Okanagan Valley

     The Okanagan Valley, BC, roughly 200 km long (in Canada) and 20 km wide, lies between the COLUMBIA and CASCADE mountain ranges in south-central British Columbia. Its landscape of low hills and oblong lakes was formed by glacial activity during the Tertiary and Pleistocene eras, the final retreat of the ice (between 11 000 and 9000 years ago) leaving large deposits of gravel, silt and sand on the bottom and sides of the valley. These sediments were eroded by water and wind, resulting in large alluvial fans and deltas such as those on which VERNON, KELOWNA and PENTICTON partly stand. It is these sediments that have been colonized and used for agriculture. Spilled along the valley floor are the watery remnants of a large glacial lake, the largest of which is OKANAGAN LAKE. Lying in a string to the east are Swan, Kalamalka and Wood lakes; to the south lie Skaha, Vaseux and Osoyoos lakes. The whole system drains south through the Okanagan River into the COLUMBIA RIVER.

 The valley lies in the rain shadow of the COAST and Cascade mountains, creating a hot, sunny, dry climate. Most of the valley receives about 2000 hours of sunlight per year and 250-400 mm of precipitation. The southern valley, which gets about 300 mm of precipitation, is desertlike, with cacti, rattlesnakes and MANTIDS.

The Okanagan Valley was first inhabited by the Okanagan of the Interior SALISH, who gave the valley its name, translated roughly as "place of water." There are large INDIAN RESERVES on the northwest arm of Okanagan Lake, southwest of the lake and north of Osoyoos, and others near Enderby and Kelowna.

Today, the valley contains the largest concentration of population in interior BC (about 7% of the provincial total). The 3 largest centres are Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon. ENDERBY and ARMSTRONG lie in the dairy and vegetable-growing region of the northern valley, and Okanagan Falls, OLIVER and OSOYOOS lie in the dry fruit-growing area south of Penticton.

David Stuart, a Scottish fur trader in the employ of the PACIFIC FUR COMPANY, is credited as the first non-native to see the valley (1811). His cousin, John Stuart of the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY, followed the trail (1814) through the valley that continued to be used until 1847 by fur traders, and later by miners. Missionaries built the first settlement at the head of Okanagan Lake about 1840 and near Kelowna in 1859. Some miners stayed on after a small gold rush at Cherry Creek (50 km east of Vernon), as did a few of the OVERLANDERS OF 1862. Ranching, in the northern valley, was the first viable industry.

Fruit Basket
 Next to the FRASER RIVER LOWLANDS, the Okanagan Valley is the most important agricultural region in BC. The primary crop is FRUIT, which was first planted by Hiram "Okanagan" Smith near Osoyoos (c 1857) and Oblate missionaries near Kelowna (c 1862). Governor General ABERDEEN, who owned a huge ranch in the northern valley, gave a strong impetus to fruit growing (1890s) by offering land for this purpose. New plantings were made around Osoyoos for soldiers returning after World War I. The pioneer orchards suffered from inadequate irrigation, winter freezes, the codling moth and an inadequate marketing system.

 It was not until the 1930s that a good irrigation system turned the semidesert of sagebrush into a premier fruit-growing area. Today the valley produces around 20% of Canada's apples, pears, peaches, plums and prunes; 75% of its apricots; and 40% of its cherries. The first commercial plantings of grapes were made around Kelowna (1926) and today local and coastal wineries are supported by grapes grown in the valley (seeWINE INDUSTRY).

Growing numbers of tourists are attracted by the valley's scenic splendour, warm summers, freshwater beaches and numerous festivities. There are 2 large (Silver Star and Okanagan Mountain) and several smaller provincial parks in the valley. The abandoned railbeds, tunnels and trestles of the Kettle Valley Railway are a popular cycling and hiking trail system. Unfortunately, many of the trestles were destroyed during the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire of 2003.