It’s hard to imagine what is must have been like in the late 1700s exploring the major rivers of North America and creating maps of the country from a voyageur canoe.
But that image has resonated with hundreds of outdoors people who have followed in the paddle strokes of fur trader and explorer David Thompson in recent years, re-creating his routes over land and water that has changed much in the centuries since he first dipped his paddle.
And, some 200 of those enthusiastic paddlers will be converging here Sunday to begin a week-long adventure exploring the lakes of the Okanagan Valley, from Vernon to Okanagan Falls, roughly following the fur brigade route carved out by Thompson a couple of hundred years ago.
What a way to bring history alive: to view the shoreline from a vantage point at water level, between paddle strokes, just as the greatest land geographer of all time did!
It’s an adventure that drew a geographer friend of mine to enter the Columbia River in the Canal Flats area last summer in a 24-foot canoe for the six-week 2011 Columbia Brigade: following Thompson’s route exploring the river from its headwaters in what is now B.C., to its meeting with the Pacific Ocean in southern Oregon, exactly 200 years after Thompson had.
Cor Zandbergen is another enthusiast who has lived in Vernon for the past 20 years and had never even stepped into a canoe until he joined a similar brigade journey in 2006, again following in the wake of the famous explorer.
He describes the inner peace he found paddling and the self-fulfillment of the trip; the wonder to discover the ability within himself to take on such a challenge and master it.
It is as a result of his decision in 2006 that today’s Brigade Trails to Wine Trails has been organized through the Okanagan, beginning Sunday at the historic O’Keefe Ranch at the head of Okanagan Lake.
You too can help bring our history to life just by watching as these 16 huge canoes with their crews of more than a half-dozen paddlers skim along the lake next week, or by meeting and greeting the paddlers at their many stops along the way.
They hail from as far away as Hawaii, Oregon and Ontario, as well as much nearer to home and they’d be delighted to have you join in their enthusiasm for such a historic journey. Even a seventh generation descendant of David Thompson will be participating as a paddler in the trip.
Cor admits when he began organizing this trip that he didn’t realize there was even a fur brigade trail that snaked its way through the Okanagan Valley, along Okanagan Lake, nor that last year was its 200th anniversary.
But he wanted to combine a history tour of the valley with the wine tourism that fascinates so many, with an emphasis on the beauty of this area, and his dream has resulted in an influx of hundreds of visitors who will enjoy our bounty next week as family and friends follow on land the progress of their loved ones paddling the lakes.
Locally, the paddlers will include Wayne Wilson, former executive-director of the Kelowna Museum, who paddled the Columbia River with the brigade last year with a team who call themselves the Red Rogues; and winemaker Leo Gebert of St. Hubertus Estate Winery, who will host the multitude of tents at his Mission-area winery on Wednesday, and join them in a canoe whenever his work in the vineyard permits.
Leo kayaks with his family, but has never been in one of the big voyageur canoes, as part of a team moving the craft along by working in unison, so he’s looking forward to his practice runs Sunday at the head of the lake.
From his experience paddling a kayak, Leo says from that perspective, you become acutely aware of what we have done to our natural shoreline—there’s very little of it left around here.
Which is all the more reason to divert our visitors’ attention away from what we’ve done with docks and walls and boathouses and dredging, by lining the shore with waving hands and cheers through Kelowna on Wednesday.
First there’ll be a stop at Sutherland Bay’s park at 10 a.m. for an hour’s break and crew change; after a night spent at the Okanagan Centre Museum.
From Sutherland Bay, they’ll paddle along Kelowna’s waterfront from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. when they dock at Cedar Creek Park, below St. Hubertus.
They’ll be paddling through Lake Country Monday on Kalamalka Lake, stopping at local parks such as Beasely/Reiswig, Kaloya, Kekuli Bay and Kal Beach and Tuesday, they’ll launch their canoes in Okanagan Lake, stopping at Komasket Park, Cst. Evely and then Fintry Provincial Park Tuesday morning, leaving at noon to head across the lake to Okanagan Centre.
Thursday morning you can catch them at Peachland at 10 a.m. where there’ll be a Metis welcoming ceremony, and greetings from the Peachland Historical Society, then they head down to Okanagan Lake Provincial Park where they’ll stop from 11 a.m. to 12:30; then on to Summerland and overnight at Naramata.
Friday they head to Penticton, then into Skaha Lake to complete their trek at Okanagan Falls with a salmon feast Friday evening.
So, take the family down to greet them or wave as they pass bay and cheer. Talk to the kids about explorer David Thompson and how he created the maps of B.C. we still use today; and about the changes we’ve made to the landscape in the 200 years since Thompson and his crew explored the Okanagan—both the good and the bad.
It’s an opportunity to apologize for some of what we’ve done to the natural landscape—the heritage we pass on to them—and to resolve together to help to manage our natural resources better in future.
Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News.