British Columbia's Okanagan Valley is a dry-climate, lake-filled vacationland with a growing number of outdoor adventures, as well as one of Canada's best-known wine-growing regions.
OKANAGAN VALLEY, B.C. — I never would have thought I could have climbed to the top of anything so sheer and vertical — most of my hand- and footholds were an inch wide or less — but I did at Skaha Bluffs in the Okanagan Valley. And that’s the kind of thing people find themselves doing in this place, an adventure capital without the rough edges such places often have.
Later that day, I joined a group on a relaxed kayaking tour along Okanagan Lake, ending with dinner and wine at a beachside restaurant. Nobody spotted the lake’s legendary sea-serpent-style monster, Ogopogo (every big lake has a sea monster, right?), but some in the group did catch some wind-whipped choppy waves that may have looked for an instant like fins.
The valley is a mix of peril and pleasure, of creatures and creature comforts. It’s a place where you can reach beyond your known capabilities, but without the amount of fear you might have expected.
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Part of it is the quintessentially Canadian attitude that implies, hey, we have everything under control, and everything will be just fine. So far, I’ve done rappelling, zip-lining, sailing, cycling and kayaking in the Okanagan, and my guides have all been laid-back yet professional. They will prod you to do things you never even thought of trying — upside-down zip-lining, anyone? In the nude, perhaps? — but they will do it in such a gentle and friendly way that you find yourself saying yes.
The folks at ZipZone Adventure Park did talk me into going upside-down, but the idea of zipping through the air in the buff — which the company will set up for groups if they desire — didn’t appeal (I’m adventurous, but not in that way).
You can also sky-dive, parasail and hang glide on the breezes along the hills. And when you’re done, it’s time to relax with some of the bounty of Canada’s wine country.
The landscape and climate lend themselves to such pursuits. With an average annual rainfall of 11 inches, the valley is warmer and drier than much of British Columbia.
Similar to Chelan
The valley’s towns are clustered around a series of glacial lakes that are long and narrow and a bit reminiscent of Washington’s Lake Chelan (Okanagan Lake is 168 miles long, compared with Chelan’s 55 miles). But they aren’t as deep, and they warm up considerably in the summer, making them popular for everything from water skiing to windsurfing.
Mountains surround the lakes, but near the shore, tall rolling hills fall off into cliffs that run anywhere from 20 to more than 100 feet in height. Here, the Skaha Bluffs climbing area incorporates 2,000 routes in three canyon systems overlooking the lake.
The valley is Canada’s foremost fruit-growing region, and as in parts of Washington and Oregon, that has made it a good spot for wine production. While wine tasting is a welcome break from all the adventuring, and the quality has improved over the past couple decades, it may be more expensive than you’d expect compared with the same-quality wine in the United States.
Kelowna is the Okanagan Valley’s hub, with a population of 120,000 or so consisting of many retirees and adventure and sun seekers.
One must-do activity in the area: cycling along the Kettle Valley Railway trail along a century-old rail bed first cut into the mountainsides to transport mined copper, silver and gold. Starting in the 1990s, volunteers and government agencies transformed it for recreation.
With grades topping out at about 2 percent, it’s the perfect ride for a cycling wimp like me. More hard-core cyclists can tackle longer rides along the 375-mile railway bed, but the most popular section is Myra Canyon, near Kelowna, where a series of 18 trestles crosses steep canyons. Many of the trestles had to be rebuilt after a massive fire in 2003.
Nature in the backyard
The locals seem to take nature’s nearness for granted. When I asked about the deer fence surrounding one vineyard, the winery’s tasting-room manager explained that it was put up after black bears stripped clean a good percentage of the vines a couple years ago. We saw a rattlesnake on our climbing trip; while I shrieked and jumped, my instructor, Lyle Thiede of Skaha Rock Adventures, shrugged and gave me the old “It’s more afraid of you than you are of it” lecture.
Bed for your head
Although you can do multi-
day adventures, the region has surprisingly few camping options. Folks here seem to favor the British-European style of going from one bed-and-breakfast to another rather than roughing it along the way.
During my adventures, I stayed in a whitewashed, Mediterranean-style guesthouse called God’s Mountain, which perches on the edge of Skaha Lake in Penticton. It’s also right on the edge of the nature preserve that surrounds the Skaha Bluffs, preserved as part of a years-long effort by groups including the British Columbia government and the Canadian Nature Conservancy to buy up undeveloped land critical for wildlife habitat as well as recreation.
When I asked God’s Mountain proprietor Sarah Allen, a native of England, why she bought the place, she replied, “How could I not, once I saw it?”
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.