Close-up: Crown Jewels
In 1955, Bob Ahrens and his wife camped in the old apricot orchard where Bear Creek empties into Okanagan Lake—on their honeymoon.
It didn’t cost them anything.
Today, families line up along Westside Road in summer waiting for a campsite to come open at the popular 178-hectare provincial park, which Ahrens would have liked to recommend for acquisition by the government, if funds were not so limited.
It did later become one of the jewels in the province’s crown of parklands in the Okanagan.
Acquired first was a property recommended by Ahrens, the Miller family orchard between Peachland and Summerland, where campsites are constructed in tiers dropping down to Okanagan Lake from the highway, in the 98-hectare twin campgrounds of Okanagan Lake Provincial Park.
It was created in 1955 and is of great personal satisfaction to the now-retired B.C. Parks administrator.
Ahrens trained in forest engineering, but decided he wanted to save some of the big trees instead of taking them down, so he moved over to the new parks division of the ministry of forests and in 1949 got the position to select potential parks in the province.
“We planned to create a system that would be adequate for 4.5 million people,” he recalled, laughing that some people referred to them at the time as “cloud-nine wooly-heads.”
However, they persevered in a task that he found a delight to undertake, even if it was frustrating at times to make progress.
“In the Okanagan, we found land had been settled early on, and many potential beach properties were already gone,” he said.
Although Cathedral Provincial Park was first proposed by the B.C. Naturalists’ Association in 1940 as a park, it wasn’t until 1968 that about 8,000 hectares of today’s total of 33,272 hectares was made park.
Adjoining it is the 70,884-hectare Manning Provincial Park, which was created in 1941, as well as the more-recent addition, the Snowy Protected Area. Large wilderness parks adjoin them across the international boundary.
Today, Ahrens is concerned that there’s nothing harder for the human animal to do than leave something alone.
“We had an opportunity to create a system that would be the envy of the world and we knew that, so we put forward policies drawn from the best in the world. It was based on modifying natural features as little as possible,” noted Ahrens.
“We saw we had an opportunity the rest of the world didn’t have. We still had choices—the opportunity to set aside tracts of unmodified nature.
“However, the pressure is always on to develop; to find ways to make money from what we have.
“Our uniqueness is what we stand to lose. We recommended park development be limited to that which was required for safety reasons and to minimize wear and tear. Conservation of natural areas—unmodified—is so important.”
Diversity is key
It doesn’t matter whether you sleep in a $20 pup tent or a $200,000 class A motorhome, the provincial parks in B.C. offer everyone an extensive variety of natural features and comfortable camping extras for unique holiday experiences.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of B.C. Parks. From the stunning alpine features in Cathedral Provincial Park in the southern part of this valley to a combination of natural beauty and our built human history at Fintry Provincial Park, there’s something for everyone in the provincial parks right here in our own backyard, not to mention throughout the rest of the province.
B.C.’s network of parks represent not only what the bureaucrats believed were important additions to the system, but also what grassroots volunteer organizations lobbied to have included.
A good early example of this is the 10,462-hectare Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park which was set aside in 1973, at the urging of the Okanagan-Similkameen Parks Society, which also advocated for enlarging Cathedral, an effort that was successful in 1973.
Kelowna’s Friends of the South Slopes lobbied to have the Land and Resource Management Plan include what is now Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park included in B.C.’s crown of jewels, because it represents such a wide range of representative Okanagan eco-systems, from alpine to near valley bottom.
That new park also includes the spectacular and historic Myra Canyon trestles, which Derek Thompson remembers first coming up many years previous.
“People thought we were crazy when we first floated the idea of protecting the trestles in a park,” he recalls.
Thompson joined B.C. Parks in 1973 and left in 1994. He is now retired and currently a member of the Council of Elders for B.C. Parks, a group of retired parks system employees and conservation advocates who volunteer to work to ensure the long-term well-being of the province’s parks.
He was regional planner for the interior of the province for a time and says he loves the parks and wants to see them well-managed.
Healthy parks make healthy people, he believes.
He notes that the Central Okanagan Regional District has an incredible system of parks, thanks to people like Bill Eaton and Robert Hobson.
Now, he says, it is vital that we are committed to protect what we have and “keep the jewel glowing.”
“We need to find a way to maintain what we have,” he added.
That’s a concern of one of the Okanagan’s more-recent parks managers, Drew Carmichael, who retired last year.
“We’re well-endowed (with provincial parks) in the Okanagan, including some large land masses added as part of the LRMP. There’s now good representation throughout Region 8, although there’s a lack of lower elevation ecosystem representation because it’s just not available in the Crown land inventory,” Carmichael said.
The most recent addition is the Skaha Bluffs, but Wrinkly Face and Browne Lake Park were added in 2004, and Trepanier and Graystokes in 2001, along with Myra-Bellevue.
“Myra-Bellevue has a combination of lower elevation values, plus historic, cultural and recreational features. Then there’s the alpine area of Little White Mountain, and there’s very little true alpine in the Okanagan Basin,” noted Carmichael.
His concern now is maintenance of such areas in a natural state, and he feels strongly that controlled burns should be done regularly in Okanagan Mountain Park or uncontrolled wildfires such as occurred in 2003 could re-occur.
The 2003 wildfire also restored the natural grasslands in the park, so that now there is the largest wild goat population in the park since European contact, even though populations in the rest of the province are down.
Transplanted bighorn sheep, as well as elk and mule deer populations are also flourishing, as are coyotes and cougars, he notes. In the past decade ,volunteer support for provincial parks has been integral to their continued maintenance, noted Carmichael, with groups such as FOSS and the Friends of Fintry doing what the province has been unable to do, with tight money and meagre resources.
Purchase of Fintry involved funding from both CORD and the province to protect both the historic granite manor house and the rare octagonal dairy barn, along with the historic lakefront packinghouse and other outbuildings.
The park, with more than two kilometres of waterfront, a series of spectacular waterfalls on Shorts Creek, and a number of other natural and heritage features, is 361 hectares, plus 523 hectares of adjoining protected area and it was purchased in 1995.
The volunteer FOF and provincial parks have been working together in the past decade, restoring buildings and creating a museum in the manor house with donated items appropriate to the Victorian era of its heyday, early in the last century.
Volunteers have become integral to the parks system.
“There needs to be more support for parks, so I hope the 100th anniversary re-instills that pride in our park system,” commented Carmichael.