The BX Creek area circa 1924.

Climate History a century apart

The El Niño conditions which made for a mild and green Christmas in Vernon appear to be persisting somewhat into January. However, a century ago, the opposite scenario was unfolding.

In January of 1924, Vernon faced exceptionally frigid weather conditions. The freezing of BX Creek compelled the City to exclusively rely on pumping water from a reservoir for its residents. In the early days of the new year, city authorities grew alarmed as the reservoir’s water level dipped below the threshold deemed critical for fire protection.

The legacy of pressure reducing valves

City Superintendent Excell believed that the water level in the reservoir was decreasing more rapidly than the usual demand for city use. This acceleration was attributed to residents keeping their taps running overnight to prevent the freezing of exposed pipes. He advocated for discontinuing this habit, and encouraged residents to adopt water conservation measures.

Vernon’s citizens responded to this appeal, and by mid-month the level in the reservoir had risen just above the critical level. Mr. Excell then changed his tune slightly, suggesting that the elevated water consumption in Vernon was not solely a result of individual decisions but was more indicative of exceedingly high pressure in the city’s pipes. A pressure of 140 lbs was sustained for fire protection but, according to Excell, this was excessive for typical household needs. Excell suggested that pressure reducing valves should be installed to mitigate this problem.

Thankfully, Vernon received a respite in the freezing temperatures towards the end of the month, and the water restrictions were lifted. In the subsequent years, the use of pressure reducing valves became standard practice, a development that would have greatly pleased Mr. Excell.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

A black-and-white photo shows a forest fire coming down a gully between two hills.
A forest fire pictured in Coldstream in 1921.

The 2023 Fire Season

2023 has been reported as Canada’s worst fire season. Although this fact cannot be denied, it may or may not provide some comfort to know that folks in and around Vernon have been battling blazes for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Okanagan-Similkameen areas practiced controlled burning as a means to maintain forest and grassland ecosystems. Once settlers arrived in the area, the Vernon News, then a farm and livestock journal, often featured advice on how to protect one’s property from fire damage. For example, an 1894 article states, in no uncertain terms, that “the cutting and clearing away of the forest for a radius around the settlement sufficient to ensure safety would be neither an expensive nor a laborious undertaking.”

1900s-1910s

A heatwave in May of 1901 wreaked havoc on the Valley, and the South Okanagan was particularly hard-hit. A forest fire near what is now the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre outside of Penticton saw bridges and culverts burn down, and fallen timber litter the road. At the same time, the whole town of Fairview (now a ghost town) came out to fight a fire that was creeping towards their properties down a nearby gully.

In 1912, the newspaper printed “Six Good Rules for Care with Fire in the Mountains,” one of which was a reminder to knock out one’s pipe ashes or throw cigar and cigarette stumps only where there is nothing to catch fire. In 1922, the “cigarette menace” was once again discussed, with the paper reporting that hundreds of the fires recorded that year in Canada were “due to the evil habit of tossing away lighted tobacco.”

1920s-1950s and beyond

Sometime in the late 1920s, Silver Star Mountain experienced a devastating fire, which was unfortunately not unusual for the region as evidenced by the installation of a forest fire lookout at the mountain’s summit more than two decades earlier. In the spring of 1930, Bill Osborn, David Ricardo, and Michael Freeman became among the first to ski down the mountain – and later described seeing a number of snags (still-standing dead trees) that have been destroyed by this fire a few years earlier. 

In July of 1940, a series of forest fires ravaged the Sugar Lake area. Men were pulled away from their homes and work to fight the blazes, which finally abated thanks to heavy rain. In 1950, a mid-summer fire at Kingfisher was finally brought under control after several long weeks. Fires continued to ravage the Okanagan Valley in the years following, including the unforgettable White Rock Lake fire of 2021.

Thankfully, the area’s inhabitants have demonstrated their resiliency in the face of nature’s wrath time-and-time again, helped along at times by some much-needed rain.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

 

A sepia image of two men sitting on top of a very large rock.
An early photo of the erratic, taken circa 1906.

tHAT IS a nice boulder

One particularly large rock has stood as a landmark in the Greater Vernon area for thousands of years. Technically known as an erratic, one theory suggests that it was deposited by a large glacier that was creeping southward and scouring out the Okanagan Valley during the Ice Age.

The boulder is located a few yards north of Highway 6, just before the intersection with Grey Road. It is located on private property, but can be seen from the Highway when safe to do so. Back in 1877, as reported by a Dr. G. M. Dawson, the erratic demanded attention at a whopping 22-feet long. However, by 1982 it had been eroded to only 12 feet in length and nowadays it is even smaller, which makes it easy to miss unless one knows where to look. 

Rapid Erosion

The erratic, made from layers of feldspar and quartz, has a notable crack down one of its sides. Evidence suggests that in the early days, a fir tree had made its way out of the rock, but was struck by lightning in 1916. The damage from this lighting strike caused a large portion of rock to break off and tumble down the hill.

While there are many glacial erratics strewn throughout the Valley, this particular rock has seemed to fascinate Vernonites for generations. In 1926, the first edition of the Okanagan Historical Society (OHS) Report included an article about the boulder. The article’s author, Arthur H. Lang, was concerned that given the erratic’s rapid erosion, it would disappear within the next fifty years.

More than this span of time had passed when the OHS next reported on the erratic in 1982, saying that although it was now 6 feet shorter, it was still withstanding the test of time. This continues to be the case in 2023.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

A beige certificate with a red stamp. The title reads "The Silver Star Mining Company."
A stock certificate from 1897 preserved in the Vernon Archives that shows A. G. Fuller purchasing 100 shares in the Silver Star Mining Company.

International Mountain Day

Today is International Mountain Day! Did you know that Vernon’s own mountain, SilverStar, was once the site of a promising but ultimately unsuccessful mining operation?

However, long before this, the mountain was used for generations by the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation, with foot trails providing access to the mountain’s rich hunting and foraging grounds. Once settlers arrived in the region, the peak became known as Aberdeen Mountain after Lord Aberdeen, Canada’s governor general from 1893 to 1898.

Silver Star Mining Company

The mountain’s earliest claim was staked in 1896 by the Silver Star Mining Company, of which rancher Cornelius O’Keefe was the president. Shafts were dug near the mountain’s submit by pick and shovel, while black powder was used to break up larger pieces. The raw ore was loaded into buckets, and then transported down the mountain on pack horses.

Trace amounts of silver, lead, zinc, molybdenum and copper were quickly found in the ore, which lead miners to believe they had found their own Montezuma’s treasure. Mining fever was spreading all across the province at this time, and reports by the Vernon News of the “magnificent specimens” coming down from the mine only served to generate more excitement. Several well-known Vernonites invested dozens of shares in the company, which were sold at a cost of $1.00 each.

Moving forward

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to fade, as prospectors quickly realized that the ores were too low a grade to be worked at a profit. The mountain’s mining era quietly ended in disappointment around 1926. But a handful of intrepid skiers were waiting in the wings for their turn to explore the mountain…

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

Five red cherries hanging between green leaves on brown stems.

International Cherry Pit Spitting Day

Since 1974, the first Saturday of each July has been celebrated as International Cherry Pit Spitting Day, after a pit spitting tournament was held as a joke at a picnic in Eau Claire, Michigan. Now, pit spitting events are held annually around the world, with the Canadian National Pit Spitting Championship being a feature of the Cherryfest in Blenheim, Ontario. The current world record for the greatest distance to spit a cherry stone is a whopping 93’6.5”, set by Brian “Young Gun” Krause in 2004.

Fruit in the OkanaganA bowl of cherries on a towel and picnic table. The bowl is white enamel on the inside and yellow on the outside. It is full of red cherries. The towel is wide with a red band on the right. In front of the bowl of cherries, also on the table, is five loose cherries. To the left of the bowl is a mason jar holding water and small white herb-like flowers on green stems.

Fruit has grown in the Okanagan since time immemorial, with Saskatoon berries, blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, black berries, black currants, and raspberries making up part of the traditional syilx diet. Chokecherries also grow in abundance, a fact evidenced in the names Cherryville and Cherry Creek. But cherries as we now think of them—the dark, round juicy nuggets that grace the Valley during the summer months—are a cultivated species that was introduced by European settlers.

The first non-native fruit trees were planted by Catholic missionaries of the Oblate Order at their Mission of the Immaculate Conception on Okanagan Lake in 1862. The first seedlings were apples, and one of these trees actually continued to fruit until it was killed by cold weather in 1955. Cherries did not arrive until 1892, when 500 trees were planted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen at Vernon’s Coldstream Ranch.

Little Cherry Disease

The construction of the Grey Canal allowed water-loving plants like cherry trees to thrive in the sunny Okanagan Valley. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing after the canal’s completion in 1914; in the 1930s, Little Cherry Disease struck cherry trees across BC, first in Nelson and then later spreading to devastate orchards across the Kootenays.

A blue helicopter flying over green cherry trees, In the background is a lake, and behind that a mountain with trees and several clear cuttings.
A helicopter flying low over an Oyama orchard to gently blow the water off of ripening cherries in 2012.

Quarantine measures were put in place in the hopes that the disease, which causes small, bitter, insipid fruit, would not make it to the Okanagan. Unfortunately, in 1969, an orchard in Penticton was found to be infected, and by 1977, 1,400 cherry trees throughout the Okanagan had to be removed. Little Cherry Disease continues to be monitored and managed by the provincial government.   

Due in part to a 2014 trade agreement which allowed BC cherries to be exported to China, the fruit has become a boom crop, with new orchards popping up all the time to satisfy an insatiable local and international demand.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

Frank M. Chapman, ornithologist. Image courtesy of Britannica.

The World’s Longest-Running Citizen Science Project

Around this time each year, hundreds of North Americans participate in Christmas Bird Counts to evaluate the health of their local bird populations in what is the world’s longest-running Citizen Science project. Counts take place in around 2000 locations across the continent, including here in Vernon.

Origins

The tradition began in 1900, when American ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed that instead of the long-standing Christmas hunt, birds should be observed and counted in an effort towards conservation. Chapman was a member of the then-nascent National Audobon Society, and it is this organization that continues to direct the project to this day.

Wood Duck (male), photographed by Jack VanDyk. Courtesy of the North Okanagan Naturalist’s Club.

The Count is on

Each local bird count is accomplished in the same way: over the course of a single day between December 14 and January 5, groups of volunteers venture out to count and identify all the birds they observe within a 24-diameter zone. The information is then compiled, and sent along to the Audobon Society to contribute towards a continent-wide snapshot of the health of avian populations. 

The Vernon bird count is organized by the North Okanagan Naturalist’s Club which was founded in 1951. Although these dedicated birders have not been able to gather as a large group to discuss and celebrate their findings since 2019, they continue to participate in the count and contribute towards the scientific observation of North America’s birds.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

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

 

Bringing water from the hills

April 16, 2021

Picture the Okanagan without its expansive fruit orchards. No juicy peaches and sweet cherries in the summer, and no crisp apples and tart grapes in the autumn?

It is almost painful to imagine!

But this was the reality of life in the Okanagan before the advent of irrigation.

an Idea Flowed…

At the turn of the 20th century, the valley was too hot and dry to support much agriculture.

The manager of the Coldstream Ranch, W.C. Ricardo, proposed  Aberdeen Lake on the highlands to the southeast of Vernon as a potential water source to irrigate thirsty crops.

Water flowing out of the lake via Jones (now Duteau) creek, he argued, could be diverted south by canal to supply orchard and fields in White Valley (now Lavington) and the Coldstream Ranch. 

A Coldstream orchard circa 1910

 

 

This water even had the potential to be directed north across the ranch to irrigate the BX and beyond.

bringing water down into the Valley

The White Valley Irrigation and Power Company beginning this momentous task in 1906 with the construction of the Grey Canal.

The introduction of water via the Grey Canal changed the industry of the valley from ranching and the cultivation of cereals to the production of fruits like apples, pears, and cherries. The advent of orchards across the Okanagan helped to greatly stimulate the economy, but these plants also came with higher water demands.

The Grey Canal was completed in 1914. At one time, it supplied water to the largest irrigation district in BC, and delivered more water than the system that supplied to the City of Vancouver. If you’d like to learn more about the Grey Canal, please check out Peter Tassie’s Water from the Hillspublished by the Okanagan Historical Society.

a more water-wise approach

The climate of the Valley hasn’t changed. We still live in a dry belt that, particularly during the summer, receives little water. And we certainly can’t go back to the way things were before the advent of the fruit industry. Our orchards are as much are part of our identity in the Okanagan as our emerald lakes and delicious wine.

Each of us can ensure that water is not being wasted and instead reserved for vital tasks. Indeed, the average Okanagan citizen uses 675 litres of water each day! This is more than twice as much water as the average Canadian.

To reduce water usage, citizens of the Okanagan can try xeriscaping, a style of gardening that utilizes plants with low water needs that thrive naturally in the Valley’s dry environment. Some great tips about how to xeriscape in the Okanagan can be found here.

It is also important to ensure that one’s water consumption is as low as possible, particularly during drought periods. Watering plants in the evening or early morning can help to reduce evaporation. A list of current water restrictions can be found online through Greater Vernon Water.

Visit the website Okanagan WaterWise for more tips, as well as the Okanagan Xeriscape Association’s plan list aunt other helpful lawn and garden care tips in the WaterWise Landscape Irrigation Handbook.

Gwyn Evans