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

Harrison Hot Springs country singer Todd Richard poses for a photo with Mission firefighters. (Photo/Sarah Plawutski)
VIDEO: Harrison country artist Todd Richard plans for a busy, rockin’ summer

Richard and his band look to live shows as restrictions start to lift

The theme for this year’s Fraser Valley Regional Library Summer Reading Club is “Crack the Case” and Katie Burns, community librarian at the Chilliwack Library, is encouraging people of all ages to sign up. She is seen here at the Chilliwack Library on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Crack the case, read, win prizes with FVRL Summer Reading Club

‘Immerse yourself in other worlds and have a bit of fun while you do it,’ says Chilliwack librarian

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of June 20

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Kalyn Head, seen here on June 4, 2021, will be running 100 kilometres for her “birthday marathon” fundraiser on July 23. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Woman’s 100-km birthday marathon from Chilliwack to Abbotsford will benefit Special Olympics B.C.

Kalyn Head hopes run raises awareness, advocates for inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

(Black Press Media files)
Burnaby RCMP look for witnesses in hit-and-run that left motorcyclist dead

Investigators believe that the suspect vehicle rear-ended the motorcycle before fleeing the scene

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

A police pursuit involving Abbotsford Police ended in Langley Saturday night, June 20. (Black Press Media file)
Abbotsford Police pursuit ends in Langley with guns drawn

One person arrested, witnesses say an officer may have been hurt in collision with suspect vehicle

(file)
Pedestrian hit by police vehicle in Langley

Injuries described as serious, requiring surgery

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

Most Read