Deer Lake isn’t up to much as bodies of water go. It’s small (about a mile across and a mile and a half long); the water is an uninviting hue that wavers between strong pee and weak tea; the bottom is mucky, and it is often covered with an unappetizing scum. Yet to me, and all the kids who lived on its periphery, it was as enchanting as the South Pacific.
Deer Lake retains an intimacy within my psyche that prompts me to dream about it with regularity. Deer Lake is where I always return in the twilight zone of my unconscious. The last time I stood on the shore of the lake was about fifteen years ago and the thought and feeling that struck me with profundity was that I had never been away. And I’ve never been away since. None of this has anything to do with Deer Lake being unique in any way, it’s just that it’s ‘stuck’ within me and shows no signs of leaving.
The Deer Lake of my childhood — vide my earlier reference to the lake — was a different thing from what it has become in recent years. Now it is a pleasing little oasis that separates the various parts of Burnaby’s sprawl. Fringed by some nice trees and houses virtually nobody can afford, the Deer Lake periphery is well beyond white collar and rests in the heady air of the “don’t you wish?” realm. With the art gallery on one side, and a nice, tamed park at the western and southern end, they’ve done well to turn the lake area into something inviting; almost alluring.
To me and those of us who grew up near ‘The Lake’ (the ‘Deer’ part was never necessary – “Goin’ downa lake, Ma.” “OK – just be careful and don’t go out in any boats.” “OK, Ma – because it was the only body of water within our realm) it was the focal point of our juvenile universe. We swam in it in summer, and we skated on it in the winter, and the rest of the time we just hung out around its shorelines, or messed about in boats or rafts. And yes, we did go out in boats, despite admonitions not to.
It was not quite so patrician back then. Sure, there were some nice houses along what was Deer Lake Drive (a private road, usually in terrible repair), and some big old houses at the eastern end near the park. We however, rarely went down to the park because our realm was the woodsy, scrubby, swampy northern and western sides. This was the Lake of my dreams and reveries; a bit down at the heels and stubble on its chin, it was the plebian lake that our juvenile quest was to tame it.
I learned to swim in Deer Lake. No lessons. It was just something that evolved, and I think it evolved because of my revulsion for the mucky bottom that could contain leeches right out of the African Queen, and dragonfly nymphs that could, and would, bite the bejesus out of the unwary kid that trod on one. I did so once, and only once, and thereafter saw the virtue of keeping my feet out of the muck. The only way I could do that was to learn to swim, and I did
Once any of the lakeside kids had learned to swim, there was an unwritten understanding that one’s mettle had to be proved. It had to be proved by swimming the width of the lake. This was a generational thing. My uncles told me that the ritual had existed in their day as well. Approximately a mile wide, the task was a bit arduous but not excessively so. The rite of passage was always carried out alongside an accompanying boat, and I think I was about ten when I did it. Once it was done, a repeat of the effort was never deemed necessary. As for swimming the length – which was about a half-mile more – that was optional. Some did it. Most didn’t. Nobody cared too much.
At the western end of Deer Lake there lay a few acres of coniferous forest. It was superb woodland of the sort in which the big trees grew so thickly together that there was virtually no underbrush. The ground was springy since the acid-loving trees were rooted in peat moss, and what there was of undergrowth was predominantly huckleberry and blueberry bushes. While wildlife in the forest wasn’t abundant, there were deer periodically, and rabbits, and down at the water’s edge, usually sitting on a snag jutting into the lake we would see (and virtually never apprehend) Western Painted Turtles of goodly size. Only once did we ever got our hands on one, and cranky buggers they are. They hiss and they bite. Bite hard.
When we were quite little we were always forewarned to not venture right to the end of the woods. That was mainly because if a body went far enough a body came up against a wire mesh fenced, topped with angled rows of barbed wire. It was a high fence. It was the fence of the Oakalla Prison Farm, mainly because that forest abutted the ‘joint.’
Oakalla was a redbrick presence that loomed almost specter-like above the southwestern end of the lake. I say redbrick, because that was the main block, but there were many ancillary structures scattered around the periphery of the dominant one. Oakalla was a prison farm and the inmates could always be espied out working in the fields; tending the vegetables and the livestock. Indeed, from a distance it looked much like any other prosperous farm – if one disregarded the omnipresent guard towers.
As I got older, Deer Lake came to be more about “messing about in boats”, and fishing. There were always boats available (not a lifejacket among them) to us. Many of them were leaky old rowboats, but they were just fine for going out and testing our wits against the sluggish cutthroat trout that called the Lake home. The fish were sluggish because the lake was afternoon tea warm in the summer.
My mother was wary of eating fish from the lake – although she always did eat it – because the raw sewage from the prison ran directly into the water. We assured her we never fished around the outfall. Most of the time we didn’t.
But, the lake contained fish in abundance when I was a kid. Aside from the aforementioned cutthroat, there was the odd rainbow, and even the rare brown trout was known to manifest, I was told, though I never saw one. Other salmonids would have a limited presence, though it was known that steelhead periodically made their way to the lake. Again, I never saw one. Other species included chub (known to us by the now politically-incorrect (no doubt) appellation ‘squawfish’, suckers (a kind of carp, some of which grew to gargantuan size), a little bass-like thing of attractive steel-blue that we called a ‘crappy’, and catfish – sometimes big momma catfish that would swim lazily by with all her baby catfish gathered around her head. Trout were, of course, the angling quest, and we weren’t well enough versed in other cultures with other tastes to realize catfish was considered a treat in the southern US. But, this was many years prior to the ‘cajun cuisine’ vogue. Likewise, nobody every thought that the crayfish that could be found in abundance in Deer Lake Creek were considered delicacies in many parts. Such a pity.
It was in Deer Lake that I not only learned how to fish, I learned how much I loved the quest. We would often head out in the early hours of a summer morning, before the sun got too high and we would set out our lines. We were rowing, of course. And we would row down alongside those aforementioned ‘big trees’ of the forest primeval and if we were lucky there would be a tug on the line The tug, unfortunately might of have been lake weed, but it wasn’t always. Sometimes it was a sizable cutthroat. And it was a thrill when the fish struck. There is no other feeling quite like it. If the trout was landed it was an even better attainment.
In context of my proto fishing experiences I always loved the film A River Runs Through It because, although the tale takes place on a rushing Montana river, the river and the fishing quest are metaphors for life.
Deer Lake was for me, too, a metaphor for life at so many levels. When I hear the plaintive and lonely call of a loon at sunset on a summer’s evening I am transported back to my childhood lake days, with the tall trees in the distance and the swallows scudding the surface while any light remained and the insects were still out in their numbers.
As I have said before, I ceased fishing a few years ago due to a powerful need for compassion for other creatures, but I will still get winsome longings to head out on a lake or beside a river and indulge myself in the early morning mist one day. I still have all my tackle. Who knows, I might indulge it again.
My last visit to Deer Lake was in 1996, about two days after the death of my father. I had to go to his house – my childhood home – just to make sure everything was locked up and secure prior to my brothers and I putting it on the market. None of his kids had any desire to take up residence there. We all live elsewhere in the province, and there is in none of us much desire to come back to Burnaby.
After I secured the house, I took a stroll to the lake. I wanted some time to gather my thoughts. I walked down into the big woods; now an easy ramble along a well-marked and maintained trail. No longer any need to slog through the mire and the Labrador tea masses to get there. I stood at the water’s edge and pondered whether I might see a turtle. I doubted it. I was right. But, from a certain vantage point it looked very much like it always had. It was a bittersweet moment indicating, especially with Dad’s death and the sale of the property, that childhood was genuinely over. So was Burnaby in any context I might continue to relate to.
I had walked to the lake a few years before that final trek. That time it was with my first wife and my father. He wanted to come along and said he hadn’t made the walk in years. My wife and I noted how slow his steps had become.
And on my final walk the lake also looked very much like it looks in those dreams that arise with regularity. So, I guess a person doesn’t really lose his legacy.
I don’t know if I’ll go back there again or maybe just leave it up to memory — and long-ago dreams.