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

 

 

major allan Brooks

June 28, 2021

 

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/.

from India to okanagan landing

The Allan Brooks Nature Centre, perched on a grassy knoll overlooking Vernon, memorializes a conservationist and artist who once called the city home.

For more than 40 years, Major Allan Brooks lived at his Okanagan Landing home, despite the fact that he was born thousands of miles away—in Etawah, India.

A Born Naturalist

Allan Brooks was born on February 15, 1869, to William and Mary Brooks. William Brooks was a bird enthusiast and collected specimens extensively throughout India.

William had three sons, but it was the youngest, Allan, who showed the most interest in his father’s occupation. According to his future wife Marjorie, when Allan was only a baby, he was allowed to handle skins from his father’s collection, which he did with the care of a born naturalist. 

 

(Left) Allan Brooks at the age of two in India, and (right) Allan Brooks, aged eight, in England.

 

The Power of Mentorship

At four years old, Allan was sent to Northumberland, England, where he lived for the next eight years. As a boy, he was mentored by John Hancock, considered the father of modern taxidermy, who taught him skills like egg-blowing, butterfly collecting, and botany. Unlike his fellow school-aged children, Allan did not have much use for games, and instead used his free time to explore the moorland around Northumberland.

In 1881, William Brooks, now a widower, moved his three boys to Milton, Ontario. It is there that the teenaged Allan began to fully explore ornithology. When he was 16, he visited Thomas McIlwraith, a founding member of the American Ornithologist’s Union, in Hamilton, Ontario. The following year, Allan Brooks made the first of several important discoveries in the form of a passenger pigeon colony nesting only a few miles from his home.

Celebrated Artist and Naturalist

When Allan Brooks was 18, the family moved to a farm in Chilliwack, British Columbia, a location rich in bird and mammal life. Allan took the opportunity to expand his skills in sketching and painting, hinting at the artistic career to come. Despite his many youthful adventures, Allan’s happiest memories were of the trips he took with his father to Burlington Bay on Lake Ontario, home to many rare bird species. 

Although Allan Brooks experienced several life-changing events after reaching adulthood—from working as a trapper in B.C.’s interior, to representing Canada at the 1914 National Rifle Matches in England, to serving overseas during World War One—he may be most remembered as the celebrated artist and naturalist who lived out his last years in Vernon.

Gwyn Evans