The author’s grandparents in dugout canoe on Chilliwack Lake with their one-room log cabin in the background, circa 1926. Courtesy of Webb Family.

Chilliwack Lake history backdrop for new memoir

Vancouver author dives into a century of family history at Chilliwack Lake

Shelley O’Callaghan dove deep into her family history to create her first novel.

Specifically, the author wanted to learn more about her family’s remote cabin at Chilliwack Lake. And while it began as a personal journey of one woman’s relationship to the land and her desire to uncover that history, it soon turned into an exploration and questioning of our rights as settlers upon a land that was inhabited long before we came.

The Vancouver author has been traveling to Chilliwack Lake since she was a little girl, and her grandparents had the cabin long before that. As she grew up and witnessed the changes of the area, the changes in society and technology, the lake began to take on different meanings.

And, as time drew on, she became more and more intrigued with the history of the place. What she found, through two years of research, discovery and writing, is deeper than she could have initially imagined. And that rich history she unearthed and pieced back together led to the title of the book.

How Deep is the Lake: A Century at Chilliwack Lake, was published this year by Caitlin Press. And O’Callaghan will be in Chilliwack On June 22 for a book launch and reading. Naturally, the reading will take place at the Chilliwack Museum and Archives.

It’s part historical fiction, part memoir, and reads like a novel. It opens with the author imagining how her grandparents would have travelled from Vancouver to Chilliwack Lake in the 1920s:

“They stayed overnight in the town of Chilliwack, leaving by car at dawn for the logging railway that snaked its way 32 kilometres up the Chilliwack Valley. At the rail depot, boxes of powdered milk, tins of butter, sacks of flour, sugar and salt in rough cotton bags sewn up at the top, cabbages, onions, potatoes, and carrots in burlap sacks, waxed boxes of molasses and cans of kerosene were secured onto a speeder car, the motorized handcar that railway crews used to maintain the line and that carried people and supplies to the logging camp up the Chilliwack River.

Gran and Poppy stood on the back of the speeder car, behind their mound of supplies, and grasped the outer handles, the wind in their faces.”

How things have changed over the last century, O’Callaghan says. And that change is amplified even more as she tells the story somewhat through the eyes of her own grandchildren, ages 10 through 17.

“They are just so excited and interested and want to knowmore and go to different places,” she says of her grandchildren. “I look at it through their eyes — the similarities and differences… On the one hand you sort of pine after the 50 years ago simplicity, but that’s not the reality of the day and you want to try to get the most out of what today’s reality is, while recognizing it’s also pretty different.”

It’s mourning the loss of a place in time, while yearning for it, she says.

Changes have also taken place in the last century in how First Nation people are viewed, and settlers interactions with them to today’s more culturally-blended society. And that is chronicled well in the book, beginning with mention of Eva Sepass and the Coqualeetza residential school. She not only chronicles what she’s learned, but how she’s learned it, from what sources, and how she’s struggled to really understand terminology and the culture in a respectful way.

It’s not surprising then, to learn that O’Callaghan the author is well-educated, well-travelled and accomplished. Her career prior to retirement a few years ago was as an environmental lawyer. But prior to that she was a teacher, and helped to build a school in Zambia beginning at the young age of 22.

It was when she was eyeing up retirement that she really became determined to tackle this writing project.

“At my age that [age] aspect becomes very important,” she says. “And what is the meaning of life, and why is this important?”

And she’s not done contemplating her life and putting thoughts to the page. Her next project will be a book about her time in Zambia, and her continued trips to the school throughout her adult life. She travels there about once a year, for three-week stays.

“It was a wonderful experience for a 22-year-old and to be able to link that back in to my life, it’s been really a fabulous experience,” she says. “The next book I want to write is going to be about the people there, building the school that I started.”

She is looking forward to the hard work that comes at the beginning of such a historical project.

“One of the things I found so fascinating, is that I love the research,” she says. “It’s hard not to go down every avenue, I would come across these little nuggets.”

Shelley O’Callaghan will be at the Chilliwack Museum on June 22 at 7 p.m.

To find out more, visit or phone the museum at 604-795-5210.


The author’s grandfather in a wooden rowboat on Chilliwack Lake. Courtesy of Webb Family.

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