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FOULDS: Horror, heroes and natural disasters on Sumas Prairie

We know Sumas Prairie is only there because the lake was removed, a lake that was for centuries of vital importance to the Sumas First Nation
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She wrinkled her nose as though she smelled something offensive when I told her I was from Abbotsford.

We were in North Vancouver’s Avalon Hotel piano bar in the mid-1990s, a lounge us 20-somethings called Divorce Court, since it often hosted many older women cupping martinis with ringless fingers.

Her reaction was common back then when one crossed the urban/rural divide that was the Port Mann Bridge.

That wrinkled nose is also a reflexive bodily action today as people drive through Abbotsford.

But that reaction is to the smell of money, as we always said, and you could fine-tune your nostrils to identify which excrement — beef, pork or poultry — was the odour du jour.

The smell of money, indeed. In Abbotsford, a bit of manure on the boots meant there was likely money in those jeans, something that divorcée in North Vancouver probably never understood.

(It took time, of course. After Sumas Lake was drained in 1924 to create the prairie, tobacco and hops were dominant crops that eventually gave way to more lucrative dairy, beef and poultry operations.)

Growing up in Abbotsford, there were certain numbers that were always important. The digits of 1 and 11 were the two highways that took you to far more interesting places.

But other numbers were always there to remind you of what can happen, and does happen, again and again. In the buckle of the Bible Belt, those numbers are 1894, 1948, 1972, 1990, 1999 and, now, of course, 2021.

Those numbers remind you Mother Nature can reclaim what is hers any time she wishes.

Every person reading these words has likely been nourished at some point by what has sprouted on Sumas Prairie, be it cheese, chicken or milk.

In school, from elementary all the way to secondary, us city kids would learn with the Sumas Prairie kids. When the bell rang, we’d walk home and the farm kids would be driven down the hill to their farmhouses on vast tracts of land.

I suppose they had chores to do while we played street hockey until dinner was ready.

The names of those farm families still resonate: the Verdonks, the Fooks, the Lamsons, the Campbells. The family farm of the iconic mayor of Abbotsford, George Ferguson, who led the city for three decades, is on that prairie.

That same prairie has also been the scene of tragedy, heroism and horror. There have been countless accidents, numerous fires and, of course, far too many floods.

There was the great blizzard of December 1996, in which those farm families saved lives by pulling into their homes stranded travellers stuck in a few feet of snow amid vicious winds and freezing temperatures.

That prairie was also the scene of perhaps the most gruesome murder case I’ve ever covered in court as a reporter, a killing involving a jealous, estranged husband, a not quite fully dead wife and the severing of the latter’s limbs and their disposal into a manure pit, where the acid did its work to make the physical evidence disappear.

But that prairie was also the playground of many city kids, the destination of an achingly long hot summer’s day bike ride to visit the slough in Hougen Park, diving into which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the healthiest decision.

It wasn’t until we were older when we learned that to get this rich prairie, something had to be taken. We now know Sumas Prairie is only there because the lake was removed, a lake that was for centuries of vital importance to the Sumas First Nation.

We went to school with kids from that reserve. They were from Kilgard, which is on the lower south side of Sumas Mountain overlooking the prairie.

We would all play in the schoolyard in the city, the prairie and its liquid ancestor never part of the conversation. As we got older and read a bit more, we understood something was taken from them so we could have milk with those bedtime cookies.

Our history tells of an annoyingly wide and shallow lake good for nothing more than breeding mosquitoes. Their history, that of the Neds, the Silvers and the Isaacs, tells of a vital food source and transportation link.

JD Archer’s article on the fascinating Vancouver Traces website tells us that, prior to the lake’s drainage, the Sto:lo people enjoyed its bounty of salmon, sturgeon, waterfowl, elk and deer. Archer notes there were at least four villages around the lake, including, ingeniously, one built on platforms in the middle of the water to provide refuge from mosquitos.

But at the turn of the 20th century, more than 100 years ago, talk by European settlers of draining the lake for agricultural purposes drew this warning from Sumas First Nation Chief Ned as he spoke to the McKenna-McBride Commission.

As Archer notes, Ned said, “I am against the diking because that will mean more starvation for us.”

Think of that irony when you see empty grocery store shelves due in part to the return, however temporarily, of Sumas Lake.

Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds