Under the walnut tree

Walnut tree

The walnut tree

The dusk descended quite quickly, it was after all already Labour Day when we booted it out to the Okanagan for two nights camping. As the sun dipped low, the trees became silhouetted on the ridges of the nearby hills. We stood up from our chairs under the expansive walnut tree, where the sun had only a short time before filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead, to watch the darkening sky.

Setting sun

Setting sun

The sound of intermittent honks drifted across to us and we spotted long V formations of Sandhill Cranes emerge from the valley below. The migrating birds rose higher into the sky, headed south for the winter along their usual route over the White Lake area. As we watched, a murmuration of starlings, their chattering almost drowning out the honks and bugles of the cranes, flew as one from the nearby electricity pylons, to the riparian marsh down the hill and up again to a single tree, turning it’s spikey outline into a fluttering mass of wings, like so many waving handkerchiefs.

It’s amazing how much wildlife can thrive when given some space to do so. And how nourishing it is to just sit under a tree and listen and watch events unfold. We had a tent set up in a nearby campground but were visiting our friend who lived on a slight rise overlooking a small valley, and we sipped beer and wine as we caught up on news whilst a slight breeze rustled around us.

Hot during the day (a last blast of summer!) and still warm at night, we drove back after the sun had set to our campground. The chorus of crickets didn’t diminish until the early hours and sometime during the night I heard some howling and yipping – coyotes? – and what I think was probably a screech owl, and the nighthawks calling. It was the clear night I’d been looking for; out of the corner of my eye I saw two meteors and gazed at the hazy light of the Milky Way. Full of stars we finally crawled into the cosiness of our tiny tent, burrowing deep into the sleeping bags.

We woke to the curious ‘Chi-ca-go’ early morning call of the California Quail that bobbed and weaved through the campground, occasionally plumping down for a quick dust bath, and noted some small dusty footprints on the car windshield. Apparently some racoons had been playing around during the night. We sipped coffee and wandered over to the river behind our site and watched the whirl and eddies of water along the riverbank.

Okanagan River

River alongside the campground

Mount Kobau

Mount Kobau, and the remnants of wildfires.

It was too hot to ride, so we wandered off on a slow-paced exploration of Mount Kobau, part of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected area, scoping it out for future mountain bike rides. We startled a large, glossy black bear that disappeared abruptly down a steep treed embankment with barely a rustle of leaves. Later, we swam in Skaha Lake, picking up a few odd pieces of garbage that we deposited in the garbage can, and from the campground in the afternoon watched as ominous clouds gathered over the hills. The promise of a change in the weather was fulfilled that night as great cracks of thunder sounded above us and flashes of lightning pierced the thin fabric of the tent, so bright that it seemed as if a torch was pointed straight at our eyes. Rain pounded down, and still the crickets chirped on.

We emerged from the tent the next morning to a freshly rinsed sky and tangy air, shafts of sunlight playing across the river where clouds of winged insects hovered just above the surface. Sipping on the last of our camp coffee (the best kind of java), we lingered as long as possible before packing up and heading home, stopping briefly by Mahoney Lake to walk in the woods and breathe in the pine-scented air, completing a short but full break from the city; a couple of days where nothing and everything happened.

Mahoney Lake

Mahoney Lake Ecological Reserve

Floods and Winds

A duck and her brood. The bucolic scene belies the flooding and windstorms we ran into when we went camping for a couple of days.

Unable to get away for the Victoria Day holiday weekend in BC, we chose to stay in town until the Monday and take off against the returning traffic for a couple of nights (we have weird work schedules) to camp in the Okanagan. The never-ending watery spring weather, more like winter really, had finally broken and as we headed east the temperature rose exponentially until it hit around 30c. We rolled into our favourite campground, mostly emptied out after the departure of the holiday crowd – if you can ever get away on days when everyone else is working it’s worth it. Lambasted by the unexpected heat we arrived to unexpectedly find half of the campsites sodden, several were even underwater.

Underwater campsites

Brackish water puddled at one end of the campground; a couple of ducks floated across the surface. The base of trees were submerged, their roots soaking in groundwater that had inched up over the last couple of weeks as snowmelt from nearby mountains and hills funneled down into Okanagan Lake and flowed down the Okanagan River, raising water levels throughout the valley. We could see and hear the cresting waves of the river as it flowed past the campground with a kind of dulled roar in contrast to the usual gentle gurgling we were attuned to. Stretching our car-cramped legs on a short walk along the riverbank we were surprised to see a duck and her brood brave the flood; the attentive mother had managed to find a quiet eddy for her offspring.

A mite worried we chatted to the camp host, who agreed it could get worse as the heat added yet more of the incredible snowpack we’ve had this year to the massive volume of water. ‘If you hear a screech horn in the middle of the night, get out!’ were her reassuring words. They’d had to use it late last summer but for different reasons. Smelling smoke one night she’d realized it wasn’t from a campfire and raised the alarm. The side of the mountain behind the campground was ablaze. By the time she’d got everyone out she was driving through flames on the road at the base of the hill. The campground wasn’t touched, nor was the property of friends of ours who live on the other side of the mountain, although they were worriedly watching the wind. For no particular reason that they could fathom the fire spontaneously died. The hillside is lush and green again with little evidence of the conflagration. It’s an extreme but resilient area of the country.

We lounged around for the rest of that day and the next, unable to move much in the heat let alone go for bike rides. Perhaps that’s exactly what we needed, time to slow down, read, drink coffee (which always seems to taste the best when camping). Night reminded us it was still spring as the temperature suddenly dipped, easy to sleep in. The soaking grass surrounding our site was an indicator that there wouldn’t be a campfire ban for a while yet. Our friends dropped by on our first night in the campground and we shared some pasta and wine. P, as we’ll call him, had just got back from some paragliding. We’d spotted the blue and white wing of a paraglider as we drove to our destination and wondered if it was him. ‘That’ll have been B!’ said P. Everyone knows everyone here.

We visited our friends at their home the next evening, retreating inside from the patio as a howling wind suddenly picked up and roiled around the house. P was worried about us: ‘You know there’s a storm coming in, seriously, think about staying with us, there’s going to be strong winds later tonight and there’s big trees in the campground’ (this from a man who once stuck his hand inside a large open wound, sustained on a work site, to staunch the flow of blood and after he was thoroughly stitched up went waterskiing later that same day. He doesn’t get rattled easily is what I’m saying).

I was a bit worried too, we were in a flimsy tent with large trees looming over us, their roots weakened by the water that had been soaking them for days now. The wind had been gusting all day, blowing great clouds of pollen across us; a greenish yellowish dusty film covered the car, tent, camp chairs and cooking gear. Driving back in the pitch dark from the house to the campground the wind died and we thought that just maybe we’d missed the worst of it. The headlights picked out the aftermath of the recent event – branches, twigs, and fir cones lay scattered across the road in patches where powerful gusts had swept through.

Before we retreated into the tent that night we parked the car nearby (I was thinking it might take the brunt of the one tree that we might be in danger from if a northerly picked up again, but I’m not sure it would’ve helped!) and stared up at a perfectly calm, star-filled sky. We finally clambered into our temporary home and like the evening before were lulled to sleep by the sound of cascading water, frogs and the unidentifiable sounds of anonymous night critters.

It was somewhere around midnight or so that we both started awake to an unimaginably loud roar of wind that rolled down the valley and with monstrous force blew through the campground, buffeting the tent full on. I’ve never heard anything like it. Every now and again a momentary ebb in the force of the wind would be followed by a great whoomph. It went on like that for a full two hours or so. Scott and I burrowed down further into our sleeping bags, but for some reason, and very unlike my usual self, I didn’t panic. Perhaps because Scott was alert but calm – if he starts to get stressed I know things are serious. The trees were buffeted relentlessly but I didn’t hear any major creaking, or sudden cracking of tree limbs, the tent fly didn’t take off. I honestly don’t know why not. Whatever the reason, when the wind finally dropped off we fell asleep again pretty quickly to the sound of rain smattering on the tent.

Emerging the next day we found plenty of small twigs and branches that had been ripped from the trees lying around, but no major damage until we drove out on our way home. A single, dried out and not very big tree lay across part of the road. We were lucky, some areas of the valley experienced some real damage. It was all a bit wild and exciting……living in a generally temperate region you can forget all too quickly how forceful nature can be.

We briefly stopped once more to assist a painted turtle valiantly attempting to cross the road, her shell covered in pollen – a gentle reminder of the storm we were all caught out in.

A lone casualty of the storm

 

Two Cycle Routes in The Okanagan

For four days in June we’d made an escape to one of our favourite campgrounds on the far side of Skaha Lake, across from Penticton in the Okanagan.

sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ  Provincial Park, formerly Okanagan Falls in the town of the same name, is now managed and run by the Osoyoos Indian Band. The name means ‘little falls’, and although the falls themselves for which the park is named no longer exist – in the 1950’s they were blasted to make way for a flood control dam – at night we can hear the rushing water of the Okanagan River by the side of the campground. It’s challenging to describe the allure of this spot, jammed as it is between the river and a road just off the highway. It’s small, it has very limited amenities (certainly no showers), there’s little to no privacy for each site. But its compact size is part of the charm; tucked around the corner of the mountainside as it is, the highway noise is eliminated.  The riparian vegetation encourages birds and bats. As so often happens in campgrounds, despite the open tent sites, there’s an unspoken agreement to  preserve the illusion of privacy. A friendly nod as you walk past sites and then eyes are politely averted.

The weather was mercurial during the week we stayed. Thunder and lightning the first night accompanied by cool rain. Perhaps we hadn’t brought enough warm gear? Then the sun broke with a vengeance, the temperature shot straight up to 30c and suddenly the swim gear and sun umbrella for scrubby Skaha Beach didn’t seem to be out of the question anymore. It also meant we needed to tactically time a couple of bike rides, we both cycle better in slightly cooler temperatures.

Holidays to me don’t mean getting up at six or seven in the morning, even though I was the one harassing us to get moving this time, so thank goodness for coffee. And food, ahhh food! I do love it so (I have to segue here and mention a great little compendium of recipes created and put together in a book I bought called Bike. Camp. Cook by a couple who have bike toured a huge amount, who clearly appreciate good food and who wanted to eat well and nutritiously on their trips. I originally stumbled across their book on Kickstarter but they now feature it on their website Going Slowly. They recommend a cooking set that we purchased and it has made our lives so much easier. I’ve followed their recipes for french toast, mango/avocado salsa, baked bananas, feta cheese and zucchini fritters, all so good. I photocopied the recipes I wanted to use, a useful way to save weight).

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Mango and avocado salsa, I added tomatoes.

Fortified by caffeine and french toast we struck off for what was actually a short (one hour) ride, but a pretty one. At the far end of Okanagan Falls we turned onto McLean Creek Road, a popular local cycling circuit. It wound up a couple of steep turns then levelled out into a gently winding route past farms and well tended, prosperous looking ranches before dropping down to the east side of Skaha Lake and so back to the campground. As we started out the sun was already burning (hence the arm protectors), the sky a gorgeous blue.

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Early morning light. Photos by Scott

A day later we woke to a hot but overcast day, the sky an oppressive stony grey. Our circuit this time took us in the opposite direction for a two or three hour ride. We tackled two outrageous hair pin turns on Green Lake Road which runs beside the campground, passes a vineyard or two and turns onto White Lake Road, leading to Twin Lakes Road and thence to Highway 3A and back again. There’s a beauty to this sage-filled landscape that can’t be denied. During most of the time riding out and back to the campground we rarely saw a car, sometimes a motorbike and as there were no fondos on at that time (it’s a popular area for group rides), just a few  cyclists. Once we’d reached the highway we spotted a nearby gas station and stopped outside to drink chocolate milk and stretch. As we relaxed in the shade a red-faced dad, mum, teenage son and daughter, all impressively geared up in matching cycling gear, rolled up, ran inside and emerged with the largest ice creams I think I’ve ever seen. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and route suggestions. People are friendly here anyway, it’s part of what brings us back each year, but I’m nearly always struck by the camaraderie of the cycling world, it’s a lovely thing.

If you like cycling there’s so many more routes to ride nearby, this is just a taster of this beautiful and diverse area, and you can always stop off for a glass of wine at one of the many vineyards. We certainly did.

White Lake Road

White Lake Road

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Where the Wild Things Are

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Picture if you will a spout of water blown forcefully from the surface of the water in the distance, followed by the graceful arc of a dense, dark back and fin carving through chilly ocean.

Or an almost imperceptible rustle before a large black bear drops onto a path behind you barely twenty feet away and saunters off in the opposite direction, confidently turning its back but with one ear flicked back to track your progress, then just as quietly reaches up into a berry bush on a nearby slope and disappears.

The first encounter (barely a word you could use here) was of a distant view of whales, I’m not even sure if they were Humpbacks or orcas, from a ferry as we made our way to the Sunshine Coast, and the other of a bear, up close and personal, as we mountain biked in nearby Squamish. A minute later riding down a foot-wide board walk and we’d have bumped into our furry friend. I was almost tempted to take a photo as he ambled away, but I didn’t want to be that person, he/she knew we were there and he/she was making sure we didn’t hang around.

More prosaically, walking out of our apartment building one day, I stopped and stared, not sure if I was seeing what I was seeing. A marmot, equally frozen, staring back at me. A marmot, in Vancouver! Coyotes, yes, a significant variety of bird life, yes. Even a Humpback Whale in the Burrard Inlet (how magnificent and hopeful is that). But a marmot? Finally the furry critter took off before I could move, I can only hope he found his way to a less hostile environment (marmots have been known to hitch rides from the Okanagan in trucks and railway cars).

I love to be near where the wild things are, knowing they still have a chance, however depressingly slim, to survive and dare I say perhaps to thrive if we can get our act together.

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Distant shot of a bald eagle.