A brief history of rowing at Burnaby Lake
Material summarized from from Jack Carver’s Book “Vancouver Rowing Club”, club members and the information package produced by the City of Burnaby for the Burnaby Lake Rejuvenation Project.
Geology and Early Lake History
Burnaby Lake is an ancient post-glacial landform. The valley, now occupied by Still Creek, Burnaby Lake and the Brunette River was formerly an arm of the Fraser River Delta flowing west from Coquitlam into Burrard Inlet. Geologic forces later caused the uplift of the Grandview ridge (west of Boundary Road) blocking the Fraser’s path. The uplift reversed the flow of water through the valley draining the watershed east, through what was to become the Brunette River. A sandstone ledge between Burnaby Mountain and Caribou Hill, at the current mouth of Burnaby Lake formed a natural dam, holding back water to create a shallow, seasonal, flood-prone lake. A stagnant slough remained in the former Fraser river bed, forming substantial peat deposits.
There is some evidence that there was aboriginal activities on the lake with history of hunting, fishing, plus pictographs along the Brunette River
After New Westminster was selected to be a city, Colonel RC Moody and the Royal Engineers from New Westminster explored and surveyed the lake circa 1860. The lake was reported to be very shallow with depths around 6 metres. During the ensuing decades up until the early 1900’s there was considerable activity with logging, sawmills and residential development along the shorelines of the lake. The residential area was confined to the south side and a sawmill was located on the north side of the lake. Logs were floated down the lake, to the Brunette River, then to the Fraser River. In 1915 a concrete dam was built at the mouth of the lake to control water levels and for upstream flood control. The downstream Brunette river channel was also deepened. This original dam height was designed to maintain the lake at its original depth. At this time the lake was free of sediments, vegetation and lily pads. In 1930 a new dam was built and the lake level was lowered 1 meter. Still Creek, west of the lake, was deepened in order to drain the surrounding wetlands which were susceptible to flooding. The result of this activity, along with draining the still creek flats, clearing of the forests and lowering the lake level, meant a gradual but increasing amount of sediment deposited in the lake resulting in significant growth of aquatic vegetation. Up until this time, the lake was clear and free of vegetation and the lake frequently used for recreational water sports. In the late 1940s and by 1950 the lake was infilling and covered with lily pads. The GVRD (Greater Vancouver Regional District) dredged a channel in the lake from Still Creek to the dam at the Brunette River. This channel was the only open water during summer months.
Rowing at Burnaby Lake
Boating and recreational water activities by local residents were present on the open lake in the early 1900s. Around 1929 Vancouver Rowing Club (VRC) was looking for calm water and place to hold regattas. Land was leased from Burnaby to the VRC on the south shore of the lake near Hill Street. Land and shoreline was cleared, access to the lake was provided, plus a boat house and viewing stands were erected. The NPAAO (North Pacific Association of Amateur Oarsmen) held its annual regatta at the lake 1930 and 1931. The onset of the great depression placed further development on hold and eventually VRC had to give up its lease on the Burnaby Lake property. In 1930 there was a regatta in the fall. In attendance were some of the New Zealand and Australian crews who had competed in the first British Empire Games in Hamilton Ontario. The “down under” bunch rowed against the best from Vancouver and area. With the Great Depression and the subsequent World War in 1939, rowing activity diminished considerably for several decades.
In the early 1950s, Vancouver was awarded the 1954 British Empire Games (BEG). Colonel Tommy Taylor, a Burnaby business man, VRC member and former rower, became a major supporter of Burnaby Lake to be the site for the 1954 BEG. Ultimately, Burnaby Lake lost out to the Vedder Canal in Chilliwack, where some development and improvements were made, however, all of the improvements at the Vedder site soon disappeared and further rowing never occurred there.
In the mid-1960s a group of former UBC rowers and former VRC members started to row in the dredged channel of the lake. They stored their boat in the open on the north dike near the dam site. Early rowers of the lake included Bob Stubbs and Darryl Sturdy. At this time, the channel was just wide enough for one boat and was quite tortuous due to significant infiltration of aquatic plan growth. They formed an early rowing club and placed members on some of Canada’s national teams. For a short spell UBC rowed 8+’s from this same area.
1970’s and 1980’s
In 1971 New Westminster and Burnaby were selected to host Canada’s 2nd Canada Summer Games occurring in 1973. The host committee ably guided by Bob Stubbs and Herb Challier, successfully positioned Burnaby Lake as the site for the rowing, kayaking and canoe events. A FISA standard course was designed along with a grandstand and boathouse. There was also a plan to dredge the lake by piping the dredged lake contents into the local sewer outlet at the dam site near North Caribou Road and flush all the dredged material out to the Fraser River. On the first day of dredging the whole plan was arrested with a total blockage in the sewer system which meant they had to change plans. The dredged material was pumped to the sides of the lake eventually compounding the issues of increased sediment and aquatic material filling the lake.
The 1973 Canada Summer Games were a great success for New Westminster and Burnaby. One of the legacies was a FISA standard Rowing Course in the GVRD area. Burnaby Lake quickly became a hub for the local and National rowing, canoeing and kayaking programs. Many regattas, including the Canadian National men’s and women’s training camps were held at the lake during the 1970s and 1980s. The BC High School Championships were frequently held at Burnaby during the 1980s. UBC’s men’s and women’s rowing programs were located at Burnaby Lake during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1976, UBC successfully hosted the Western Intercollegiate Sprint Championships at the lake. They were usually held at Newport Beach in California and all the major rowing universities in the western USA and Canada attended.
Continued infill and increased aquatic plants resulted in the restriction of sculling boats and pairs. SFU was the last university program to use the lake and they also left early in the 1990s. The national canoe and kayak programs also abandoned the lake at this time.
In March 2010 the lake underwent a major dredge program to re-establish an open water environment on the lake. The lake was dredged to a depth of 2m inside the lake pilings and concluded in the summer of 2011. This opened up the lake considerably an allowed for more activities and programs to be conducted on the lake.