Okanagan - Shuswap, BC Regional Overview
The Okanagan-Shuswap area is nestled in the interior of British Columbia, between the Coast Mountains to the west and the Selkirk & Rocky Mountains to the East. The Okanagan was named by the area's Salish natives, who's colorful language accounts for many of the place names in the area. The lake was labeled as Ookanawgan by explorer and geographer David Thompson, and is believed to refer to the farthest point that salmon traveled. The name Shuswap came from the Shuswap band of the Interior Salish tribe that lived in the area. The lake was first labeled on an 1827 map as "choo-choo-ach".
The Okanagan & Shuswap area has a population of over 250,000 people, mostly clustered in the larger cities in the Okanagan (from south to north): Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon, and along the Trans-Canada Highway are Salmon Arm and Kamloops. These communities also contain much of the area's shopping, government services, and recreational facilities.
The Okanagan Valley runs north and south between two high plateaus. The climate of the Okanagan Basin is atypical compared to the rest of the interior of the province. The area has warm summers (with hot days, but cool nights) with an average maximum temperature of nearly 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), and fairly low humidity. The winters are relatively mild compared to areas north and east of the Valley, with more cloud than in summertime and with dry fluffy snow. Thaws occur at Valley bottom on about one-half of the days in January. The southern Okanagan is the northern end of the Great Basin Desert and even grows bananas. The Central Okanagan has an annual average of 200 hours of bright sunshine per year, one of the highest in Canada.
The major industries in Okanagan are fruit & agriculture (including the manufacture of wines, canned fruit, fruit products), tourism and hospitality services. The Okanagan Valley is known around the world for its quality wines, and by tourists for its many fresh fruit stands. The area to the north of the Trans-Canada Highway has strong resource extraction, farming and tourism sectors.
The area is rich in recreational pursuits, with water sports on the area's large lakes, hiking and mountain biking on the trails through the area's many national, provincial and regional parks, and skiing on several mountains in the area.
History of the Okanagan
The Indians that settled around Okanagan include the Inland Salish, related to the Coast Salish around Vancouver, and the Kootenay, which settled the mountainous terrain east to the Rockies. The rivers, lakes and forests provided an abundance of both food and building materials, and enabled them to develop a sophisticated culture including a system of trade.
In 1845, the Americans push for annexation of the Hudson’s Bay lands on the West Coast, under the slogan "54-40 or Fight". The next year, the Treaty of Washington establishes the international boundary at the 49th Parallel, and down the middle of the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Royal Navy settles into Esquimalt Bay.
In 1849 the settlement around Okanagan officially became a British Colony, the same year as the California Gold Rush. Fort Okanagan becomes the HBC’s western headquarters. In 1850 Robert Blanshard sails over to become the first governor of Vancouver Island, and is later superseded by James Douglas. Douglas begins buying native land for the Crown under "treaties" with the natives in 1852.
In 1858, gold was discovered in the lower Fraser River, bringing more than 25,000 prospectors (including many who gave up after the California Gold Rush of '49) who managed to find over $500,000 in gold. Those diggings were then left to the harder working Chinese in 1859. Gold in the Caribou attracted many to that area, but was too deep and expensive to recover. In 1865 more gold was found on the Columbia River's Big Bend, near Revelstoke, but this gold rush fizzled out in a year.
By 1866, the BC and the Victoria Island colonies were united, but an economy based on just fur trading and mining was not stable enough to grow a colony. In 1871, four years after Canada was given its independence by Britain, BC joined Canadian confederation. The BC provincial government began encouraging the agriculture and forestry industries, to begin economic diversification.
To entice it to join Canada, BC was promised a railroad linking it to the eastern part of the country. While one crew was building from the east, across the Prairies and then through the Roger's Pass. Another crew was laying track from the West, up the Fraser River canyon and into the Thompson River valley. On November 7, 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway set the last spike in its construction at Craigellachie, just east of Shuswap Lake. The first trans-continental railway train arrived in Port Moody on July 4, 1886. The following year, the railway was extended the last 20 kilometres into Vancouver. Since then, BC has shipped much of its natural resources east to the rest of Canada, and become the country’s gateway to the Pacific nations.
In the 1860s Cornelius O’Keefe was driving cattle all the way from Oregon to the Cariboo to provide beef for gold-seekers. By 1867, he had bought land and breeding stock and went on to become the Northern Okanagan’s leading cattle baron. The area between the Okanagan and Shuswap lakes is not warm enough for tree fruit, and the higher elevations are suited only for growing trees or cattle-grazing grass.
Tom Ellis planted the first Okanagan orchard in 1874 near Penticton soon after the Indians were moved to a reservation. In 1891 Scottish-born Lord Aberdeen and his wife bought 5,367 hectares from George Vernon, renamed it Coldstream Ranch, and made it into one of the largest producers of fruit in the British Empire. John Moore (JM) Robinson, an unhappy prairie farmerand former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, set up irrigation and lured settlers into fruit farming in the communities of Peachland, Summerland and Naramata. By 1900 the Okanagan had over 1 million fruit trees growing. As a land developer, he helped settle many Manitobans in the area. The Kelowna area’s cash crop used to be tobacco, but after the post-First World War slump, those farmers switched to fruit. The Okanagan now grows about 1/3 of all of Canada’s apples. Kelowna, with a handy steamboat ferry dock in the middle of the Okanagan, grew by the turn of the century to have 11 sawmills, three fruit-packing plants, and two canneries.
In 1958, the (then) world’s longest floating bridge was built, joining the west shore and east shores of the Okanagan at Kelowna by highway. This made access to all parts of the valley much easier. In the mid-1980s the Coquihalla Highway was built to speed traffic along the Trans-Canada Highway. While it was feared that tourist traffic would bypass the Okanagan, the Coquihala Connector through Merritt, made it easier for Vancouver residents to get to the Okanagan, increasing tourism. The Okanagan now has several ski resorts, with several just to the north at Kamloops, Salmon Arm and Revelstoke. The area also has over 50 golf courses and a number of airports for national and regional carriers. The 2-lane floating bridge, was replaced in 2009 with a span that can better handle the region's growing population and tourism traffic.
Moving to the Okanagan & the BC Interior
The region has a mix of housing from single-family housing in urban and acreage settings, lakefront or lakeview vacation homes, cottages and time-share condominiums, as well as high rise condominiums and apartments in the urban cores of the major centres.
Here are some of the more notable communities in the Okanagan (from North to South):
Smaller communities in the Okanagan & Shuswaps (from North to South)