The Beautiful Lake
cultus lake : photo by Gary Haggquist
Cultus Lake is famous for its natural beauty and sockeye salmon. As these most valued qualities are under pressure, it is the intent of the Cultus Lake Aquatic Stewardship Strategy to address the future of this lake’s well being. When surveyed (2010), the public responded by saying they love this lake for its accessibility, proximity to Greater Vancouver, warm swimming temperatures, lovely beaches, park amenities and sense of community.

Cultus Lake is a small, deep lake with steep sides nestled in the edge of the Cascade Mountains. Over ten thousand years ago, the receding glacier had deposited gravels and a glacial moraine at the south end of the lake, known as the Columbia Valley. These gravels are very porous. The Valley has a small portion on the American side of the border and is known for agricultural production surrounded by forest and forest harvests. Approximately 800 years ago, a new landslide blocked the former water body, creek and drainage of this valley. The filling waters formed the newer Cultus Lake we know today. Local survivors re-told the story, and this information was carried forward through the oral tradition of the generations. Today geological surveys confirm some of that oral tradition. Recent experience during high rainfall events still result in gravel and debris slides off the Vedder Mountain on the west side. The mountain is not so stable. “Soo-welz-a” means where the waters have come together to form the lake. This name sticks today in the form of Sweltzer Creek.

Cultus Lake is located in Stó:lō territory and has many jurisdictional bodies that include: BC Parks, Defense Canada, Fraser Valley Regional District, BC Ministry of Tourism, City of Chilliwack through the Cultus Lake Parks Board, and resource extraction activities such as forestry and gravel extraction that fall under the appropriate provincial and federal ministries. Under the Municipal Gov’t Act, it is known as Electoral Area E of the Fraser Valley Regional District and it holds the highest (measured at one third) assessments compared to the other 6 electoral areas.

The lake has diverse communities that live on or near it: Lindell Beach, Columbia Valley, Soowahlie First Nation, Cultus Lake Community, and new development proposals. Current resident population of Electoral Area E (which includes the Chilliwack River Valley) is about 3,500 people.

In 1932, the management of the north end of Cultus Lake was designated to the City of Chilliwack. Chilliwack established the Cultus Lake Parks Board that operates the Cultus Lake Park to this day. Prior to 1932, between 1924 and 1932, a joint committee of the City of Chilliwack and Township of Chilliwack operated the park but this proved to be an onerous task for the councilors for the two municipal governments.

At the other end of the lake the Cultus Lake Provincial Park was established after 1948. The 2,561-hectare Cultus Lake Provincial Park is almost evenly divided between the northwest and southeast sides of Cultus Lake. The northwest portion is mostly in its natural state with the visitor-oriented facilities confined to the south-east portion. The Provincial Park has four campgrounds with a total of 298 campsites, and a large day-use area. Cultus Lake Provincial Park and the Cultus Lake Park have a combined 1,363 campsites/cabins and leases.

About 1901, logging operations removed some of the old-growth cedars that once surrounded the lake. The 1930’s saw increased logging activities as harvesting edged up the mountainsides on both sides of the lake. There was a sawmill and log-sort at Cultus Lake.

In the current era, this lake is getting “loved to death”. FVRD traffic counts show more than three million visitors per year in 2010. Most of these are repeat visitors based on the same 130,000 people but they stay long enough to flush the toilet at least once. Human impacts in the form of nutrients percolating through porous gravels are now measured by scientists through lake core sampling data.

Fisheries and Oceans scientists analyzing the lake core samples, clearly say that the lake is moving towards eutrophication. This means the water is becoming richer in mineral and organic nutrients that promote a proliferation of plant life, especially algae, which reduces the dissolved oxygen content and often causes the extinction of other organisms. The lake is changing. The causes for this process are becoming more understood with the science measuring and researching the increase of human impacts.

Cultus Lake map click to view
Caring for the lake and respecting these waters has long been taught in First Nations communities. The relationship of the Stó:lō people to the lake extends far back in time. Trade routes were well established between the Stó:lō and their southern cousins in what later became Washington State. At one time, a village was located adjacent to Sweltzer Creek and Main Beach but this village was largely abandoned by the 1860s probably because of the loss of population caused by introduced diseases. Nevertheless, the relationship of the Stó:lō to the lake was recognized by the Crown when in 1863, reserve boundaries were established in the Chilliwack area. The Soowahlie boundaries included portions of Cultus Lake. The boundaries however were re-drawn in 1867 and this section of Cultus Lake was omitted from the Soowahlie Reserve. The modern day treaty process is addressing this issue but it remains to be resolved.

At Cultus Lake, in 1958 Berns Mussell, Albert Douglas, and Sam Jimmie invited Chief Richard Malloway to join them in starting up the canoe races and Indian Days in the first week of June, that still take place to this day. During the 2008 Oral History Project “old-timers” spoke about the sense of community and the wonderful dances held at the Pavilion. They spoke about how popular Cultus Lake had become for Vancouver visitors seeking to escape the city and the ever-present news of World War II. The Cultus community contributed to the war effort and during the last years of WWII, teens at Cultus even developed the Cultus Submarine group. When the war was over, the 1950’s saw increased prosperity and family recreation. Cultus became even more popular. The volume of settlement families in the area warranted the building of the Cultus Lake Community School. It was opened in 1953, operating to this day by School Dist. 33 Chilliwack. It has 150 students from grades 1 to 6.

By 1955 power boating traffic increased and it is suspected that invasive Eurasian Watermilfoil arrived at this time. Cultus Lake became the main summer recreational destination in this area. After World War II, many of the summer cottages were winterized and a year round population began calling Cultus Lake home. Many of these older cottages have now been replaced with architecturally designed homes in recent years. Today 1,000 people live within the 65-acre boundary of Cultus Lake Park.

The Cultus Lake community offers waterslides, two golf courses, bumper boats, canoe, boat and jet-ski rentals, marina, miniature golf, restaurants, laundromat, stores, gas station, church camps, provincial and local campgrounds and summer weekly market. In 2004, a B-rated, sci-fi movie called Snakehead Terror was made at Cultus Lake.

At the same time the south shore hosts the community of Lindell Beach and the newer Cultus Cottages. Southbound, beyond the Lake is the Columbia Valley community that reaches to the USA border. The Columbia Valley has many farms including livestock production, berry production, a winery and specialty crops like garlic or lavender.

Cultus Lake and surrounding area is one of the most loved and beautiful places in BC. In order to keep it healthy and beautiful the future depends on what we do now. At this point in writing the Cultus Lake Aquatic Stewards realize that we collectively need to address the nutrient load, causing eutrophication. This document is a snapshot in time of the things we know now and is meant to provide information for management decisions towards a better future for Cultus Lake itself.

Xólhmet te mekw’stám ít kwelát.
“We have to look after everything that looks after, and sustains, us.”