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Fraser Canyon Renaissance

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Canyons pleat B.C.`s mountainous landscape. Time spent exploring a canyon`s watery spillway will not be deducted from your life — guaranteed. With that in mind, a summer day trip along portions of the Sea to Sky Trail where it skirts the Cheakamus Canyon between Squamish's Paradise Valley and Highway 99 tops my list. When it comes to a canyon crawl further afield, head to the Fraser Canyon from Lytton to Yale.

Jilted by most travellers after the Coquihalla Highway opened in 1986, tourism in the heart of the Fraser Canyon subsequently sputtered almost to a halt. Then a surprising thing happened. History caught up with newly emerging travel trends. And history, to use a contract bridge term, is the Fraser Canyon's long suit. Fittingly, it's an actual bridge, now preserved within a provincial park, that frames the start (or finish, depending on your approach) of a journey into First Nations, fur trade, gold rush, and, with a nod to the construction of Canada`s original transcontinental railway, nation-building lore.

Bolted together in 1926, the Old Alexandra Bridge's cast-iron superstructure (pedestrian-only since the 1970s) straddles the river where the mighty Fraser clears its last pinch point before widening downstream at Yale. Across the road from the park`s entrance sits the 1920s-era Alexandra Lodge, the most recent of several similar roadhouses built on what once was the historic 1860s Cariboo Wagon Road. In truth, although still occupied, the lodge, now a junk store, appears so weather-beaten that it might well be mistaken for the original.

Care to overnight with the voice of the Fraser to lull you to sleep? Consider one of several new mid-canyon options, such as teepee camping at Tuckkwiowhum Village outside the Fraser Canyon`s commercial hub, Boston Bar. Designed to give visitors the opportunity to experience the Nlaka`pamux First Nations lifestyle before the arrival of European culture, the interpretive village also features a longhouse, a carving shed, a native plant garden, and, most intriguingly, a collection of A-frame summer lodges draped in cedar mats.

When Pique visited, village administrator Byron Spinks (formerly chief of the Lytton First Nation) outlined the attraction of the breezy plateau.

"This is the best berry picking place in the nation," he explained. "Like the Okanagan, historically Tuckkwiowhum was a central gathering place to meet and arrange marriages. Opening their culture to the world has been a dream of the Boston Bar First Nation elders for a long time. Since January, we've had bookings coming in from all over — China, Germany, Britain — to stay in the village or in our modern Anderson Creek campground up the road." Even if you don't plan to spend the night, earmark time for a self-guided stroll through the site including the village's high-end art gallery. As gift shop manager Maria Campbell told Pique, "We feature works by inspired natives, not native-inspired."

Want to experience the heart of the canyon first hand just as Scottish explorer Simon Fraser and his native guides or Chinese railway workers drawn to the Golden Mountain did in earlier times? Hop aboard the Hell's Gate Airtram for a quick descent into the heart of the maelstrom. This is the canyon's power centre. Words fail in the face of such force. Climb onto the viewing platform and let your imagination get swept away on the cool breeze created by the current. When you finally tear your eyes away, step into the visitor centre where the canyon's geological and cultural history is on display. A shady courtyard with benches is the ideal place to relax, particularly when temperatures soar into the high 30s here in Canada's summer hot spot.

The Fraser has been described as the golden artery that feeds everything in its path. When it comes to feeding time in the canyon, look no further than former Vancouver chef Tod Baiden's Fat Jack's Homestyle Diner and Mighty Fraser Motel just north of Boston Bar.

"Thirty years ago coquiholics, as I call them, killed traffic in the Fraser Canyon," said Baiden. "We're finally seeing a rebound thanks to new ventures like ours. That's why I shut down 12B (his former restaurant on Vancouver's Main Street), pulled up stakes, and moved here in 2013."

Baiden's new venture has quickly grown to include an ambitious veggie garden, an art gallery with rotating exhibits, a pub, and an adjacent newly refurbished motel. He must be doing something right. Fat Jack's has received consistently positive reviews in numerous media outlets. The evening Pique visited, the special of the day was quail.

"We do a surprising number of weddings," said Baiden, citing the added convenience of his motel next door. "I always order extra of whatever I'm preparing for a party and put that on the fresh sheet."

At the north end of the canyon in Lytton, Ken Glasgow's Philosophy Park is a must see, not just because of the stark-raving goofiness of the sculptures on display but also because of the park's strategic location above the Thompson River's confluence with the Fraser.

The Thompson's added volume is what kicks the Fraser's flow into hyperdrive. Lord knows what propels Glasgow's creative juices but the shear scale of his projects, such as a massive Winchester rifle mounted above the park's entrance, beneath which sit a trio of exact replica, supersized Harley-Davidson motorcycles, hints that it must be heaven sent. Tongue-in-cheek philosophical sayings, such as "Humour: Born Magnificent, Died Absent" etched on tombstones mounted beside a miniature chapel in a mock graveyard, speak to his cosmic sense of humour.

"The cemetery of life's qualities: dormant and useless because people allowed them to die. Don't let that happen to yours," reads another sign. Much like Leonardo da Vinci, Glasgow may only pass this way once, so catch him while you can. If he ever were to get airborne in the airplane fuselage being assembled by a team of volunteers in his voluminous workshop, the Fraser Canyon might never see his like again.

Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book. To learn more, visit www.jackchristie.com.

Access:

The Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1) follows the Fraser Canyon between Yale and Lytton, a distance of 85 kilometres.

Lytton lies 191 kilometres from Whistler via Lillooet.

Yale lies 295 kilometres from Whistler via Hope. For information on Yale, visit www.historicyale.ca.

Hell's Gate Airtram (www.hellsgateairtram.com) is located 11 kilometres south of Boston Bar.

Tuckkwiowhum Village (www.tuckkwiowhum.com) is located five kilometres south of Boston Bar.

Fat Jack's Homestyle Diner and the Mighty Fraser Motel (themightyfrasermotel.com) lies six kilometres north of Boston Bar.

To visit Ken Glasgow's Philosophy Park (www.lytton.ca/content/local-artists) follow Botanie Valley Road east of Highway 1 in Lytton at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers.

Details on the Sea to Sky Trail are posted at www.slrd.bc.ca/recreation-culture/parks-trails/sea-sky-trail "

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