Nature & Public Spaces
September 9, 2020

Urbanist in the Okanagan 2 – An Unexpected Rate of Change

This is what Keremeos BC looks like in my memory from the 60s – the uncontested Las Vegas Strip of Fruit Stands.

Except that photograph is from just last month.  Not a lot of difference in a half century.

That’s true of most of Highway 3 from Hope to Osoyoos: it’s changed hardly at all.

Which is fine, since a lot of it looks like this:

 

The only developments between Hope and Keremeos are at Manning Park, Princeton and Hedley.  In between, no gas stations, no parking lots, no billboards, no major interventions except a copper mine.  After half a century, the biggest changes are the width of the highway and the height of the trees.

Most of us who dwell in the Lower Mainland know there’s a big back yard out there beyond Hope.  We too, like our visitors, are still amazed by the sheer scale.  Best of all, it’s free and it’s close.

Four hours, thirteen minutes away, says Google:

(Two things to note: (1) Google Map insists on using ‘Work’ as my destination pin.  Hardly.   (2) And check out ‘Explore Keremeos’ for its attractions – motordom as tourist bait.)

 

Princeton is the major stop along the way, though major overstates its impact.  Except for the signs:

Most small towns in the province seem to have received money for main-street beautification programs – or they all decided about the same time to outfit their commercial streets with the same features – rather like a trend in shopping centres and malls – to keep their communities alive with some kind of core. We’ll explore them along the way.

One conclusion: small town BC is still home to independent businesses, especially those that serve coffee.

Note the sidewalk extension into the curb lane, and the patio that results.  A big-city technique especially effective on the super-wide roads that cut though these towns – the provincial highways that connect them all.

These kind of small, incremental, locally rooted changes are unexpected (really, an independent book store?) and gratifying.  The pandemic will test their resiliency.

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In the Year of the Pandemic, there would be no vacations abroad – not even to Blaine.  But in May it occurred to me that if Dr. Henry approved, there might be trips within British Columbia.  So long as one kept six feet apart, one could go 600 km east.

So why not return to the summertime places of my youth, a circle tour of vacations past, especially those in the Okanagan that once upon a time seemed so far, far away.  Because in the first decade of my existence, it was.

For those who lived on Vancouver Island in the 1950s, a trip to the Lower Mainland meant an overnight ferry from Victoria to Vancouver Harbour.  And from there, the gravelly Hope-Princeton Highway, opened in 1949, might get you to the Okanagan if your radiator allowed.  A trek further east required a detour into the U.S. to make it across the southern tier of the province.

Then came the era of W.A.C. Bennett and Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi: the founding of BC Ferries (right, MV Tsawwassen as originally built, 1960) and the paving of the province (from ‘Frontier to Freeway’).  Now the family in a proud new Pontiac could get from the capital to the interior in a day, through the fields of the Fraser Valley, up and over the Cascades into the most northern tip of the Soronan – from rain forest to desert – with a tent in the trunk, eventually a trailer in the rear, and two weeks of paid vacation in a fruit-filled Eden.

A boy doesn’t ever forget those steep downhill curves above Kaleden and the first glimpses of the warm waters of Skaha Lake.

 

Why did our family stop summering in the Okanagan? For the same reason we started: prosperity. The post-war boom that made possible the infrastructure of highways and ferries, and the cars to fill them, and the two weeks of paid vacation, and the motels, campgrounds and attractions up and down the valley – all that was superseded by cheap airlines, higher incomes and the attractions of California, Hawaii and Mexico.

But in the Year of the Pandemic, it was time to return – now with the perspective of a life lived as an urban dweller and a student of cities.  So for the next few weeks in Price Tags, let me take you back there in place and time, to see how it has changed.

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Compiled from a selection of Gord’s Instagram posts as he travels through the Okanagan.

Almost at the end of a two-week return to the Okanagan and Kootenays, following routes my family took in the 1960s. As I sit down for dinner at an Indian restaurant patio off Baker Street in Nelson’s heritage downtown, I do have one big observation.

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Highway 1 to Hope, Highway 3 to Osoyoos. First impression: it hasn’t changed. Still the same fields of summer crops, still the same backdrop of narrowing mountain ranges, still the same congestion where the industrial parks and shopping malls hug the highway, still some of the same roadside attractions. Then a rising highway into the coast ranges and a subtle shift from fir to spruce to pine. But no billboards, strip malls, or spiring signs to mark the next gas station and McDonald’s. So not I-5. Notably, there’s still only the same small town halfway along – #Princeton. Which, except for an attempt to spiffy up the two main streets, pretty much matches up with my memory. How extraordinary that so much has stayed the same for so long.

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PT: In May, I had a hunch.

If Dr. Henry approved, this would be a great summer to take a road trip – a great circle through the southern Okanagan.  And I probably wouldn’t be alone as other Lower Mainlanders came to the same conclusion.  So I booked out two weeks of accommodation and restaurants.

I figured, in the year of the virus, in my final decades, it was time for a retracing of steps.

My memories of boyhood summers involve cherries, warm lake water, bunchgrass and ponderosa pine, and the kind of landscapes they make jigsaw puzzles out of.

But those memories of the Okanagan in August were only possible because, beginning in the mid-Sixties, Premier WAC Bennett willed the BC Ferries into being and Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi paved the roads to create the demand.  My family was part of that demand, when my father could now drive us from Victoria to Skaha Lake in a single day.  From rain forest to desert.  Over mountain passes in a new Pontiac.  Tent trailor attached.

Now I’d return to those places, and compare memory from the mid-20th century with the valley in the 21st – taking an urbanist perspective to the small towns, the tourist beaches, the vineyards and orchards, the retirement suburbs, and the emerging metropolis of the mid-Okanagan.  Then on to Revelstoke, Nelson and the loop back home.

I’ll be photographing and posting along the way.  For the next two weeks, follow me @pricetags on Instagram.

And send me suggestions, observations and worthy detours in the Comments.

 

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