Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Sumas Lake was major resource hub for locals before newcomers drained it in early 1900s

The Fraser Valley’s lost lake should be remembered for its long life, not its brief, contentious end, the author of a new history book contends.

For thousands of years, Sumas Lake sat near the centre of local culture and life. Then, nearly 100 years ago, engineers drained Sumas Lake, built a canal to harness the Vedder River, and, in the process, radically transformed the area.

The so-called “reclamation” of the lake has been hailed as an engineering marvel and vilified as a major wrong perpetrated on local Indigenous people.

But most historical accounts of the lake have focused on the brief period when newcomers to the region drained it and turned its lakebed into farmland.

Chad Reimer hopes his book “Before We Lost The Lake” will change that. Reimer has written what he calls a “biography” of the lake that starts with the creation of it when glaciers receded more than 8,000 years ago.

Drawing on archived oral accounts from First Nation elders given decades ago, along with the written accounts of explorers, navigators and surveyors, Reimer tries to give readers a sense of what life by – and on – the lake was like before it disappeared.

For thousands of years, the lake sat in a shallow basin between Sumas and Vedder mountains. It usually covered around 132 square miles, but during the spring and winter, its waters would rise and its expanse would double or triple.

Even when the lake wasn’t flooding, vast expanses of wetlands and swamps covered the valley floor.

“The very traits that were considered fatal flaws of Sumas Lake – yearly flooding, symptoms of its aging, its shallowness – made it an exceptionally fertile place for plants and animals,” Reimer writes.

That fertility helped sustain a vibrant local community.

The nature of oral histories and the recency of written accounts means much of our knowledge about that community comes from accounts drawn from the early- to late-1800s, before large-scale immigration by Euro-Americans began.

Even so, Reimer conjures a landscape radically different from that known to those who pass through the region today.

By the mid-1840s, a large Sema:th community was situated near the mouth of Sumas River, just off the eastern point of Sumas Mountain. There, a surveyor found “quite a large stockade fort” that resembled those built elsewhere by the Hudson Bay Company.

Other settlements were strung along a five-mile stretch of the river. And the lake itself was also a place to live.

When the mosquitoes came, Reimer writes that many residents would head to small collections of huts – but no single village – built on stilts around the lake.

While salmon from the Fraser River was the main food staple, Sumas Lake was, and its surrounding wetlands were, key resource hubs.

“The Sema:th’s reliance on Sumas Lake started the most basic level, for it provided the material resources that made their way of life possible,” Reimer writes.

Plants and trees were used to create clothes, nets, mats and boats. Birds on the lake were caught and killed en masse using massive nets hoisted into the air by teams of camouflaged canoeists then dropped on their unsuspecting prey.

And in the lake’s waters, sturgeon were the big catch. Their caviar was a delicacy and eaten with oil.

But just as valuable were the bladders of sturgeon, which were extracted, rolled into bundles, and soaked in water to create isinglass, “the strongest animal glue known.”

Reimer writes that “historians have failed to grasp the significance of isinglass to the Sema:th and its connection to the schools of sturgeon found in Sumas lake. Production, use and widespread trade of the ‘sturgeon-glue’ reveal how sophisticated the Sema:th use of resources truly was.”

Europeans began trickling into the region in the second half of the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the lake was drained in the early 1920s that white people really began moving to the area.

The process transformed the region and its population in ways that are only now being grappled with.

For a century, the draining of the lake and associated engineering works have been described as having allowed for the reclamation of farmland. But, Reimer notes, the work “didn’t reclaim the lake, it ended it.”

It’s impossible to evaluate the decision to do so, without an understanding of what was lost.

“You can’t appreciated the impact of the draining of the lake if you don’t know how it was used before.”

The Reach Gallery Museum will host a book launch for Before We Lost The Lake on Thursday, Dec. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m.

RELATED: Sumas First Nation signs declaration in Abbotsford

RELATED: Sumas First Nation explores compensation claim for loss of Sumas Lake


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

 

Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Just Posted

Chilliwack Spartans Swim Club coach Justin Daly.
Chilliwack Spartans swim coach Justin Daly wins Rubber Boot Award

Daly was recognized in a vote by fellow coaches in the BC Swim Coaches Association

Linnea Labbee outside the Chilliwack Law Courts on April 1, 2021 on day 16 of her trial in BC Supreme Court. Labbee was convicted April 12 for the fatal hit-and-run of 78-year-old Fourghozaman Firoozian on Dec. 1, 2016. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Sentencing hearing scheduled for 72-year-old Chilliwack woman found guilty in fatal hit-and-run

Crown will seek jail time for Linnea Labbee who struck and killed 78-year-old woman in 2016

Dr. Keith Carlson, director of Peace and Reconciliation Centre, will be the MC and moderator for the June 23 webinar Islamophobia: Seeking Solutions for Hate. (Submitted photo)
Seminar presented on Islamophobia: Seeking Solutions for Hate

UFV webinar on June 23 features speakers who will draw on lived experience

The latest data from the BC Centre for Disease Control. (BCCDC graphic)
Chilliwack COVID case count moving towards zero

From a high of 156 around Christmas, Chilliwack’s local health authority reported just 17 last week

Adam Hobbs went missing from a Langley work site on Monday, June 14 and may have gone to Vancouver. (Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Family, RCMP seek Abbotsford man missing from Langley job site

Adam Hobbs lives in Abbotsford and is a minor hockey referee

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

Ridge Meadows RCMP seized drugs, cash and guns from a house on Lougheed Highway and 221 Street. (Special to The News)
RCMP seize drugs, cash and guns from Maple Ridge house

Items were recovered after search warrant executed on Lougheed Highway home June 11

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Fire near Highway 97 C close to Merritt. (Facebook)
Wildfire burning near Highway 97C

The fire is an estimated nine hectares in size

Athena and Venus, ready to ride. (Zoe Ducklow - Sooke News Mirror)
Goggling double-dog motorcycle sidecar brings smiles to B.C. commuters

Athena and Venus are all teeth and smiles from their Harley-Davidson sidecar

Kimberly Bussiere and other laid-off employees of Casino Nanaimo have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
B.C. casino workers laid off during pandemic launch class-action lawsuit

Notice of civil claim filed in Supreme Court of B.C. in Nanaimo against Great Canadian Gaming

A Photo from Sept. 2020, when First Nations and wild salmon advocates took to the streets in Campbell River to protest against open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s waters. On Dec. 17, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out 19 fish farms from Discovery Islands. Cermaq’s application to extend leases and transfer smolts was denied. (Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror)
Feds deny B.C.’s Discovery Island fish farm application to restock

Transfer of 1.5 million juvenile salmon, licence extension denied as farms phased out

Most Read