White Rock Lake Fire

Okanagan Lake has been the subject of much media attention over the last few weeks, since the most eastern flank of the White Rock Lake Fire has reached its shores. However, given the lake’s long history (it is, in fact, pre-historic), this is not the first time it has made the news.

A series of Anomolies

In February of 2021, some North Okanagan residents were shocked to see what appeared to be a tornado emerging over the lake near Fintry. This was later identified to be a steam devil, which forms over large bodies of water during cold air outbreaks. Steam devils are common occurrences on Canada’s Great Lakes, but it was only due to the North Okanagan’s unusual cold snap this past winter that one was able to form over Okanagan Lake.   

In 1979, the lake was recognized as an excellent location for underwater treasure hunters. Hundreds of pieces of glass and earthenware were found to be lying on the lake bottom, thrown overboard over the years by passengers on sternwheelers and other water crafts. In 1978, two divers discovered, at the bottom of the lake, an old steamer trunk full of collectible bottles, much to their delight.

On November 4, 1913, a tugboat called the Skookum collided with a CPR tug, the SS Castlegar, and sank almost immediately. The crew survived, with some minor injuries, but the vessel was never recovered. It is believed that the tug remains, to this day, in the silent depths of the lake. 

Sometime in the mid-1880s, the infamous Captain Shorts and a companion were wandering the shores of Okanagan Lake when they made a startling discovery; partly submerged in a few feet of water was the vertebrae of some enormous sea creature. The two men brought the bone to Leonard Norris, a government agent in Vernon, who, many years later, had it sent it to the University of British Columbia for identification. It was determined to be a whale bone, brought into the valley by human means, but how it came to be lying abandoned in a rugged and unfrequented section of Okanagan Lake remains unknown.  

And long before the concept of “news” was even invented, the lake and its environs represented part of the territory of the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation, and stood as a silent witness to all the little anomalies of human life. 

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

For July and August, the Vernon Museum will share a series of articles that explore some of the many heritage sites around the North Okanagan. To plan a visit to any of the sites featured, please visit https://vernonmuseum.ca/explore/heritage-field-trips/.

 

The First Balloon is Released

In the afternoon of October 31, 1971, more than 100 people turned out, including the mayor, a federal deputy minister, and the local MP, to watch Russ Colville, a meteorological technician at the Vernon Upper Air Station, launch the site’s first hydrogen balloon.

The Vernon weather station opened that year on a hill overlooking the commonage for a cost of $200,000. At the time, it was only the fourth of its kind in the province, and the thirty-fifth in Canada, and was part of a world-wide network of stations that provided data for weather-forecasting purposes. 

During the station’s first few years, it operated under a staff of four; two men worked per shift, five hours on, five hours off, with two days in between.

How Weather Balloons Work

Twice a day, at 3:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., a hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from the Vernon station and sent more than 32 kilometres into the atmosphere. These weren’t your average birthday balloons; they were white and massive, at more than 1.5 metres in diameter. Tied to the bottom of the balloon was a lightweight instrument called a radiosonde. As it ascended into the sky beneath the balloon, the device beamed atmospheric information such as pressure, temperature, and humidity back to the ground station via a small radio transmitter. 

The balloon would rise at about 1,000 feet per minute, expanding until it reached a maximum diameter of around 20 feet. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, the balloon would burst, and the radiosonde would hurtle back towards the earth. A little parachute helped to slow its descent, and eventually it would touch down, often great distances from its release point. The device was not recovered, but instead was left to biodegrade.

A final Launch

By 1994, technological changes meant that the manual release of balloons was no longer required. The weather station’s duties were transferred to the Mountain Weather Service office in Kelowna which employed a quicker, more automated system. But for those who had dedicated their lives to measuring weather using balloons, the final launch on January 13, 1994, marked a sad occasion. Russ Colville was called out of retirement to release the last balloon, and a handful of people arrived for the occasion.

The building that once housed the Vernon Upper Air Station still stands, and now contains the Allan Brooks Nature Centre.

 

 

 

Russ Colville releases the last weather balloon from the Vernon Upper Air Station on January 13, 1994. GVMA #14980.

The Vernon Upper Air Station during its decommission in 1994. GVMA #14916.

The Allan Brooks Nature Centre now occupies the building used by the Vernon Upper Air Station at 250 Allan Brooks Way. Image courtesy of the Allan Brooks Nature Centre. 

 

 

 

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

Vernon in the summer of 1908.

 

2021 Western Canada Heat Wave

This past June, dozens of records were set in Vernon and across B.C. during an unprecedented heat wave. The highest reported temperature in Vernon during this time was a staggering 44.2 C, recorded on June 28.

Although different weather stations around the City reported different temperatures, and, moreover, historical temperature data for Vernon is not conclusive, it is believed that this high shattered a previous record of 40 C set on July 21, 1908.

Staying cool before A/C

Needless to say, the luxury of air conditioning did not exist 113 years ago (the first in-home unit was installed in a Minneapolis mansion in 1914), but a variety of methods were used to help people stay cool.

An ad for the Cooper and Christien Grocer in the Vernon News of July 23, 1908, encouraged the public to stock up on lemons and limes for lemonade. (Hot! Hot! Hot! And it may be hotter,” reads the headline). Refreshing treats such as ice cream, watermelon, and iced tea were a particularly popular way to cool down, something which to this day hasn’t changed. 

On the same page of the Vernon News, the W.R. Megaw department store announced that they were hosting a hot weather sale, with discounts on kilted sailor suits for children and taffeta silk parasols for their mothers. Light-weight materials like canvas, cotton, and linen were popular choices during the hot summer months.

Another ad recommended the use of Zam-Buk, a medicinal skin balm first sold in 1902, to relieve the symptoms of heat rash. Although there was no over-the-counter cure for heat-related illnesses, strenuous work was avoided when the sun was at its most extreme; instead, afternoon naps were popularized as a way to reduce the threat of heat exhaustion or stroke.

July 21, 1908

However, despite the best efforts of advertisers, the high temperatures of July 1908 actually did not seem to cause much of a stir among the people of Vernon. The record high was relegated to a small note in the newspaper’s “Town and District” section that read “Tuesday was the hottest day experienced here for some years. The thermometer at the Government meteorological station at the Coldstream Ranch registered 104 [40 C] in the shade.”

However, a description of the lacrosse match for the Minto Cup played by the Montreal Shamrocks and the New Westminster club on the same day that Vernon reached its record high temperature earned a full paragraph.

 

Gwyn Evans