Articles

The Scenic and Succulent OKANAGAN

MAC REYNOLDS February 1 1953
Articles

The Scenic and Succulent OKANAGAN

MAC REYNOLDS February 1 1953

The Scenic and Succulent OKANAGAN

This fruitful B. C. valley has purple hills, blue waters, cactus, tireless boosters and the fearsome Ogopogo. But most of all it has the McIntosh Red

MAC REYNOLDS

■■BEHIND THE coast range of British Columbia and beyond reach ^HBof the Pacific’s thunderheads lies a narrow terraced valley which ^B^Bextends north from the United States border one hundred and ■ twenty miles at an altitude of eleven hundred feet. Here the sun shines two thousand hours a year and the winds tug at the brandy-glass boughs of the apple trees and the washing on the line blows sweetly clean.

The valley’s soil is so rich it generally can be counted on to grow half of Canada’s apple crop. Its air is so bracing a valley mayor recently sent a five-gallon cask of it to an admirer in a less balmy clime. Its weather is so tropical a coast ball club uses its sun-baked diamonds for spring training instead of going south. And when a contest was held to choose a name for a valley community a visiting Toronto preacher simply had to look around him to pick a winner. He combined Kal, Greek for beautiful, with Eden, after the biblical orchard, and Kaleden swept the contest.

For this is the Okanagan Valley, two hundred and fifty miles from Vancouver, where they say a man’s near eighty before he begins to feel his age, what with the sun and the air and all. In fact the city clerk in one northern valley town was ninety and the veteran of one thousand consecutive council meetings before he agreed to go into semi-retirement.

The Okanagan is the hills that mirror blue in crystal waters at sunup and silhouette purple at sundown . . . It’s the smoke trail of the Kettle Valley train . . . It’s the clean snapping sound of a bite into a crisp McIntosh. In the spring, it’s the falling blossoms giving perpetual care to the postage-stamp cemeteries wedged between orchards; in the fall, it’s the golden tamarack on the hills and the smell of bush fires and the pine props holding up fruit-heavy branches and the Kootenay Doukhobors in for the picking.

In season and out, it’s plenty good enough for seventy thousand citizens custodians of a history of fur-trading, missionaries, gold-rushes, stern-wheelers and cattle ranching—who today mix culture with their horticulture and live a sunny life singularly free of slums and crime.

The valley seems, on casual inspection, to have been snipped from the Mexican border country and carelessly repasted too far north on the map. Yet, even within this generous boundary, it refuses to be typed. A four-hour drive from the south of the valley to the north takes a traveler through no fewer than seventeen clearly defined climatic zones. These range from stark desert, where one expects thirst-racked prospectors to come crawling between bleached cattle skulls, to a green dairy bowl whose nippy cheese is sold across Canada as Ontario Cheddar.

A glacier did the ground work during the ice age. It dug a lake that runs through the valley like a main artery, sixty-nine miles long, two miles wide and seven hundred and sixty feet deep. It carved the hillsides into terraces and when it melted it left the terraces padded with rich glacial flour. The lake acted like a thermostat, cooling the terraces in summer, warming them in winter. But the rain clouds never got over the western mountain range and, with only twelve inches of rain a year, the valley raised a bumper crop of bull pine, sage brush, bunch grass, spiny cactus, greasewood, five-toed kangaroo rats and rattlesnakes. To make things less inviting still, Indian legend stocked the lake with a man-eating monster.

Lush Living in the Big Three

Today you’d never know the place. The ranchers tapped the mountain snows and brought water down to their rich, arid benches by ditches, flumes and pipes. The rattlesnakes died of their own venom. During the Twenties a pupil at the Vernon Preparatory School died of a rattler bite. The headmaster, the Rev. A. C. Mackie, swore vengeance. For more than two decades this dedicated figure, armed with a pronged stick and a .22 pistol, roamed the Okanagan bluffs. In his nut-brown tweeds and soft leather vest he had killed more than one thousand rattlers by 1951 and had stuffed their rattles in Royal Navy tobacco tins and old ships’ lanterns.

Now for the monster. The combined boards of trade of the Okanagan leaped on his back, named him Ogopogo, built a thriving tourist business around his antics and sold monster miniatures to tourists at a dollar apiece.

Today the irrigated and snakeless benchlands can grow a twentyseven-million-dollar annual tree-fruit crop, the harvest from 1,017,000 apple trees and 1,290,000 soft-fruit trees such as peach, pear, plum and cherry. They support four thousand progressive fruit ranchers -so progressive they have bypassed the birds and the bees and now are shooting pollen into their trees with shotguns who are the boss of their own sales outlet, the largest co-operative marketing agency in Canada, and their own processing plants.

Frost damage, high costs and lost sterling markets have in recent seasons taken some of the jingle from their overalls pockets, but there’s still enough left to give to the three cities that are the core of the Okanagan one of Canada’s highest standards of living.

The big three of the Okanagan are Penticton, at the southern tip of Okanagan Lake, Kelowna, halfway up, and Vernon, at the top. They share among ! them a population of more than twenty! five thousand. Penticton, a city of j beaches and peaches, is where Vancouver’s professional Capilanos ball club goes for spring training. Kelowna makes a habit of voting down beer parlors in plebiscites and boasts that ninety-eight percent of its citizens pay their taxes. Vernon is so crime-free the folks don’t lock their doors.

Among them, the big three share seventy-five churches and a feeling of i well-being that each year going on harvest time bursts its seams in a spate of festivals.

Since the B. C. government cut through the Cascade mountain range with an all-weather highway they’ve ! been sharing the tourists too. The j Okanagan is a Palm Springs on the back stoop to tourists from the coast. They soak up tans on the broad beaches of j Okanagan Lake, ski at six thousand feet while daffodils are blooming by the ! waters below, swim in sight of glaciers, hunt game and birds, fish for landlocked salmon and rainbow trout, drink rye and apple juice, suck on apple candy or eat the Okanagan dishes: apple catsup, apple soup, apple omelet and Okanagan apple-cup salad.

Or maybe they just lounge by the Kelowna-Westbank ferry slip with slung cameras and watch the MS Pendozi unload reserve Indians with their pintos, halfbreed girls with peach blossoms in their hair, ruddy-faced English ranchmen from the Coldstream Ranch, high-heeled cowboys, hunters with limp deer slung over car fenders and tractor-trailers loaded with apple boxes earmarked for Hong Kong or the Belgian Congo.

The Okanagan doesn’t believe in hiding its light or its tree fruit under a bushel. It claims the tangiest apples, the zestiest climate and the zippiest citizens in all of Canada.

Each year Penticton boosters roll a cavalcade of cars over the mountains to Vancouver to give away truckloads of free peaches and free propaganda. More than one million boxes of apples were presented to Britain during the 1949-50 glut season and in return the valley got one hundred thousand letters of gratitude and top-notch publicity.

Kelowna has its Regatta, begun in a sedate way by Englishmen wishing an organized sort of plunge back in 1909. Today the city calls it the greatest water show in Canada. It attracts four hundred swimmers from all over Canada and the United States and twenty-five thousand spectators. Tourist camps are booked solid for months in advance. When plans were made to bring the late Sir Malcolm Campbell to the regatta to race his Bluebird back in 1948, businessmen raised twenty-five thousand dollars. Sir Malcolm didn’t come but the regatta committee is still trying to get the Bluebird, now raced by his son Donald.

Penticton has its Peach Festival featuring peach pie, peach shortcake and, as no surprise, free peaches.

Vernon has its Vernon Days during which it stages a flashback to the ranching of a half-century ago. The town had a tobacco-chewing society then on a baked beans and roast porcupine diet. Now every summer it sprouts beards, bustles and ten-gallon hats. Barbers refuse shaves during the beard-growing season.

Competition in the valley is keen but f : *ndly. Only in inter-valley sports does it sometimes get out of hand—like the winter of 1951-52, after a VernonKelowna hockey match, when a twelvehundred-pound concrete statue of Ogopogo was stolen from the Kelowna water front and later found in the Vernon army camp.

Ogopogo is a monster of traditional sea-serpent physique and ornery frame of mind. The name was lifted from a British music-hall song of the Twenties. Since 1947 ten thousand plaster-ofParis Ogopogos have been taken home from Kelowna by tourists. The monster has been seen in the flesh by an impressive if impressionable array of eyewitnesses. Once, the story goes, he even had the audacity to race an automobile that was traveling along the shore road.

Myth or monster, Ogopogo is the one element in the Okanagan which has remained static since the valley’s settlement less than one hundred years ago.

Fur traders first came in canoes up the Okanagan River in 1811, traded five leaves of tobacco with the Salish tribesmen for one beaverskin, and passed on. Settlement had to await the arrival in 1859 of Father Pandosy, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Kelowna authorities later were to spell his name wrong when naming a street and a cross-lake ferry boat after him. Pandosy’s skilful knife-throwing helped convince the Indians that Christianity was here to stay.

Four and a half miles outside the present city of Kelowna, Pandosy established his mission. Generally barefoot, he carried the gospel over the mountain trails for thirty years, beginning the first permanent settlement in the valley, erecting the first church, | starting the first school, raising the j first cattle, performing the first marriage, and planting the first orchard (later settlers found he picked wrong; the water table was too high).

The priest in buckskins soon had competition from an equally unorthodox Anglican priest in hand-me-downs. Born Henry Irwin in Ireland. Father Pat had arrived in the Okanagan by | way of Oxford. His cathedrals were | the rowdy bars of the Okanagan’s j mining boomtowns. After a service, he would pack up his portable organ and j buy the house a round of beers. During one hymn-sing in a saloon he was compelled to knock a ruffian unconscious. | Then he offered prayers for forgiveness because he had not warned his opponent that he was a skilled boxer.

Father Pandosy and Father Pat shepherded the valley through the gold-boom days (when persons selling opium, other than doctors or druggists, had to buy a twenty-five-dollar license), j through the homesteading days (when tree trunks were sawed into solid wagon ¡ wheels and tree crotches into harrows), through stage-coach days (when passengers’ castor oil sometimes had to be used to grease squeaky axles) and through a picturesque period of freighting on Okanagan Lake.

It was a long haul up and down the lake for a man in a rowboat loaded with two and a half tons of settlers’ effects, but Thomas Dolman Shorts had stout back muscles and a stout heart. He had prospected for gold, run a saw mill and a fish market and sold self-threading needles on street corners. As business increased he abandoned oars as a means of propulsion in favor of coal oil. When he ran out of oil, he pulled into shore and emptied settlers’ lamps into his engine.

Stern-wheelers followed, with the building of a branch railroad from the CPR transcontinental line to the head j of the lake in 1892, and the beans, bacon j and barrels of whisky freighted by Shorts were replaced by equipment for t the fledgling fruit industry.

The valley fumbled for its footing. It tried tobacco, hops and cattle ranching. When Lord Aberdeen, then governor-general, bought the Coldstream Ranch—which was started in the 1860s by Charles and Forbes Vernon—two thousand cattle were grazing its thirteen thousand acres.

The change from cattle to fruit was a gradual one received grudgingly by the cowboys; they had become attached to their Mexican spurs and their Bowie knives. With the Coldstream Ranch’s first ambitious efforts at fruit growing, near the turn of the century, the fertility of the soil for tree fruit was proved. Gradually, more and more land was put under irrigation and by 1904 tree planting was under way on a grand scale.

And already the first shots were being fired in a guerrilla war between the growers, who wanted to sell their fruit at profitable prices, and the broker - wholesaler combinations, who wanted to get it as cheap as they could.

The first serious attempt at cooperative selling in the Okanagan was made in 1913, but it was a rickety structure. It was 1926 before the valley orchardists got a Produce Marketing Act passed in parliament but, when that act was declared ultra vires in 1931, there followed a period of disastrous internal warfare. By 1933 the growers were getting red ink for red apples and dumping their fruit in Okanagan lake.

The growers held indignation meetings and formed vigilante committees. Plans were laid for drastic action to halt movement of fruit trains from the valley. It was Wealthy time, late August. Arthur K. Loyd, a Welshman who had fruit-farmed the Okanagan since 1910, had arranged with his wife to have a cowbell rung in his fifty-acre orchard if a train, being loaded at Kelowna, showed signs of running the picket line. When the cowbell tinkled it echoed on the party lines of one hundred and fifty waitingfruitranchers. Dust plumes rose from the dry bench roads as they raced in their cars to the railroad tracks. There, in front of the fruit train, they held a picnic. Their wives served them sandwiches. It was a good picnic. The engine backed into the yards. The fruit was dumped. And co-operative marketing of tree fruit in the Okanagan was just around the corner.

It came in the form of the B. C. Fruit Growers’ Association and its militant selling agency, B. C. ’Free Fruits Limited. Even nonmembers, about twelve percent of the growers in the area, are obliged by law to market through the agency.

B. C. Tree Fruits markets the fruit and vegetable crops grown in an interior area of thirty to forty thousand square miles, mostly in the Okanagan. Its best year was 1946. That year it sent out seventeen thousand freight cars of produce, grossed more than twenty-seven million dollars and distributed this among its grower-owners after deducting something like three cents a bushel for handling. Federal statistics show that in the five years up to 1950 the Okanagan consistently marketed half of Canada’s total apple crop.

High standards of grading and packaging contributed to the success of Okanagan apple marketing. During harvest special canvas picking-buckets, which open at the bottom, are used to prevent bruising. Packers, trained by B. C. Tree Fruits on red and green wooden balls, pack the apples with almost unbelievable speed — a good packer does fifty apples a minute. The apples are sold in only three grades, Extra Fancy, Fancy and C Grade.

Today the honeymoon is over and

the fruit ranchers are mostly driving the big cars they bought new' in the latter Forties. Lost markets in the dollar-short sterling bloc, the competition from subsidized U. S. growers, high costs and the crippling 1949-50 Okanagan frost (which killed twenty percent of the Okanagan’s trees) have cut both production and profit. Yet the Okanagan rancher is an optimist. He has bulldozed out his frozen trees, chopped the sweet white wood up for the kitchen stove, and planted new orchards—it takes ten or twelve years for an apple tree to bear commercially.

Each year the Okanagan co-operative grants five thousand dollars to the valley’s Summerland Experimental Station to further crop research. It feels it owes a debt. In the Thirties the station produced methods of coping with codling moth and boron deficiency in the soil that saved the valley’s orchards from disaster.

Listening with one ear to the scientists at the experimental station and with the other to the rumblings of the world markets, B. C. Tree Fruits— under the presidency of the same A. K. Loyd who sparked the “revolt” of the Thirties—has pared the valley’s apple varieties to eight (out of eighteen hundred apple types). They are McIntosh, Delicious, Wealthy, Jonathan, Rome Beauty, Newton, Stayman and Winesap.

Today’s Okanagan fruit farmer must be an agronomist, a horticulturist and an engineer, and have a smattering of many other sciences besides. He farms an average holding of ten or twelve acres and considers himself lucky if he owns a hillside orchard on Skaha Lake, where the acres hang at forty-five degree angles, as if from hooks, and dollar production per acre is the highest in Canada. He pays irrigation fees up to twenty dollars an acre a year to pour about two feet of mountain water on his orchard. He owns or rents sprayers to rid his trees of pests. If he hasn’t got around to shotgun pollenizing, he rents bees from apiarists for the blossom season. He keeps three cats an acre on his payroll to cope with tree-nibbling field mice and deducts cost of their milk from his income tax. He insures his pickers from falls.

Kelowna’s first doctor saw the valley from the back of a chestnut gelding with his satchel lashed to the cantle. Today’s typical Kelowna doctor is Dr. George Athans, thirty-one, Canadian diving champion, who sees it from inside a Studebaker.

And over the trails that Father Pandosy walked barefoot, the Rev. Robert Brown, thirty-one, today pedals his bicycle to attend church badminton tournaments.

It doesn’t take long in the Okanagan to become a pioneer—between blossom time and harvest usually does it. Forty-seven-year-old Bill Hill, secretary of the Kelowna Board of Trade, came to the valley at the end of the last war from Toronto and is now the biggest Okanagan booster of them all.

Hill admits there are no apple millionaires in the valley and that, according to statistics, fruit men today actually lose a few cents on every bushel of apples they sell. But statistics don’t tell all the story. A visitor to the valley recently called on a fruit rancher who had come from Wales in 1910 and had bought one-third interest in seven and a half acres of orchard in the Kelowna area. Today he and his sons farm two hundred and sixty acres. Times were tough in the valley, he said.

When he was asked about an elegant almost-new Packard in his driveway, he said: “Heck that’s no sign of prosperity. Had to buy that second-hand from a Social Credit politician.” A"