Views of the mighty Fraser River are easy to find in shoreline Richmond. But there aren’t many opportunities to board an immaculate vintage boat for a slow travel meander along this hugely historic and superbly scenic waterway. That’s where this summer’s Voyage of the Gikumi comes in.

On select days this August, the beautifully restored 1954-built MV Gikumi is taking locals and visitors on a unique estuary circle cruise from Steveston’s Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site. Lasting up to two hours, the soul-stirring odyssey combines river panoramas, colourful yesteryear stories and––perhaps most importantly––the chance to relax, forget your phone and take some restorative deep breaths in nature.

restored MV Gikumi
The beautifully restored MV Gikumi | Photo Credit: John Lee

All aboard

On a recent sunny Saturday, we explored Steveston’s shops, enjoyed a laid-back Fisherman’s Wharf lunch, then strolled the shoreline promenade to Britannia Shipyards. Friendly interpretive guide Emma was waiting––along with several other guests––and she led us through the artifact-lined boat sheds to the dock (we made a mental note to fully explore this museum-like heritage site after our voyage).

Waiting on his boat, Captain John provided a warm welcome, safety instructions and an introduction to his vessel. The Gikumi––it means  ‘Chief’ in the Kwak’wala dialect of the ‘Namgis First Nation––is an almost 70-year-old workhorse that towed logs for the forestry industry before becoming a whale-watching craft in the 1980s. John bought her in 2017 and it’s been his pride and joy ever since.

Departure time

Rumbling away from the dock, we were soon sliding past the hulking vessels of the West Coast Fishing Fleet on one side and tranquil, tree-lined Shady Island on the other. When a large bald eagle flew low over the boat and we turned into the wider South Arm of the Fraser River, it felt like we’d left the city far behind.

tranquil scenery of the Fraser River
The tranquil scenery of the Fraser River estuary | Photo Credit: John Lee.

Soon, though, our guide introduced us to Salmonopolis. That was Steveston’s nickname during its fishing industry heyday more than a century ago, when 15 canneries studded the shoreline and the river was brimming with working boats. Back on shore, the era’s off-duty fishers kept Steveston’s many saloons and gambling houses busy and highly profitable.

Views galore

Between evocative stories from our guide, we surveyed the glittering river from the boat’s sunny upper deck and its comfortably shaded lower deck. Framed by distant peaks––including the ghostly visage of snow-capped Mount Baker––we watched an unfolding diorama of rustling grasses, hidden beaches and trees where beady-eyed birds stood sentinel.

Mount Baker
Mount Baker shimmers in the distance | Photo Credit: John Lee.

En route, we spotted eagles, a statuesque heron and some fast-moving cormorants flying overhead. Our boat was also constantly pursued by swallows that darted around us and hunted the insects in our wake. Luckily, we’d brought our binoculars to enjoy these easy bird watching opportunities.

Plenty of birdlife to spot en route | Photo Credit: John Lee

But the Fraser isn’t just a nature haven. Indigenous communities have been fishing here for thousands of years, while the late 1800s launched a seafood industry that continues to this day. Locals have also lived on the shoreline for countless generations. The tour takes us past Ladner Reach, a string of colourful, sometimes-quirky floating homes where residents smiled and waved at us.

Colourful houseboats spotted en route | Photo Credit: John Lee

Exploring the boat

While we passed vessels of all shapes and sizes on our trip, none seemed as handsome as the Gikumi. Taking a break from the views, we ducked inside to explore its cozy, fir-lined interior. Soon, we were invited into the wheelhouse where Captain John was keeping a close eye on the river––and his hands on an antique wooden wheel that he said had originally come from a boat in the 1800s.

Captain John on Gikumi
Captain John in his wheelhouse | Photo Credit: John Lee

He filled us in on the work he’s done to restore his beloved vessel plus his plans for the future––“there’s no rush, but I’m already thinking about next year’s projects,” he said. He also mentioned that the boat’s passengers over the years have included US president George W. Bush and UK prime minister John Major––and it was even used as a camera boat during the filming of family movie Free Willy.

Return leg

It was soon time to turn back, albeit on a different estuary route. But there was still plenty to see, including an unusual low-slung trestle bridge, a BC Ferries maintenance dock with several mothballed vessels and a busy little beach filled with sunbathers in an off-the-beaten-path area locals have nicknamed Gilligan’s Island.

Our guide also had plenty more stories. We heard about John Deas, a pioneering 1870s African American businessman who owned a highly successful cannery here. Deas Island is named after him, while the under-river Massey Tunnel––which we also pass over––was originally named Deas Island Tunnel. Some locals, we’re told, still use the original name.

We also heard about Richmond’s highly fertile agricultural sector. Cranberries are the top crop here, we learned, but blueberries are also highly prized. Which was our guide’s cue to serve us some cups of delicious local blueberries with whipped cream––a highly welcome treat.

Now in full-on relaxation mode, we rounded Shady Island once again and headed back to our starting point. We were not in a hurry for this delightfully leisurely cruise to end. But after hopping off and saying our goodbyes, we were keen to explore the heritage boat sheds and gabled cottages of Britannia Shipyards––and learn more of the Fraser River’s richly colourful backstory.

Save time to explore Britannia Shipyards during your visit | Photo Credit: John Lee.

If you go:

The Voyage of the Gikumi tour has sailings on select dates throughout August ––August 7-10, 24-27 (tour times vary depending on the day). Space is limited so you’re advised to book ahead as soon as possible. Tickets for the two-hour experience cost $94.50 per adult and $84 for children aged 8 to 12 (tax and handling fee extra). If you have any questions, please contact Make a day of it with lunch or dinner in Steveston and don’t forget to explore the free-entry Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site while you’re here.

To book a tour, please click here.

Last Updated on July 13, 2023 by Tourism Richmond