Up the Lake

Posted on August 18, 2020 • See the rest of our news

In 1880 Comox Lake is a beautiful wilderness lake teeming with fish: rainbow and cutthroat trout, char, dolly varden (aka mud sharks), kokanee. coast range sculpin and stickleback. Old-growth coastal Douglas Fir grow right down to the waterline. The lake sits at 138-metre elevation with a surface area of 2100 hectares and a perimeter of 41.4 km with an average depth of 61 metres. 

For thousands of years of pre-settler history, Comox Lake is known as the path between. Komok’s hunters and traders and possibly other Salish Sea First Nations whose territories overlap at various times through the age, would sink canoes in the deepwater of the lake in late Autumn, to be retrieved when the snow melts and boating can resume up the lake in the Spring– the quickest way to travel between the Salish Sea and the Alberni Valley.

The E&N land grant of 1884 deeds the unceded Komok’s First Nation territory around the lake – along with about 20% of the east coast of Vancouver Island – to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, in exchange for his promise to build a railway on Vancouver Island. In 1887 Dunsmuir divests himself of 890 hectares of the land around the lake. It is sold to the Rockefeller Group for $2.00/acre (1 acre = .40 hectares). Their plan is to use the Puntledge River to float harvested logs to the sea but the Puntledge proves to be too shallow for this scheme and the block is sold again to the Comox Logging Company in 1910.

[Joe Franceschini map of Comox Lake from “Up the Lake”, used with permission]

Labour History

Meanwhile, the wonders of the lake have been discovered by the miners who have flocked to the Cumberland area to work in the coal mines. It isn’t long before small hunting and fishing cabins are built on the shores of the lake. Plentiful deer, elk and fish supplement family food supplies during lean times when coal prices are low and the men are laid off or on slow down. There is a lot of “radical talk” of Socialism and union rights during the long hours fly fishing. Joe Naylor, the well known B.C.Trade union leader, has a cabin on the lake, as does Jock Sutherland, and both spend time fishing with Albert “Ginger” Goodwin.

During the Big Strike of 1912-1914, cabins at Comox Lake become places of shelter to those evicted from company housing in Cumberland. In April 1918 Ginger Goodwin flees to the hills behind Comox Lake to evade the draft, along with five other men from the area. Labour sympathizers in Cumberland with access to cabins provide food and shelter up the lake, moving the men frequently between locations until Ginger’s tragic death near Alone Mountain in July 1918. After his death (which sparks the first General Strike in Canada) a general amnesty for draft evaders is declared.

 

Whyte’s Bay and No. 4 Mine

In 1890 James Whyte, then the overman at No.2 mine builds a house on Whyte’s Bay and moves his large family out to the lake to protect them from a cholera outbreak in Union (now Cumberland). No.4 mine opens in 1892 just around the corner from Whyte’s Bay. Up to thirty families move to Whyte’s Bay at this time, creating a small community of people who live simply: hunting and fishing and growing their own food in small gardens and working at the mine when work is available. 

The rail line extends from Union to No.4 and extends again in 1926 via trestle to Scott’s Slope on narrow gauge track to the other side of the lake. Children can take the mine train into Cumberland to school (or walk).  No.4 floods in 1934 and closes in 1935 after producing 6.5 million tons of coal over the lifespan of the mine. 

Some families remain in Whyte’s Bay after the mine closes and others move back to Cumberland or leave the area. Those that remain, including the Whyte family, maintain their properties as summer cabins.

Raising the Lake Level

[Linda and Bruce Tobacca – photo of flooded Tobacca cabin from 1930s photo]

In 1912 the lake level is raised by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd. Electricity is needed to power the city of Cumberland and more importantly the coal mines in the area. This floods some cabins at the north end of the lake and changes the shoreline for the first time. Some cabin owners are offered compensation.

In 1932 a bigger dam is built at the NE end of Comox Lake. By this time the lake has been logged down to the waterline and the resulting clear cuts make erosion and flooding worse, increasing the water level by several feet. Compensation is again offered and some cabins are moved to higher ground while others are abandoned.

n June 23, 1946, an earthquake rearranges the bottom of Comox Lake. A huge wave causes major damage at the head end logging camp near the Cruikshank River.

The BC Power Commission (BC Hydro’s predecessor) acquires the Puntledge hydroelectric system from the Collieries in 1953. By 1955 the system upgrades quadruple electric output. Compensation is offered to cabin owners in anticipation of higher water levels but there is little change in the level from 1932. The dam is upgraded again in 1982 but this does not significantly change the lake level.

Comox Logging & Railway Company

The Comox Lake area is logged over a five year period between 1929 and 1934. A huge A-frame system with pulleys and donkey engines is used to yard the felled trees down the steep sides of the lakeshore into the water, where the lumber is boomed and tugged to the railway line built near the Cruickshank River. There is floating accommodation for 200 loggers and when the foreshore logging is complete, the floating cabins are moored at the south end of the lake while logging continues in the surrounding area.

The A-frame is dismantled in 1933. Married accommodations and a school are built on the shore where a small community thrives for several years.  There are old Cumberland memories of a floating dance floor with bands going up by boat and playing most weekends during summer months.

Once the road is punched through in the 1940s along the upper lake and trucks replace the railway, the buildings near the Cruickshank are purchased and reused as hunting and/fishing cabins on a land lease arrangement with the logging company. Mosaic (formerly TimberWest) has similar land lease arrangements on Lake Cowichan and other lakes down Island.

Comox Lake Park

In 1945, the Cumberland Kinsmen create a picnic and rest area near the camping area now known as Comox Lake Park. After a few years they request that the project be taken over by Village Council as the Kinsmen don’t have the resources or manpower to continue maintaining the property. “Comox Lake Days” are an annual event organized by the village between 1960-1994, with a pancake breakfast, swim races, log rolling, deadhead derby and air force shows. In later years this is combined with Empire Days events. 

The village receives a LIP project grant in 1974 to build campsites at Comox Lake and a further COVID grant in 2020 to build additional campsites.

Cabin owners

Today there are 54 cabins scattered up the lake on land leases and a further 26 freehold cabins at the bottom end of the lake. All cabin owners are part of the Comox Lake Land Corporation and deal collectively with Mosaic, CVRD, Courtenay Fish and Game and other stakeholders on Comox Lake. Logging plans, water quality, upgrades to on-site septic systems and watershed management are all shared issues of concern. 

Watershed Protection Plan

BC Hydro controls 97% of the flow on Comox Lake and they manage water levels at the behest of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to maintain fish stock viability. In a healthy watershed, there is a riparian zone – a corridor between the uplands and water that allows animals to travel freely between different biological systems. The riparian zone provides rich moist soil with a variety of plant communities that shelter life and anchor the shoreline, ensuring the health of the lake long term. 

The shores of Comox Lake have been scrubbed clean over decades of raising and lowering the lake level. From a watershed perspective, the health of the shoreline is compromised. Scouring (caused by fast water flow), sediment and erosion all need to be managed to heal the ecosystem and reestablish healthy functioning fish-bearing creeks and streams.

[Comox Valley Regional District Watershed map, used with permission]

The future of Comox Lake

Generations of Cumberlanders have embraced the shores of Comox Lake. Despite the scars caused by old logging and mining practices, Comox Lake is a magical place. To go “Up the Lake” you are not bound by direction or orientation or time. It remains the path between.