The Reflecting Pond Boulder: A Monument To Failure

Simon Fraser’s checkered legacy lives on in the mysterious jade installation

Photo courtesy of Patrick Klosowski

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

For SFU students, the reflecting pond, located at the centre of the Academic Quadrangle, is perhaps one of the more beautiful places on campus. In the warmer months, the surface ripples over the sinuous bodies of koi fish. In the winter, the pond freezes so completely that for a few brief weeks, students can stand on the ice. But for the most part, the still waters surrounded by lush lawns give students a quiet place to reflect on their time at university — on the experiences they’ve had, the people they’ve met, and the path that lies ahead of them.

But of all the lessons, ideas, and bits of knowledge students will take away from SFU, one question lingers: what the heck is up with that giant rock in the pond?

Over the years, many objects have been dumped in the reflecting pond: chairs, books, bowling balls, cell phones . . . But who dropped a boulder into the water and why is it still something of a mystery for many students? Of course, true to its name, if students reflect deeply enough on the surface of the water, they will find the answer. Literally.

On a submerged plaque made of the same Lillooet jade as the pond boulder, an inscription tells a story of SFU’s founding and the decision to commemorate the event with a big-ass rock. The story takes us back — all the way back — to 1805, when a 29-year-old Simon Fraser set off across the Rocky Mountains to find a trading route to the Pacific Ocean for the fur company he was partnered at, the North West Company.

True to the form of previous European explorers, Fraser got lost along the way, trying to find the Columbia River. Instead, he tried to follow the soon-to-be-named Fraser River to its mouth. But after he determined that the river was too difficult to travel for trade, he turned back and went home.

It’s worth noting that although he had been warned how hard it was to traverse the river by Indigenous people living in the area, the impossible river was apparently something Simon needed to experience for himself. It’s important to underscore that people with long-standing connections within the geography of the region were trying to help him, and he chose not to listen. Our Western presentation of history often relies on false or misleading narratives of great men. This tends to leave out the more nuanced contributions of those whose voices have traditionally been excluded from collective Canadian history.

So Fraser led a crew of inexperienced, malnourished men down the river. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes his journey as one of surging rapids and impossibly steep banks. On June 10, he was finally willing to admit that the advice given to him by Indigenous people was correct: this was a fool’s journey.

Fraser was forced to make the rest of his journey on foot, but he never actually reached the Pacific Ocean. In one final demonstration of how completely out of his depth he was, Fraser guestimated that the Pacific was probably pretty close.

It was 225 kilometres away.

So what does the reflecting pond boulder have to do with a failed fur trader/explorer? As it happens, the area around Lillooet, where Fraser was forced to abandon his canoes when he finally decided to turn around, is also the location of a jade deposit.

Whilst searching for a centerpiece to be used at SFU’s official opening in 1965, the head of the History Department, Professor Allan Cunningham suggested that a jade stone be used. As jade boulders aren’t readily found or easy to purchase, the idea was only allowed when the O’Keefe Brewing Company offered to pay for it.

A six-tonne boulder of this jade was discovered by rookie jade expert Peter A. White in the area known as Hell’s Gate. The giant green rock was then polished at the Chandlers Memorial Works in Vancouver and brought to the university to honour Fraser’s failed journey down the river to the Pacific.

At the opening ceremonies of the university, then Premier W.A.C. Bennett and SFU’s first president Dr. Patrick McTaggart-Cowan introduced the fledgling university to its new jade cornerstone.

“The premier has just unveiled the plaque to be placed on 8,993 pounds of beautiful, polished B.C. jade, from Hell’s Creek on the route followed by Simon Fraser, the explorer,” Dr. McTaggart-Cowan said of the event.

The 12 thousand pounds of jade were put in storage for two years while people argued over what to do with the hunk of stone. Eventually, due to its strange shape and large size, it was finally placed at the very heart of the Academic Quadrangle, smack in the middle of the pond.

So the next time you find yourself at the reflecting pond, pondering what’s to come from the next steps of your life, just remember: six tonnes of pretty green rock were discovered by a hobby geologist and funded by a brewery, in celebration of an explorer who ignored all advice and found failure when he was searching for a damn ocean.

Next time you’re panicking at the prospect of surviving your semester, remember that weirder things have happened.