Bitten at Sumas Lake

The Royal Engineers, a corps from the British Army, came to the British Colony of New Caledonia in 1857.  “Sappers” as they were commonly known, were initially responsible for establishing the international boundary between British Columbia and Washington.

Lieutenant Charles Wilson, RE (BC Archives)

June, 1858

There was chaos in the Moody household.  Mary Moody and her children had just moved from Esquimalt to New Westminster into the newly built house.  Along with all her other trunks of supplies and possessions her husband Colonel Moody had arranged for the delivery of two thousand loaves of  baked bread from Victoria.

Two thousand loaves!  It made her shake her head. What was he thinking?  Bread was meant to be eaten fresh, and besides what they really needed were buildings to house people.  As it was there were several Sappers living in brush tents between the fallen trees and stumps.

Mary did not mention her opinions on the bread loaves to her husband , but she insisted that they accommodate some of the Sappers and their families who were showing the ill effects of living in a brush tent in the rain.  It was crowded in the house as a result.

Stepping around everybody, lying on cots and on pillows on the floor, Mary was reminded of her own four-month voyage to Vancouver Island.  The close quarters were exactly like being on the ship, she mused.  After a while one became accustomed to being stuck to living in one end of the ship.  It was the first time she and the other women on board were encouraged to remove the hoops in their dresses.  Now, she was so used to being without them that she wondered how she managed to sit at all.

She went into the study and found her husband Colonel Richard Moody, sleeping with his legs hanging over the edge of the small sofa.  He opened his eyes as she pulled up a chair to the desk and sat down.

“You’re up early.”

“I am going to write a letter  to my mother.”

“That reminds me,” Richard said as he swung his legs onto the ground, “I’m expecting the arrival of the Zenith telescope.”

Within a few minutes, everyone in the household was up, including the youngest of the sleepy-eyed children and the noise of domestic activity could be heard through the front door as Charles Wilson knocked.

“Wilson,” said the Colonel, “I want you to set out to Chilukweyuk with the others.”

“Certainly, sir. What about the bread loaves that we were in the midst of unloading?”

“Never mind, gather the supplies for the group – sextants, spyglasses, chronometers and aneroids.”

Charles had breakfast with the others in the large tent outside and afterwards gathered the supplies while the others prepared the horses for travel.  Camping outdoors required a uniform of its own. Each one of the Sappers wore a soft cloth hat, a red serge shirt with pockets, a blue serge pair of trousers tied under the knee, stockings and moccasins.

They weren’t expected to reach far the first day in their travels before they set up camp.  John Keast Lord decided on a spot at which to set up the telescope and from there to examine the position of the stars.

“There is a large lake out there we’ll have to work around.”  The group was split up into groups of two or three sappers, each responsible for different tasks such as trail making and recording astronomical measurements.

Sumas Lake (panorama by Leonard Frank, 1922)

With another day’s travel, Charles and John arrived at the edge of Sumas Lake.  It was large, very large, hemmed in by mountains on one side and swampy prairie on the other.

“This must be the lake that Simon Fraser mentioned when he came down here fifty years ago,” Charles said.

He slapped a mosquito that had landed on his chin and continued preparing to make some dampers – flattened dough cakes.

John was sitting across from him, feverishly writing notes.

“I’m going to write all these things for a book,” John said.  “Just think what a valuable resource it will be, especially if our fellow countrymen should want to venture into the woods as we have done.  Take for example that frying pan you’re holding there, that is probably the most important utensil one could carry – you can cook and bake in it without ever putting your food near the fire.  Can you imagine, some people would consider baking a Damper amongst the ashes of a fire?”

Charles swatted a few more mosquitoes.  “These crazy things don’t seem to mind the smoke, do they?”

“Try puffing on a pipe, it seems to do the trick for me.”

“It’s more like they can’t penetrate your beard.”  John’s beard hung down to his chest and started somewhere just below his eyes.

John picked up a deceased mosquito, “They’re quite large and fat, unlike the ones I’ve seen before.  I should imagine they’ll be a tasty meal for someone.”

Charles had a reaction to the mosquito bites, because the next day, he wouldn’t stop scratching and his skin started to swell. Even still, more bites followed.

“Here, try rubbing some bacon grease on your face,” John said.

Charles did as he was told but still his condition did not improve. His hands were so stiff and swollen from the mosquito bites he resorted to wrapping them in wet cloths until he could move his fingers again.

While Charles was left guiding the horses around the edge of the swampy lake, John told him he was going to stay with the natives who were currently camped on platforms towards the middle of the lake.  From a distance, Charles could see the scaffolding, suspended above the lake by poles, reached by ladders. Fleets of canoes were moored to the poles.

Luckily, they had also packed gauze netting which Charles tied around his head while preparing a small dinner of pork, beans, and stale tasting bread.  He puffed on his pipe but it only seemed to make the mosquitoes more determined.  The gauze was hardly any help at all. Even his horse was showing signs of discomfort; flinching and shaking its tail.  Charles rearranged the horse’s blanket, but they hadn’t packed any salve for the horse’s wounds either and it was clear the horse was suffering.

About four o’clock the next morning, when the sky was beginning to lighten, Charles had had enough.  There was at least one mosquito in the tent and he wasn’t getting any sleep. In half an hour, he had everything packed and ready to go.  John would have to catch up later.  Frustrated and angry, he envisioned John patting his well-fed belly and nodding off to a restful sleep.

It was a relief to have some wind in his hair and as the horse trotted on, shaking its head he was filled with a sense of calm and drowsiness.  Other than heading east, he hardly knew where he was going.  Around six o’clock, he came across a native family who were sitting by the beach, eating.

His face was so swollen from the mosquito bites that it was painful to move his lips, let alone smile.  His horse was shaking in discomfort.  As soon as he dismounted, the horse headed off in a brisk trot. Charles couldn’t blame him for wanting to be rid of a company who had failed him.

A woman about the same age as his mother, got up and without saying a word, she motioned him to follow her.  There was a small hut nearby and he sat down while she mixed a pot of red powder with some grease, then using her fingertips, she lightly applied the mixture all over his face.  He closed his eyes and he felt relaxed, as the mixture was like a soothing tonic on his skin.  Then she examined his hands and repeated the process.

Afterwards, he sat down and shared their meal of freshly baked duck and some other vegetables.  In a few words, they explained he had been camped near the swamp of the lake.  They pointed to a dark cloud in the distance and he watched as the cloud came closer, changing its shape into a narrow line.  Short bursts of sound filled the air as hundreds of birds, their wings flapping slowly and with great effort, descended onto the lake.


Chilukweyuk later became known as Chilliwack. The red pot of powder was vermilion, a much traded mineral found near the confluence of the Tulameen and Similkameen rivers.

After the 1913-1916 McKenna-McBride Provincial-Federal Joint Commission on Native Lands, the reserve was reduced and Sumas Lake and surrounding area was sold in 1920 to the Soldier Settlement Board which provided farmland for returning war veterans. Sumas Lake, an area of almost 90 m2, was drained in 1922 as part of a “reclamation” project by the provincial government to provide more land for agricultural purposes.

For further reading, check out “Disappearing a Lake” which also includes photographs and audio recordings.