Have you ever stopped and shivered just because you were looking at a river? The Fraser River makes that kind of impression on people such as Doug Petersen, park-operations supervisor of Matsqui Trail Regional Park in Abbotsford. On the phone from Metro Vancouver Parks’ East Area office, Petersen explained to the Georgia Straight that exploring the Fraser between Yale and Fort Langley has been one of his paddling passions. “Do it in bite-sized pieces,” he counselled, “probably spread over three days, with stops in Hope, Agassiz, and Brae Island. It’s not for novice flat-water paddlers. The river has strong eddy lines that can easily catch up a canoe.”
The thought of being caught in the grasp of a river as mighty as the Fraser is enough to make anyone’s adrenal glands flutter. Conversely, walking, wheeling, or horseback-riding beside the river as the spring season freshens is enough to arouse shivers of delight in the dourest of souls. Spring has a way of doing that, especially when you detect its scent on the wind where the Fraser Valley begins to widen and flatten around Abbotsford. This month, breezes bear a decidedly floral fragrance as they waft down from the daffodil fields surrounding nearby Bradner, a welcome counterpoint to the odours from local farmyards.
European settlers on both sides of the Fraser used to tremble when the river began to rise. High-water markers at the Dyke Crest Gauge mounted beside Matsqui’s main trailhead illustrate the heights that flood waters reached over the past two centuries, including the record eight-metre mark in 1894, as well as lesser inundations in 1948 and 1972, and, most recently, in 1999, all of which prompted refortification of the dike system. As you explore the main trail, look down to see evidence of modest, earlier levee-building endeavours that predate the existing barricade.
When queried about an extension to the riverside trail below the dike, Petersen explained that Metro Parks had acquired more access to the Fraser, thanks to a land purchase. Finishing touches have just been applied to the one-kilometre trail that links with the main route to form a loop. In particular, parents of young children will appreciate the improved path, as it provides easy access to sandy stretches of the riverbank, where kids can toddle or practise their casting. Cyclists will also welcome the new riverside stretch, especially on breezy days when the dike trail acts as a windbreak.
Matsqui Trail appears deceptively short, but there’s more here than meets the eye. Decide at the outset how much of its 14-kilometre length you’re game to tackle. The park’s main jumping-off point beside the Mission Bridge lies midway between the Fraser Valley Regional District’s Sumas Mountain Park to the east and the City of Abbotsford’s Douglas Taylor Park on the western perimeter. There are advantages to exploring in either direction.
Petersen’s favourite portion is a 4.5-kilometre wilderness corridor that leads west from rolling farmland through Matsqui First Nation territory into a forested setting above the river before dropping down into a marshy area bisected by a small creek. “This is a spectacular transition with a little bit of everything,” he enthused, “created during an expansion done in 2000. Do this section on one visit; next time, head east to Page Road at the foot of Sumas Mountain. As a benefit to runners, we put up kilometre markers along the way.”
Petersen has witnessed sturgeon breach a metre above water offshore of the trail’s eastern extremity, where the Fraser bends around Strawberry Island and a sense of wild, natural rhythms governs the landscape. “Depending on the time of year, there are snow geese in the fields and eagles in the cottonwoods. There are lots of First Nations connections along this stretch for traditional fishing rights as well.”
A plaque affixed to Matsqui Trail’s info board acknowledges the influence of the Fraser Basin Council on shaping the park’s current identity. When contacted by the Georgia Straight, Bob Purdy, external relations and corporate development director with the Vancouver-based council, pointed to a report his group published in 2000 that detailed how park planners, Matsqui First Nation members, and a myriad of local citizens’ groups began the process of creating a greenway beside the Fraser from Sumas Mountain to Fort Langley. “Valley bottoms are where 85 percent of species live,” Purdy said. “You build environmental resiliency by creating connections. You minimize fragmentation by maximizing the ”˜connectiveness’ of green fragments. When climate change hits, these corridors will be critical for survival.”
If you long to be awoken by a dawn chorus of songbirds returning to the Fraser Valley, consider camping at one of Matsqui Trail’s four modest riverside sites, which have just reopened for the season. With the exception of hot summer weekends, Petersen said there are usually vacancies. Many people who camp here are cycling the Trans Canada Trail, of which Matsqui Trail is a well-forged, spirit-shivering link, indeed.
ACCESS: Matsqui Trail Regional Park lies 40 kilometres east of Vancouver. Take Highway 1 to Abbotsford, then Highway 11 north toward Mission. Watch for the green Metro Vancouver Parks signs that point the way to the park, the main entrance for which lies beneath the south end of the Mission Bridge on Riverside Road. For information, visit www.metrovancouver.org/Pages/default.aspx and search Matsqui Trail.