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Spring Close Up April 15 2020

Penticton Oxbows Tour

During the 2015 Meadowlark Festival I took in the Friends of the Penticton Oxbows tour–and what a wonderful tour it was!

Did you know that 10,000 years ago or so, the Penticton area was under about 2 kilometers of ice? Even our mountain tops were covered.  As the ice slowly melted over time, a proto-lake was formed, which flowed north toward the Thompson region. Gravel fans in our area are reminders of the run-off from that time of glaciation. Later, at some point the flow changed toward the south. The “benches” above the current valley bottom are the remains of beach levels. At one time, a large ice-dam in the McIntyre Bluffs area, towards what is now Oliver, burst, and the water rushed out of the valley, leaving behind Okanagan and Skaha Lakes, and the slow-moving Okanagan River and its surrounding wetlands and marsh. The slow river twisted its way through the wetlands, forming many ox-bow turns between the lakes.

The First Nations were content to live with the natural formations of this valley. When the first Europeans arrived in the Penticton area, they settled in the drier areas of the valley bottom. Small steamships pulled barges between the two lakes, carrying freight, and dredging kept the channel open to a sufficient depth. But as the town grew and more land was needed, and as folks experienced some years of severe flooding, it was decided in the 1940s to 1950s to “improve” the Penticton townsite between the rivers by putting a direct channel through from Okanagan to Skaha Lakes, thus cutting off the oxbows from river flow.

When the Penticton townsite was laid out, and the Penticton Band reservation lands, the border between the two ran down the center of the Okanagan River.  When the channel was pushed through, this meant that some pieces of land on the west side of the channel belong to the city, while some pieces on the east side belong to the Penticton Band. Thus, the valley bottom involves both municipal and federal governments (and the Band government)–and the river itself is provincial!  This means that when groups like the Friends of the Penticton Oxbows want to care for the oxbows, they must work with multiple levels of government, not to mention individual landowners, both  in the City of Penticton and “locatee” landowners from the Band.  But the Friends of the Oxbows are not daunted by this prospect, even if it does complicate things. Goals of the Friends include securing and managing habitat, encouraging natural riparian vegetation, providing controlled access (such as through “blinds”) for the public, preventing too much silt and other run-off materials from entering the oxbows, dredging out the excess that is already there, and improving water flow in and out of the oxbows.

Our tour started at the Okanagan Avenue northern access of the Warren Avenue oxbow. We saw turtles, ducks, redwing blackbirds, and many other birds. There is quite a bit of debris in the water, and an invasive species, yellow flag (a type of iris) has filled up a lot of the edges of the oxbow.  Across the oxbow is locatee land; the family is working with a developer to put housing in the area, but as sustainably as possible to maintain the wetlands.

We also went to the Roy Avenue access point of the same oxbow, where we saw a large heron and mallard ducks. The deer enjoy browsing the native wild rose bushes, which also form a good natural riparian boundary area along the banks of the oxbows. The surrounding lands used to be productive bottom land during the freshet, which overflowed the natural banks and laid down nutrient-rich silt. The current higher banks are a result of the dredging done when the river was used for transport.  The water weed here are a good sign of continuing productivity of this land.

Going on to the south end of this oxbow, on Warren Avenue, we saw the tall pole placed there for the osprey; this year a pair of geese decided to take over the nest, and the ospreys did their best to chase them away!  There was once a crossing here for cattle as well. We were impressed with the size of the carp in this oxbow.  The water this year is very low due to the lack of moisture over the winter, but there is still some surcharge from groundwater. Pipes connect most of the oxbows to the channel; however, they are placed so that overflow from the oxbows will go into the channel, but fresh water from the channel cannot get into the oxbows. The Friends of the Oxbows would like to see this remedied.

Next, we went to the oxbow access point at the foot of Kenney Avenue. There is one oxbow right there; and if one walks or drives down the dirt road, there is access to more oxbows. The first of these is behind Ayres Crescent.  It has a lot of cat-tails growing in it, which is causing diminished productivity for birds that need open water; the very invasive yellow iris add to the problem as well. Tall cottonwood trees along the oxbow are typical of local riparian vegetation; there used to be many more of them in the area. Trees near the oxbows have been wrapped in fencing wire to discourage beaver from cutting them down. Along the highway by these oxbows are many Russian olive trees (they are not native to the area).  If you decide to follow the path along these oxbows, be sure to watch out for snakes. Unfortunately, some folks also seem to think the land alongside the oxbows is a great place to toss their junk–cleaning these areas is another goal of the Friends of the Oxbows.

The oxbow at the foot of Brandon Avenue has been the receiving environment for half the city’s street runoff, including a lot of silt. At one time the city dredged the excess silt to keep the water clear; however, governments have been doing less of this lately, and the oxbows have been filling in with silt and vegetation. The built up banks, and spots of bare sandy soil are other reflections of past dredging. Most of the dead trees in this area are a result of beaver activity; at first the wire wrap held them off, but now they’ve learned to climb above the wire. Beaver tend to be a problem in these kinds of managed environments. There even used to be lots of trees along the Warren Avenue oxbow, but the beaver took them out about 10 years ago, and this has put back succession by about 50 years worth. Beavers along the oxbows tend to build bank dens rather than dams. Water birch, a native raparian species, is almost endangered now.

The final oxbow along this path (almost to Green Avenue) is beside a privately owned piece of land, and the owner has been taking very good care of it–this oxbow is generally in the condition that the Friends of the Oxbows would like to see all the oxbows in. Across the highway and beyond the channel, there are other oxbow areas which have been used most recently for cattle farming, but that is changing with the introduction of a new channel crossing and an upcoming shopping center.

We walked back to our parked cars and then drove to the foot of Brandon Avenue to see that oxbow from the other side. It is astonishing that only ten ago this was quite deep, open water; now it is very shallow and mostly filled with vegetation. However, just recently the City of Penticton has put in a silt interceptor on the drain at the foot of Brandon Avenue, and it is hoped that this will stop the silt build up.

On to the next oxbow access point, Figueras Mobile Home Park, where we enjoyed watching more ducks, including a wood duck, and also a muskrat. Our guide noted that there has been undercutting of the banks along the Mobile Homes due to the water; attempts have been made to stop it by putting in large cement “legos”; however, promoting more riparian growth would be more helpful.

Our next stop was behind the Oxbows RV Park, where for the first time we did not see any cat-tails; the water here is basic rather than acidic.  Old pilings are part of the CPR waterway barges system when the oxbows were used for transportation. Rocks placed along the edges of the oxbow have created banks that unfortunately are too steep for good riparian growth.


Finally, we went out onto the highway where it enters Penticton, and took a quick look at where the Okanagan River used to flow into Skaha Lake–you can see it just east of where the channel enters the lake; it is the marshy area that crosses the beach there.  We drove back north along the highway bypass, and parked near the north end of the channel by the recreational area there (just south of Loco Landing).  This is what is left of the old Okanagan River at its northern end–bits of swampy ground surrounded by lawns and large, planted trees. Because it is so close to the channel, and there is no road in between, it could easily be connected to the channel to introduce fresh water and restore the natural riparian vegetation. Our guides showed us aerial photos of how the area looked before the channel was put in and the oxbows were cut off.  Thanks to the Friends of the Penticton Oxbows for an amazing tour!


May morning meander along an Okanagan River oxbow

May 5, 2012

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Update on locking up nature

Do you remember my recent post on “locking up nature“?

It was pointed out to me by a reader that perhaps there is a reason why locked gates were set up at either end of the lovely pathway next to one of Penticton’s little wild spots in the midst of a residential area.  So I have checked out the situation, and it turns out that indeed there is a good, if rather sad, reason.

Yesterday I had a long chat with one of the residents of the new tower next to the wild green space.  Here’s what I learned:

First of all, my assumption about the cost of the condos was incorrect.  As a matter of fact, because of the recession, the prices of condos around Penticton has fallen rather dramatically.  Many towers were under construction when the hard economic times hit, and sales came to a rather screeching halt.  The prices of units in the tower next to the green space now range from under $200,000 to a maximum of about $400,000 – even for the penthouse suites!   So if you’re looking for lovely new condos with 6 appliances, generously sized balconies, and upgrade finishes, at a very reasonable price, you might want to check these ones out.

Second, the folks who have already bought condo units (starting just this past October) themselves decided to put in the walkway, which is actually on the tower’s property.  They wanted to create easy and safe access to the park to the west, and the mall to the east, for the condo owners.  Many of these new owners are seniors who have mobility issues, and the path was created so they could easily enjoy these aspects of the community.  At the same time, they hoped that other Penticton residents would also be able to enjoy the wild little green space next to the tower.  And at first, their hopes were realized.  Owners had easy access to the park and mall, and many local residents, young and old, families and singles, walked the path every day.  The gentleman I spoke with lives in one of the units that overlooks the path and green space, and he told me how enjoyable it was to sit out on their balcony as folks walked by enjoying the path, and waving up to them, chatting with them, and thanking them for creating the path.  BUT…

Unfortunately, there were a few people who ruined it for everyone.  A group of teenagers found the path and decided to make it their hangout.  Every evening they would go to a local fast-food joint, buy lots of take-out, and head over to the path.  Now next to the path, the tower has two doors and a patio with seating for owners who wish to enjoy the lovely green area.  It seems that these youngsters thought it the perfect place to hang out.  And not just to hang out, but also to leave a huge pile of garbage for the tower caretaker to clean up every morning.  And make lots of noise, disturbing the condo residents who were trying to sleep.  And, worst of all, causing a lot of destruction.  Broken bottles soon littered the area.  Swastikas and filthy language were sprayed across the side of the building.  Both doors were damaged.  Residents were afraid to use the exits by the path to leave the building.

Although the condo owners hated to do it, they finally came to the conclusion that the path would have to be gated and locked.  They felt badly for cutting off access to the community.  But it’s not just the community who suffers.  The residents themselves no longer have the safe and easy access to the park and mall through their very own building exits, and must now use the parking lot and street-level exits above, which also causes special difficulty for residents living on the bottom floor.  Yes, they can now sit safely on the patio, and yes, they no longer have to face the filth, noise, and nasty graffiti.  The caretaker has done his best to cover the damage, but passersby can still see the outline of the swastika, as the paint deeply penetrated the concrete.

You might think that is the end of the story.  But sadly, no.  Some of the young people still want to hang out in the area.  Unable to use the pathway, they are now using the creek bed, which is mostly dry during the summer and fall months.  If you look at the pictures in my original article, you will see the odd bit of litter, most of it light bits of paper and such which may simply have blown in with the wind.  But now, just 2 or 3 weeks later, the path is much more littered.  There are spots where it is obvious that parties are being held – and the noise is once again disturbing residents in towers on each side of the green space.  Also, a little to the west, nearer Lion’s park, the youth are partying under the big old weeping willows, and not only are those spots being littered with bottles and food containers, there is also toilet paper and the stink of urine.  These are not over-night transients camping; these are the same youth who were hanging out on the lovely new path.

About a week ago, some of these same youth were blowing off fireworks in the mall parking lot late in the evening.  When the police arrived, the youth ran across the street and hid in the bushes.  The police had to go in with flashlights to flush them out.  Most of them ran off, but at least one got caught.  He tossed his skateboard over the fence, and climbed over, apparently planning to run to the end of the path and escape.  However, he must have forgotten that there are now locked gates at either end – and he ended up trapped!  An ironic reminder, perhaps, that what we do usually catches up with us sooner or later, and often in surprising ways.

When I wrote the last post about this “locking up nature” situation, one commenter on Facebook wrote the following:  “This is where the general public needs to contact their city council and ask for more park trails 🙂  start a petition!”  What do you think?  What can responsible citizens do together to end wanton damage and hooliganism by just a few (and that includes adults as well as young people) who choose to ruin things for everyone else?  What are your ideas?  Why not list them in the comments below?  Let’s get into action and do something together.  Surely the majority can overcome the minority if we stand together. 

By the way, the gentleman I was speaking with noted that another community in BC has recently re-started the old 9 pm curfew that many communities (including large cities like Vancouver and surrounding cities) used to have, and that early indications show a significant drop in night-time problems.  While we were chatting, another local resident came by and suggested that, much as we love our little wild tangled green spots, maybe if the city cleared some of the underbrush, the areas wouldn’t be as inviting to people looking to hang-out and/or hide.  Then of course there are possibilities like putting in more lighting.    What do you think of any of these as  possible solutions?  Or can you think of other solutions?  What about a strengthened Community Watch program?  What else?  What are YOU willing to do?

Please comment!  Thanks!



locking up nature

A few months back I featured one of Penticton’s “unexpected trails.”  I was so delighted to find that one of Penticton’s hidden wilderness treasures in the middle of the city had been made accessible for all citizens.  A lovely new path was built alongside the bit of woods and creek.  Then a chain link fence was later put up between the trail and the wooded area.  That was a bit disappointing, but it was still easy to see and enjoy the woods from the path, and it was still accessible even for wheelchairs or walkers.  This was wonderful, because there are many seniors complexes in the area.

But then a couple of weeks ago, I went back to enjoy the trail – and discovered a tragedy.  The beginning and end of the trail are gated – and strong locks are placed on the gates.  It is still possible to access a bit of the woods from the nearby park, but one soon runs into the locked gate.  The only way to enjoy the rest of the wooded area is to walk along the creek bed – when it is dry, that is.  Even then, one has to be agile.  So much for access for our seniors and for others who have mobility issues.

Apparently the lovely new path is actually on the grounds of the new deluxe condo tower next to the woods.  And it would appear that the condo owners probably don’t like the idea of non-condo-owners using their lovely path.  Ironically, with the big padlocks and gates, they don’t get to use the path themselves either.  A lot of effort, and no doubt money, has gone into providing this beautiful pathway through the woods – and now no one can use it.  I suppose the condo owners are within their “rights” to prevent “trespassing” on their property.  I suppose, too, that some folks who can afford to live in such a lovely complex don’t really want your average pedestrian riff-raff too close to their lovely tower homes.  Again, they are within their “rights.”  Seems kind of sad, though.

Today’s slide show takes you on a walk through the woods – and gives you a peek at this decision to lock up nature.  We take you along the pathway that is still accessible, bump you into the locked gate, give you a peek down the path (photo taken through the chain link fence), then along the alternate trail (the creek bed), up to the other locked gate at the far end, a view down the locked-off trail from that end, and then a view of the steep sandy slope up to the sidewalk.   What do you think about locking up nature?

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science nature walks in your neighbourhood

Do you remember your “science” classes in school?  What did you learn well enough to carry with you for the rest of your life?  Think about that.  What really stuck?

The textbooks you read?  The worksheets you filled out?  The films you watched?  The rock samples in kits that you scratched at and recorded your observations (one of the few things I remember)?

How about the field trips you went on?  And I’m don’t mean the ones where you went to Science World or the Planetarium, and watched more films, or checked out displays.  I mean the REAL trips out into the FIELD.   The ones where you got down on your hands and knees and got nose-to-nose with frogs, or slipped on the algae by the edge of the pond, and fell in among the tadpoles and water bugs?

What?  You don’t remember those?  Well, me neither.  We went to the Summerland Experimental Farm when I was in grade 7 – my first and last “field trip” in my public school career – and we saw a cow with a murky glass window in its side through which one could see some of the inner workings of the poor creature.  I do remember that!  And they gave each of us an apple from their famous orchards.

The rest of my scientific studies took place in the classroom.  Even though we had more-or-less-hands-on lab experiments from time to time, mostly we learned second-hand, from books and pictures and films and such.  Now admittedly, that was back in the day (the Experimental Farm trip was in the 1967-68 school year), and yes, schools do provide a few more off-site studies now than in the past.  Off-site oftener, but sadly, still not so often in the field.

The reason I bring this up is that within our city limits, within easy walking distance of every single school, there are numerous opportunities for rich, engrossing, life-long-memory-forming science learning experiences, in many aspects of the natural sciences.  The snapshots in this post are from an oxbow of the Okanagan River.  This particular oxbow is within a 5 to 10 minute walk of a local elementary school.  The oxbow was cut off from the river when the “channel” was put in, and so the natural vegetation of our semi-desert region has grown in a wild tangle around the remaining still water.  Look closely and you will see an amazing variety of plant life, in a close-knit ecosystem that supports not only the vegetation but also all kinds of wildlife, as the beaver-cut stump demonstrates.

Yes, there are in our valley neat board-walk tours, complete with informative signs and sometimes even a tour guide, that allow a civilized walk through our natural ecosystems.  And yes, the children will arrive home from their science field-trip still neat and tidy, and will obediently write a follow-up assignment about what they saw.  But will they come home awestruck?  Will they get their hands dirty?  Will they remember the experience a year from now?  A lifetime from now?

Don’t leave your children’s scientific learning up to the schools.  They have to follow so many rules and regulations that they simply cannot provide real hands-on scientific exploration.  But you can do that for your children, and basically for free.  Next time you want to do something with your family, gather together some basic equipment – perhaps a pail, a strainer, a magnifying glass, a box to collect small samples, a camera, a notebook and colored pencils for sketching and notes.  Dress well enough to avoid being scratched by thistles and such.  Then take a walk through your neighbourhood.

Leave the paved sidewalks and investigate that scrubby looking area at the end of the street.  Go down beside the creek instead of viewing it from the dainty bridge above.  Go together.  Look closely.  Get your hands wet.  Get mud on the knees and the seat of your pants.  Get  scruffy stuff in your hair.  Respect nature, yes, but also get to know it close up.  When you’re tired, sit awhile in the shade, right in the midst of the tangle, and just take it in, quietly.  Make some sketches.  Collect a few samples (respectfully).  Go home, then, making a stop at the library on the way to get books that identify the wildlife and birds and insects and vegetation you’ve just seen and interacted with.  Talk about them together as a family.  And make plans for your next outing.  Soon.  Tomorrow perhaps.

Grow family relationships.  Create memories.  Encourage curiosity.  Experience true learning: learning that changes attitudes and behavior long-term.  Become life-long learners, together.

(For a sample of some of the outdoors learning we did together as a family when my children were still at home, when we lived on Haida Gwaii, check out some of our Nature Notebook adventures and observations.  And I’m delighted to be able to report that my children now take their children out into nature, too!)

you own a piece of it too

Yesterday I was walking through a local park.  I was surprised to see an elderly lady, hunched over, slowly pushing her walker through the long grasses that mark the border between the irrigated and mowed parts of the park, and the adjoining “wilderness” sections.  Every few steps she would bend down and pick up a couple of twigs that had fallen from the trees, adding them to the pile in her walker’s basket.

Curious, I walked over and asked her why she was collecting sticks.  She told me, “You know, as a resident of this town, I own a bit of this park, and so do you!  So I’m just doing my part to keep it tidy.  I come here regularly and pick up sticks and bits of garbage and pile them under that weeping willow tree over there.  Then the park workers come and take it away.”  As I told her, I do pick up garbage and put it in the garbage barrels.  But it hadn’t occured to me to pick up twigs, pine cones, and other natural wind-fall.

I couldn’t help thinking about it even after I left the park.  About how we, as residents, DO have responsibility for the care of our community, beyond just paying our taxes, and tidying up our own yards.  But also wondering about “cleaning up” after Mother Nature herself in areas that we’ve set aside as natural green spaces.  I love the “wildness” of these areas (and am happy to clean any garbage out of them), but wonder how far we should go in “tidying” them.  My feeling is to leave them as natural as possible.  The only reason I can think of for tidying them up, so to speak, is to clear out materials that cause fire hazards, such as deep piles of dry pine needles.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your opinions about this in the comments below.

By the way, awhile back I featured a local green area that had a new path through it for the enjoyment of local residents.  You can see the snapshots I took in the post “Unexpected Trails.”  A couple days ago, I decided to go back to the spot – and was surprised to see that a tall chain-link fence had been erected between the pathway and the wild area.  I’m not sure of the reason – no doubt someone thinks it is “progress.”  Take a look at these new snapshots and tell me what you think of this “development.”


Penticton wildflowers and seeds

August 2, 2011

Herewith a sampling of some of the flowers and seeds you’ll find scattered in Penticton’s untamed wilderness spots tucked in among the more “civilized” residential areas.  It does make one wonder if there isn’t something a bit foolish about the way we obsessively banish Mother Nature’s “weeds” in favour of our garden-variety flowers.  No one has to water, weed, aerate, trim or fertilize these beauties, and yet they thrive.  Enjoy!

(Click on the collage to enjoy in full-screen size).

Penticton wild berries

August 2, 2011

We’ve been featuring many photos of Penticton wildlife.  Today we feature some of nature’s bounty that nurtures our wildlife population – and is enjoyed by our human population too!

(Click on the collage to enjoy it in full screen size)

Okanagan River oxbows

15 July 2011

Sometime in Penticton’s past, the meandering Okanagan River, which sprawled over quite a bit of territory and had a habit of flooding its banks during spring run-off, was “improved” by Penticton’s city fathers.  A straight channel was dug from Okanagan Lake to Skaha Lake, with a dam at the Okanagan Lake end to control water flow.  Later, the department of highways took advantage of this straight stretch, and put in a highway bypass, so that travelers would not have to take the leisurely drive through Penticton’s residential areas and downtown core.

Now folks in a rush can speed past Penticton (much to the distress of Penticton’s businesses), and, in the summer, enjoy the sight of countless numbers of  more leisurely folks “floating the channel” in all manner of floatable devices.

What almost all of those folks miss, the speedy and the leisurely ones alike, is the remaining ox-bows of the Okanagan River, on the opposite side of the highway bypass.  This really is a pity, because these cut-off bits of the river have become home to a wonderful variety of plants and waterfowl, as well as providing a home for many other creatures ranging from small critters like marmots, to larger ones like deer.

Today’s snapshots provide you a glimpse of some of the beauty you’ll find if you take an east turn off the bypass (at Green Road or Warren Avenue, for example), turn onto the first side street you come to, park your vehicle, and find your way through paths to the oxbows on the east side of the bypass.  Enjoy!