Throughout your Watershed CPR experience, you will learn about the ecological, cultural, and geological aspects of the Fraser River. Let’s begin by gaining a better understanding of the river itself.
At 1,375 kilometers, the Fraser River is the longest river in British Columbia. The Fraser headwaters begin at Mount Robson in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Stretching west through Prince George, the Fraser then meets the Nechako River before flowing down through the Cariboo-Chilcotin. After connecting to the Thompson River, the Fraser carves through the Fraser Canyon, ending its journey in the Lower Fraser as it empties into the Salish Sea. The Fraser River’s journey takes it through 11 of British Columbia’s 14 biogeoclimatic zones!
The Fraser Watershed is home to two-thirds of British Columbians and includes over a quarter of all land in the province.
The Fraser River was named after Simon Fraser, who was the first settler to explore the Fraser River.
Rivers are flowing bodies of water that typically drain into an ocean, sea, lake, or other river. They wind through their territory, following the path of gravity. The fresh water of rivers, which usually comes from sources such as springs, melting snow, precipitation, streams, or creeks, turns brackish upon meeting the salt water of the sea.
A watershedis defined as an area of land that drains all the water in that environment into a particular stream, river, or lake. Watersheds can include features such as mountains, streams, forests, valleys, and creeks, as well as farms, cities, and towns. We all live in a watershed—even if we don’t live very close to a body of water! This means that maintaining healthy watersheds is important to everyone, because they provide essential services, such as clean drinking water, that support quality of life.
Map Exploration Activity
The Fraser River Watershed can be divided into six different regions: the Fraser Headwaters, Nechako, Cariboo-Chilcotin, Fraser Canyon, Thompson, and Lower Fraser. Each of these regions is unique in its own way, comprised of diverse terrain, wildlife, communities, and industries.
First Nations have lived throughout the Fraser Watershed since time immemorial (meaning longer than anyone can remember or trace). When you click on each tab, you will learn about different First Nations who speak the same language and live within these regions. Within each of these language groups are many unique individual Nations.
Click each of the blue tabs to find out more about the different regions of the watershed.
The Fraser Headwaters are where the Fraser River begins. Here, the river is clear and blue, thanks to the glacial waters that feed into it. The Fraser Headwaters is the traditional territory of First Nations in the Dakelh, Wet’suwet’en and Sekani language groups.
Click the icons to explore the Fraser Headwaters and learn more about this part of the watershed.
The largest community in the Fraser Headwaters is Prince George.
Old growth forests are a notable part of the Fraser Headwaters region. These forests contain very large, very old trees that provide critical habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals.
Tourism and logging in the Fraser Headwaters are some factors that contribute to water pollution, habitat degradation and fragmentation, and climate change.
The Fraser River begins at Mount Robson, which is the highest peak in in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This area is protected within Mount Robson Provincial Park, the second-oldest park in British Columbia.
Chinook salmon migrate all the way up to the Fraser Headwaters!
As the Fraser River bends south, it enters the Nechako region. This region is named for the Nechako River, the second-largest tributary of the Fraser. A tributary is a river or stream that merges with and drains into a larger river. The Nechako region is the traditional territory of First Nations in the Dakelh language group.
Click the icons to explore the Nechako and learn more about this part of the watershed.
The Nechako Region is an area of vast and remote wilderness. The varied landscapes provide habitat for moose, deer, elk, wolves, lynx, cougars, and black bears.
Construction of the Kenney Dam in the 1950s to create the Nechako reservoir resulted in the flooding 32,000 acres of land and the destruction of salmon spawning habitat. Photo Credit: Rio Tinto
Mountain Pine Beetles are a pervasive threat to lodgepole pine trees in this part of the watershed. These beetles bore into mature pine trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport the water and nutrients needed to survive. A prolonged Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak, fueled by warming temperatures, has destroyed over 16 million hectares of forest in the province.
The Nechako and Fraser rivers meet near the city of Prince George.
Passing through the cities of Quesnel and Williams Lake, the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of the Fraser River boasts almost six million hectares of dense forests, rolling grasslands, semi-arid deserts, glacial lakes, and granite-walled river gorges. The Cariboo-Chilcotin region is the traditional territory of First Nations in the Tsilhqot’in, Dakelh, and Secwepemc language groups.
Click the icons to explore the Cariboo-Chilcotin and learn more about this part of the watershed.
The Cariboo-Chilcotin is the largest region of the Fraser Watershed.
The Cariboo-Chilcotin region was the first part of interior BC to be settled by non-Indigenous people.
Photo Credit: Quesnel Museum & Archives
Traditional Indigenous structures can be found across the Fraser Watershed, such as this pit house at Xatsull Heritage Village.
The Cariboo Gold Rush took place from 1860-1863 after gold was discovered in the Horsefly River.
This region is home to several species at risk, including American white pelicans, peregrine falcons, American badgers, monarch butterflies, and mountain caribou.
While the Fraser River doesn’t actually travel through the Thompson region, the Thompson River is its largest tributary. Characterized by a semi-arid and desert-like climate, this region sits largely in the rain-shadow of the Coastal and Cascade Mountains and has some of the hottest summer temperatures in the province. The Thompson region is the traditional territory of First Nations in the Nlaka’pamux, Okanagan, and Secwepemc language groups.
Click the icons to explore the Thompson and learn more about this part of the watershed.
The Thompson River is an important habitat for sockeye salmon.
Hotter temperatures have resulted in increased susceptibility to wildfires, crop failures, and flooding.
Salmon are critical to First Nation cultures and way of life across the Fraser Watershed. Some traditional methods of drying salmon, such as the one shown in this image, are still used today.
The Thompson River has two main branches— the North Thompson River and the South Thompson River. The two branches join in Kamloops, before travelling towards Lytton and joining the Fraser River.
A large portion of the Thompson River originates at the Thompson Glacier, where it picks up fine glacial silt that gives the river its green color.
The Fraser Canyon sits between the Coastal and Cascade Mountains. Its rugged terrain makes it a playground for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. The Fraser Canyon region is the traditional territory of First Nations in the St’at’imc, Secwepemc, and Nlaka’pamux language groups.
Click the icons to explore the Fraser Canyon and learn more about this part of the watershed.
White sturgeon, burrowing owl, and stickleback are just a few of the endangered species that live in this area.
Salmon migration in this area is aided by a ‘fish ladder’, which allows fish to bypass a rockslide that occurred during the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway line in 1913.
Nlaka’pamux territory is home to the Stein Valley, an ecologically sensitive area that was permanently protected from logging in 1995 by the creation of the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park.
Hell’s Gate is the narrowest point of the Fraser, at just 35 meters wide. Here, the water rushes down the river at an incredible speed - 200 million gallons of water pass through every minute!
Fishing is a core part of First Nation culture and livelihoods across the Fraser Watershed. Dip netting, a traditional method of fishing, is sometimes used along the river in the Fraser Canyon.
As the most densely populated region of the Fraser watershed, the Lower Fraser is the economic powerhouse of the province, generating revenue from industries such as agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture. Characterized by mountains, valleys, temperate rainforests, and numerous waterways, this ecologically rich and biodiverse region faces countless environmental threats from the extensive human development. The Lower Fraser region is the traditional territory of the Coast Salish People, a group of First Nations who speak Halkomelem – a language with as many as 17 dialects!
Click the icons to explore the Lower Fraser and learn more about this part of the watershed.
The Port of Vancouver is found at the mouth of the Fraser River. It is the largest port in Canada and the third largest in North America, in terms of total tonnage being moved in and out of the port.
The Lower Fraser region is home to almost 80% of the population living in the Fraser Watershed. It includes major cities such as Vancouver, Surrey, and Burnaby.
The high population density of the Lower Fraser region has resulted in greater pollution in the Fraser, as well as a loss of wildlife habitat due to urban and industrial development.
The Lower Fraser stretches from Hope to the Salish Sea, providing critical habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, coho, pink, sockeye, and chum.
The Stó:lō People share their name with the word they use for the river. Many of their traditions are derived from the river, with knowledge of the land and resources passed down from elders. Photo Credit: Dru!
The Fraser estuary is located within the Lower Fraser region. Estuaries form when the fresh water from rivers meets salt water pushed in by the tides of a sea or ocean. Estuary habitats are rare, but they are ecologically significant. These unique environments support diverse and productive ecosystems, providing food, breeding and nursery grounds, and migration stopovers for many wildlife species.
Click the icons to explore the Fraser estuary and learn more about this part of the watershed.
In early summer months, a unique phenomenon can be observed at the mouth of the Fraser River. The brown, silty water from the river forms a plume as it enters the sea, which floats on top of the blue ocean water. The result is a stark visual contrast of blue and brown water where the plume ends! Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Fraser River forms the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of North America.
Parts of the Fraser estuary have been designated as Important Bird Areas. Boundary Bay, Roberts Bank, and Sturgeon Bank have been identified as some of the most important ecosystems for migratory and wintering waterbirds in Canada.
Water in the Fraser estuary is rich with silt, giving it a brown coloration. Silt supplies phytoplankton with the nutrients needed to thrive. These microscopic plants serve as the backbone for the estuary’s robust ecosystem, providing food for zooplankton which then feed young fish and invertebrates.
Estuaries contain brackish water. Because salmon are an anadromous species, this mixture of salt and fresh water is a crucial step in salmon development as they transition from freshwater rivers to the open ocean. Photo by USFWS Pacific, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Keep learning about Watershed CPR with this resource from the Fraser River Discovery Centre: My River, My Home
The Watershed CPR Education Program is a self-guided, virtual learning experience all about the Fraser River, created by the Rivershed Society of BC.
In this virtual experience, users are introduced to the three pillars of Watershed CPR—Connect, Protect, and Restore—through a series of engaging activities and interactives about the Fraser Watershed. Users will learn about the flora and fauna that inhabit the Fraser; the First Nations who have lived in this area since time immemorial; some of the conservation issues affecting the watershed; and how to “perform Watershed CPR” and become a Watershed Defender.
To learn more about Watershed CPR and the Rivershed Society of BC, visit rivershed.com.
Thank you to our partners in development: Cicada Creative and Canadian Geographic, and immense gratitude to the Kwantlen First Nation for their time and contributions to the program. Consultation from Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Funding provided by the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and Environment and Climate Change Canada, via the Environmental Damages Fund.
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