learn that many museums were uninterested. Perhaps it is because they didn’t recognize that there were so many variations of canoes.

There were canoes of varying shapes and sizes; formed to handle the local conditions of the rivers and oceans. Adney’s passion for canoes and canoe construction was clearly evident in his intricate detailed drawings and later his canoe models. Using precise measurements, Adney was able to recreate extinct canoes with virtually the same materials and techniques as was originally used.

Read more on the history of canoe building – visit my page on Tappan Adney.

Stillaguamish River Canoe

Watch how a flat-bottom shovel-nosed canoe is carved from a 300-year-old cedar log:

For over a century, seven old-growth cedar logs lay buried under a logging road in the Stillaguamish River watershed until 2009 when they were finally unearthed. The logs were the remains of 300 year old trees that had once stood tall near the Stillaguamish River in Washington State.

The logs represented a signficant cultural gift to the Stillaguamish Tribe who had not received recognition or reserve lands until 1976.

As they prepared to carve a dugout canoe from one of these fallen trees, had to do a lot of research beforehand. This was the first canoe to be carved in their area in over a hundred years. The chief carver was Lummi artist Felix Solomon.

This canoe is typical of the traditional canoe used by the Coast Salish in the Puget Sound. Its flat bottom, wide body and blunt bow and stern allows it carry big loads and float easily in rough waters.