The Legend of Deer Lake

In honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day and National Indigenous History Month, Burnaby Beacon decided to look at the Legend of Deer Lake, the story of a hidden waterway that’s supposed to flow between False Creek and Deer Lake right here in Burnaby.

The story was told to poet Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) by then-Squamish Chief Joe Capilano and published in the 1911 book Legends of Vancouver.

The story says that, a century prior, the first Chief Capilano was hunting in his canoe at the mouth of False Creek, when he saw a colossal seal. Capilano, described as a spearman without rival, cast an elk-bone spear owned by three generations of his ancestors at the seal.

But the seal king plunged into the sea, dragging Capilano in his canoe up to the eastern end of False Creek before ripping the long braided cedar rope attached to the spear from Capilano’s hands.

Although Capilano searched for his precious spear for many months, he didn’t find it.

A year later, however, he was out sealing off the coast of what we now call Point Grey, when he saw “dashes of flaming scarlet” out on the horizon past False Creek.

He beached his canoe and followed the trails from False Creek through to the group of lakes that sit between Vancouver and New Westminster—here, in Burnaby. He arrived to find that Deer Lake was surrounded by flames.

As Capilano approached, he saw a mass of thousands of beavers leaving the lake, moving away from the fire.

Capilano followed the trail they had just left, to the edge of the water. There, he saw the massive carcass of the same seal king he had encountered a year previously. He understood now what omen had brought him to Deer Lake from Point Grey.

Capilano searched until his death for the hidden river the seal must have used to come to Deer Lake all the way from False Creek, but he never found it.

“But although those of the Squamish tribe tell and believe that the river still sings through its hidden trail that leads from Deer Lake to the sea, its course is as unknown, its channel is as hopelessly lost as the brave little army of beavers that a century ago marshalled their forces and travelled up into the great lone north,” Johnson wrote.

You can read Johnson’s full retelling of the Legend of Deer Lake here; or you can visit the stairway at the southwest corner of Deer Lake Park that has a series of plaques telling the story.