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Looking Back: Racing rafts on the Fraser River

Raft racers on the Fraser River on May 21, 1975.  - Maple Ridge Museum photo
Raft racers on the Fraser River on May 21, 1975.
— image credit: Maple Ridge Museum photo

“Nanaimo may have its bathtubs; Maple Ridge has its rafts,” read the Gazette newspaper on March 20, 1974.

As an event to kick off the district’s centennial celebrations, the Fraser River Raft Races immediately became a much-anticipated annual event in Maple Ridge.

Participants had to build and enter rafts that would “be authentic replicas of those used in pioneer days on the Fraser River.”

The race, which was first held on Victoria Day in May of 1974, snaked along the Fraser River from Matsqui, just below the Mission Bridge, to the foot of 224th Street in Port Haney.

Prizes were handed out for most authentic raft and most comical raft, as well as for race winners in various fields, such as two-person rafts and commercial rafts.

After the races, spectators and racers alike lined the beach until the late hours eating, dancing and exchanging commentaries on the day’s events.

The races were an immediate hit.

By 1979, the weekend-long race had evolved into a three-week community festival that included the Miss Ridge-Meadows Beauty Pageant, the Home-A-Rama and even a rock concert.

While the 1978 raft race theme was Captain Cook, the 1979 race featured a First Nations theme, with rafters being required to include aboriginal decorations on their rafts.

Participation by local aboriginal people was a prominent aspect of this race and included a salmon BBQ put on by the Matsqui First Nations group, and renowned First Nations dancer Ernie Philip acting as a guest judge.

“It was always a family thing,” explained Jim Lamb, who was captain and creator of the most winningest raft in British Columbia, The Kanaka.

“At the start of the Fraser River Raft Race this year [1979], we had kids all dressed up, the women were baking bannock, we had a teepee set up and all the rest.”

That year, the Rainbow Canoe Rafters won the race as the fastest boat on the water, finishing the course in just two hours and 24 minutes.

One of the perks of building your own raft was that you got to name it.

While many rafts were sensibly named, clearly representing their business sponsors, such as the Haney Hotel raft, other captains took creative liberties in naming their rafts.

One of the more mischievous participants named their raft ‘Bullshipper’.

In 1981, this fan-favourite race was cancelled, as the Matsqui police refused to sign a special events permit for use of the beach at Matsqui because of issues in the previous year.

Issues of liability – there was no insurance coverage for the rafts at this time – eventually led to the demise of the Fraser River Raft Race soon after.

 

Sandra Borger is a researcher at the Maple Ridge Museum.

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