Life's Portages

Harvey Fraser has built canoes and cabins, buildings and bridges; he loves the outdoors and working with wood.

Everybody has a story, everybody has things they've done, Harvey Fraser insisted as he sat down to talk to a reporter about why he was one of four people to receive this year's City of Kamloops Distinguished Service Award.

"I was surprised they chose me," he said during an interview inside the Heffley Creek house he built in 1972, with its wooden beams and fir floor inlaid with mahogany and walnut.

Yeah, but no one has told Fraser's story, and although he's shy about it, it's a story worth telling.

Fraser was born in 1930 in Gravenhurst, Ont., in the District of Muskoka, which is the area's cottage country. The town of 1,200 would swell up with a few thousand tourists in the summer, tripling or even quadrupling in population.

Those masses were focused on Muskoka Bay, known for beaches and boating, so of course Fraser was drawn to water.

His first try at canoeing came at age five, when a local doctor who had lost a leg in the First World War offered to take him out for a paddle.

"He took me under his wing," he said.

"There were canoes and rowboats everywhere."

Several years ago, Fraser was able to take one last canoe with that doctor, who was in his 90s and living in Victoria. The passion for paddling has been lifelong for both men.

Fraser ended his schooling after Grade 8, working at odd jobs, including milkman with a horse pulling a wagon in the summer or a sleigh in the winter.

By the time he was 20, he had worked his way to B.C., gaining carpentry experience and earning higher wages the farther west he went.

In 1955, he discovered Kamloops, a place that offered him a jumping-off point for canoe trips galore, skiing and hiking. What's not to love about a place that has all that, plus a great climate and good wages?

He also took up snooker and was provincial champion in the 1950s.

"But I never referred to myself as a shark," he said.

He continued to paddle in his spare time, often entering in two-man canoe races.

While living in Kamloops, he met an Austrian woman named Maria at a camera store. In 1960, he married her at St. Paul's Cathedral.

After several years, they moved from their downtown house to a half-hectare property at Heffley. They had two sons, Danny and David.

About that same time, Fraser joined into a partnership with Adolf Tuffle to create the Interior Canoe Outfitters company. They built canoes and made wooden paddles to go with them.

When he wasn't making canoes, Fraser was often out in one, still racing and exploring rivers and lakes -mostly throughout Canada's West and north.

Maria, who died seven years ago, sometimes went with him. Sometimes she provided ground support by driving to meeting points en route.

"She didn't mind the canoe as long as the water was calm," he said.

Fraser had built up such strength and endurance he could paddle for 15, even 20 hours at a stretch, and hoist a hefty canoe without effort.

He has canoed so many waters; the Churchill, the Horton, the Liard, the Beaufort.

That and the fact that he and his usual canoeing partner, Ferdi Wenger, took several Interior racing titles was probably behind him being chosen for the B.C. team in the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant.

That 'pageant' still stands as the longest canoeing race in history, according to Guinness World Records. It involved paddling and portaging from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., to Montreal.

The race started on May 24 and ended on Sept. 4, spanning more than 5,200 kilometres in between. It involved 10 teams of nine members representing Canada's provinces and territories.

Six team members paddled at a time, while the other three picked up groceries, did laundry and ran whatever errands were required on the ground.

The race was a neck-and-neck battle between teams from Manitoba and B.C., who came first and second each day.

At the finish line, however, Manitoba edged out B.C. Fraser still took great pride in coming second. A photograph of himself at the helm of the team's canoe, Centennial 1967 maple leaf on the bow, hangs on a wall in his home.

When the canoe-building gig didn't last, he could always turn back to his construction skills. And that's how Fraser came to be involved with building several Kamloops landmarks, including the Overlanders Bridge, the Woodwards building (now B.C. Lotteries), the pedestrian overpass at Third Avenue and Lorne Street, the courthouse, assorted schools and the Riverside Park rose garden.

The Overlanders Bridge was an elaborate project, taking more than two years to complete. Fraser recalled the contractor asking the City to stake out the water main to keep it safe from digging.

It was marked out and the construction crew began putting in the first pile.

It hit the main pipe. Water poured out until it was shin-deep on the road and flowing across the railroad tracks. No one could find the shutoff; it was finally tracked down back near First Avenue.

The wind was another factor that made the bridge's construction treacherous. Fraser said it was about half built when a forklift was driven out carrying a load of plywood.

"The wind was so strong about blowing around the sheets of plywood. It was like someone opening up a deck of cards," he said.

The plywood flew through the air, some of it hitting the water near Riverside Park.

After hours, he taught canoe safety for Scouts Canada and through the City's parks and recreation programs.

His quiet dedication to canoeing is getting recognized. Last year, the Thompson River Interior Paddle Sports Club named an event after him: the Harvey Fraser Marathon Canoe Classic.

After receiving the City's Distinguished Service Award, someone came up to him and told him she still had two of the three Interior Canoe Outfitter canoes that she had bought from his company.

At 82, Fraser is recovering from fending off prostate, bone and melanoma cancers. He's looking back on a life spent paddling and spreading that passion to others.

His son David shares his home, which looks out on the old 1890 house that still stands on their property. It's used mostly for their projects these days, like converting a fallen cedar log into a patio table and bench with an inset lazy susan. All from that one piece of wood.

"You can see potential," he said of that project.

Last year, even when cancer had drained his energy and left him unable to get himself out of bed, he still got out for a few canoe trips.

This year, with his abilities returning, who knows?

There will be water - and there will be stories.

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