Columbia And Okanagan Rivers While searching for an accessible route to transport furs to the Pacific, Europeans began exploring the B.C. Interior. In 1811 Scottish trader and explorer David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company sailed to the junction of the Columbia and Okanagan rivers and built Fort Okanagan. He then travelled north to Thompson River and in so doing, established the Okanagan Valley trail that united the Upper Fraser and Lower Columbia sections. By 1824 the trail was dominated by the activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company which provided fur caravans along the lake hills until 1847. Between orchards and vineyards remnants of the trail remain for historical hikes. The first permanent valley settlements were established in 1840 by Father Charles Pandosy of the Oblates of Mary.
Missionary camps were located at the head of Okanagan Lake and near what is now Kelowna. The valley population grew with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858 and in the Cariboo region in 1861. Both the Cariboo Road (now Hwy 97) and the Dewdney Trail (now Hwy 3) were built as a result. This opening up of the B.C. Interior attracted 150 Overlanders from Ontario in 1862, and continued growth came with the establishment of Canadian Pacific Railway services by the 1890s.
The Okanagan boasts an extremely diverse terrain. You can scan a panorama that melts from dry desert to lush basins, or graduates from low grasslands to upper forest hills to less majestic mountains that accentuate their ice-capped elders far in the distance. Although in a dry belt, the Okanagan’s natural vegetation is divided into two general categories. North Okanagan is dominated by a dry/rainshadow forest characterized by sage bush, antelope bush (also called greasewood), bunchgrass and scattered ponderosa pines. It is a green and fertile region with a much wetter climate than the rest of the valley. Southern Okanagan has near desert-like conditions which produce a more arid but unique vegetation, unlike any other in Canada. Here, the deep valley becomes grassland – too dry for tree growth without irrigation.
Sagebrush shrubs, cheatgrass, poison ivy and sumac are scattered with beautifully coloured prickly pear cactus, Okanagan sunflower and bitter root. The region’s wildlife is also unique. In the winter, hoofed animals such as mule deer and bighorn sheep migrate down from the mountains into the warmer valleys. White-tailed deer, cottontails, jackrabbits, badgers and muskrats are seen throughout the seasons. The valley is a birder’s paradise, hosting mallards and canvasbacks in the cooler north, along with canyon wrens, white-throated swifts‚ woodpeckers and calliope hummingbirds in the warmer south. Alligator lizards, painted turtles, and several snakes (western blue racer, rubber boa, gopher/bull, and Pacific rattle) frequent the area, as does the odd scorpion.
Conservation concerns have arisen in the valley’s southerly reaches due to extraordinarily unique wildlife coupled with a booming population. Although the deltas in the area hold potentially fertile soil, the extremely dry conditions in the Okanagan keep soil nutrients from plants. This climate is characteristic of most valley systems and is due to air movement over mountain chains. Here, as moisture-rich air moves eastward from the Pacific, it must rise to cross the Cascade Range. As it does, it cools and condenses into rain on the western mountain slopes.
Air crosses the chain, falls and becomes warm and dry, leaving the eastern slope and valley in the rainshadow. When the valley is deep the phenomenon can result in desert-like conditions. The Okanagan receives a minimal average of 25-40 cm precipitation, and a hefty 2,000 hours of sunshine per year. In order to tap into the fertile soil deposits created by erosion, massive irrigation is required. Thankfully for Canada’s apple-eating population, the rivers and lakes are now drained extensively to convert dry bunchgrass into lush green orchards. The first industry in the Okanagan Valley was ranching.
In the northern regions, dairy and beef herding are ideal since the meadows require little or no irrigation. In the southern valley, fruit farming is the main industrial focus and is made possible by the intensive irrigation that converts desert land into orchards and vineyards. There is a long history of fruit growing in the Okanagan, which dates back to the Oblate missionaries’ first fruit crop in 1862 near Kelowna. During the 1890s Governor General Aberdeen began offering large sections of land as a fruit-growing incentive, and later plantings were made in the southern v Music.