Industrial RootsThese valleys were first inhabited by the Okanagan First Nation, an Interior Salish tribe. They hunted wild game, fished salmon runs, foraged for roots and berries and traded with other nations. The first European arrivals were fur traders searching for accessible routes to transport their goods to the Pacific. In the early 19th century they ventured north from Fort Okanogan, a Pacific Fur Co. trading post at the confluence of the Okanagan and Columbia rivers in present-day Washington state. Fur caravans were soon heading in and out of the valley region.
When the Oregon Treaty designated the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and the Canadian territory, Osoyoos became a port of entry, and vast herds of cattle were trailed through customs to supply food for miners who panned for placer gold along the Similkameen River. The bunch grass that grew along the river valley provided abundant forage, and ranches began to be established.
Father Charles Pandosy, an Oblate priest, founded a mission in 1859 on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake. He and his followers endured a harsh first winter—they were forced to shoot their horses for food—but went on to build other missions in the Okanagan Valley, where Father Pandosy instructed the Indigenous people in European agricultural techniques in addition to performing baptisms, marriages and funerals.
The discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858 resulted in a full-fledged gold rush. British Columbia’s southern interior was further opened up with the building of the Caribou Road (now Hwy. 97) and the Dewdney Trail (now Hwy. 3). By the late 19th century the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys were buzzing with gold camps and boom towns that began to spring up along the shores of the region’s lakes.
The fruit industry that today is a hallmark of the Okanagan began with difficulty. Apple orchards were planted as early as 1892, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that fruit crops proved economically successful. The valley’s warm temperatures and long growing season—besides providing Canadians with about one-third of their apples—nurtures verdant orchards of apricots, cherries, peaches, pears and plums.
Commercial grape plantings near Kelowna supplied the Okanagan’s first wineries. The local wine industry has grown exponentially since the introduction of large-scale irrigation, and almost all British Columbia wine comes from the Okanagan region. The diversity of growing conditions—from the hot, sandy desert soils of the south to the deep topsoil and clay of the cooler north, plus distinct micro-climates created by the valley’s lakes—help ensure a diversity of wines.
Vineyards at the southern end of the valley produce such vintages as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, while vineyards in the central and northern valley specialize in Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines. Some grapes are left to freeze on the vine to produce icewine, a rich, sweet dessert wine. One of the Okanagan's most picturesque things to see is orderly rows of grapevines, often covering a hillside that overlooks a deep blue lake.
Hwy. 97, which runs the length of British Columbia from the U.S. border just south of Osoyoos north to Watson Lake at the Yukon border, is the principal route through the Okanagan Valley. From Osoyoos it travels north to Penticton, then follows the western shore of Okanagan Lake before crossing the lake on a floating bridge (the largest in the country) that is scheduled to be replaced with an overhead bridge.
Okanagan Lake is said to be the home of Ogopogo, the best known of Canada’s unexplained lake creatures. Sightings of the mythical beast—most often described as 5 to 6 metres (15 to 20 ft.) long, shaped like a log and with a head resembling that of a horse or goat—date back as far as 1872. Indigenous Okanagan people believed that Ogopogo’s home was small, barren Rattlesnake Island; they claimed that the island’s rocky beaches were sometimes strewn with animal parts, presumably dinner remains, and when crossing the lake during bad weather always took along a small animal that would be thrown overboard in order to appease the monster. Interestingly, there are similarities between Okanagan Lake and Scotland’s Loch Ness, home of the famed Loch Ness Monster; both bodies of water are long and narrow, and both lie at about the same latitude.
East of the lake Hwy. 97 winds north to Enderby, the unofficial northern end of the valley, before continuing on toward Sicamous. But whether you proceed from south to north or north to south, this 211-kilometre (131 mi.) journey through the heart of the Okanagan is utterly delightful. One minute the highway is running tantalizingly close to a sparkling lakeshore; the next it’s in the shadow of a soaring, sagebrush-dotted bluff or looking down on checkerboard farmland. Each bend and turn reveals a new view, and each one is lovely. The scenery alone would be more than enough to recommend this drive, even if you didn’t make a single stop.
Okanagan Valley, BC
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