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Monday, May 9, 2016

7 Fascinating Facts About Okanagan Lake, British Columbia

As a child living in Northern British Columbia, I would marvel at the scenery and feel of the Okanagan Valley whenever my parents would take me there on vacation. To me it was the ultimate getaway and piece of paradise on earth. Little did I know that I would one day find myself  not only living there but raising a family with my beautiful wife. Here are some of the fascinating things I have found about this extraordinary lake....

#1 Geography & Hydrography of the Lake 

Okanagan Lake (also known as Lake Okanagan) lies in the Okanagan Valley of the Interior Plateau of British Columbia between the Columbia and Cascade Mountain ranges. The Monashee Mountains (a subset of the Columbia) can be seen to the East of the Valley. It is a fjord lake and the remnant of Lake Penticton, a huge post glacial lake that once filled the Okanagan Valley. 

Waves at Kin Beach/  PC Joe Harder

It is approximately 135 km long with a surface area of 361 kilometres squared. Its maximum width is 6.4 km and its maximum depth is 242 metres. (Source: B.C. Place Names, Tourism Vernon). It is the largest lake in the Okanogan (American spelling) River drainage system which ultimately flows into the Columbia River and is also the 8th largest lake that is entirely within B.C.  The lake is home to only two islands: tiny Grant Island to the north (also where the deepest point of the lake is) and Rattlesnake Island to the South.

#2 The Name of the Lake 

While long known as Okanagan Lake, the name was officially adopted only on October 6th, 1936. As noted above it is spelled “Okanogan” once you cross the American border. Having only two different spellings is a vast improvement though on earlier days when there were as many as 46 variant spellings.  The American explorers, Lewis and Clark, spelled it “Otchenaukane” and the epic Canadian explorer, David Thompson, wrote it down several ways, one of which was “Ookanawgan”. 

An arm of Okanagan from Adventure Bay/ PC Joe Harder 

As for the meaning behind the name B.C. Place Names recounts: “One of the more likely explanations is that the name comes from "kana" meaning "the place of," and "gan" meaning "water" or "lake".  The Okanagan Indian band website however says that Okanagan is the “Anglicized version of Suqnaqinx and refers to the Indigenous people of the Okanagan territory, it translates as ―takes to the head or mind.” No matter how you spell it though (or translate it) the name Okanagan has become synonymous with beauty and tranquility. 

#3 The Okanagan Great Divide

Another geographical feature worth mentioning is the Okanagan Great Divide. Just about a mile north of Armstrong this little pullout on the east side of highway 97 often goes unnoticed, however it is the marking spot that determines the direction where rain and other water sources will take dramatically different routes. On the north side of this divide the water will flow into Shuswap Lake, on into the Thompson and finally enter the Pacific Ocean via the Fraser River. If, however, the water falls on the south side it will enter Okanagan Lake, on through the Penticton Channel and the Okanogan River into the Columbia River. This water enters the Pacific Ocean 350 km south of the Fraser. 

#4 The Indigenous People of the Lake 

The Okanagan People (also known as the Sqilxw or Syilx) are the indigenous people of the area surrounding Okanagan Lake. They now make up the Okanagan Indian Band which, along with 7 other Bands, forms the Okanagan Nation Alliance (which includes the Colville Confederated Tribes which lies south of the American border). 

The Okanagan Indian Band is also referred to as Inkumupulux or Head of the Lake – “ Inkumupulux is both a name for the people and where we live ( OIB website).”  Of note among the Okanagan People was a chief named Hwistesmetxe'qen meaning Walking Grizzly Bear (1780/1785 – 1865). He would later be called Nicolas or Nicola by the fur traders and thus lent his name to many geographical features including the Nicola Valley.

#5 The Ogopogo

This "Lake Monster" has its origins in Native legend. "The late Elder, Elizabeth Lindley taught us that N’ha-a-itk, commonly referred to as Ogopogo, is a metaphor for
sustainability and a good topic to express our connection to the land (Source: WFN )." Over the years, the Ogopogo has morphed into a rather happy but mysterious creature that supposedly inhabits the waters of Okanagan Lake.  In 1926 a sighting of the Ogopogo was reported by over 30 cars full of people on Okanagan Mission Beach in Kelowna.

The name Ogopogo was actually coined that same year by the Kalamalka Players - an organization of local amateur performers. The Okanagan Historical Society reports (Vol 4:28): “A luncheon for the Vancouver Board of Trade was given at the Kalamalka Hotel by the Vernon Rotary Club and the Vernon Board of Trade. L. M. Richardson of Vernon, presided, and the writer was asked to sing. As it had been well received on the former occasion, he decided to sing the Ogopogo song again. At the time there was considerable talk about the mysterious creature in Okanagan Lake and…. the name and tune caught on, and the guests left the Kalamalka Hotel to spread the fame of Ogopogo far and wide.

#6 Sternwheelers on the Lake 

Long before rails and roads, Okanagan Lake had  been a natural corridor for water transportation throughout the Okanagan Valley.  Things really began to boom though when, in 1892, a spur line was built from the Sicamous station of the Transcontinental Railway to Okanagan Landing just west of Vernon. The CPR began building luxury Sternwheeler Ships including the SS Aberdeen, the SS Okanagan   and the SS Sicamous. These ships would carry cargo and passengers all the way down the lake to Penticton with many stops along the way. Okanagan Landing became the gateway to the entire Okanagan Valley.

SS Sicamous at Okanagan Landing/ PC

The first bridge to span Okanagan Lake was built in 1958 to connect Kelowna to Westbank (West Kelowna). This bridge was later replaced in 2008 by the current 5 lane William R. Bennett Bridge which sees significant traffic year round. Before the bridges, ferries like the MV Pendozi and Fintry Queen would carry freight and people across this point. The average temperature of the lake in July is 19-23 degrees C / 69-71 degrees F however, as hard as it is to believe now, the lake used to freeze. In fact in 1949-50 the lake frozen virtually from end to end.

#7 Cities & Activities on the Lake 

While Vernon was once the major population centre on the lake, Kelowna later eclipsed its neighbour to the north to become the largest city. Penticton, at the very south end of the lake, rounds out the top three population centres. Lake Country (made up of the 4 wards of Oyama, Winfield, Carr's Landing and Okanagan Centre) as well as West Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland and Naramata make up the rest of the towns on Okanagan Lake. Smaller historic communities like Fintry are also popular destinations. 

City of Kelowna/ PC Wikipedia

There is almost every conceivable type of water activity on the lake, as well as camping, hiking, biking and world class wineries and resorts around the lake. With good reason, Okanagan Lake and its Valley have become a favourite destination amongst British Columbians, Canadians and people the world over.

"The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul..." Psalm 23


  1. Thanks for this collection of facts... my only piece of feedback is the use of past tense under indigenous peoples "The Okanagan Indians ( also known as the Sqilxw or Syilx) were the indigenous people of the area surrounding Okanagan Lake". They still are the indigenous people.

    1. Thanks Paul. Someone else mentioned that to me as well. It was a grammatical error and I've adjusted it :) Cheers..

  2. The new 5 lane bridge is not the W.A.C. Bennett bridge. It is named after his son, William and is the William R. Bennett Bridge. The late William (Bill))Bennett, like his father, was also Premier of British Columbia.

    1. Gerald - thank you for pointing out that error. I've corrected it :)

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  4. That's the first reference I have seen to indicate that Okanagan Lake is 110 km long. All other references are 120 or even 135 km. It seems that the measurement of our lake varies far too much to be a point to point error. Does anyone really know how long the lake is?

    1. Thanks for the comment JB. When I wrote this blog the main sources indicated it to be about 110 km long but in doing some more recent research you seem to be right. Tourism Vernon, Wikipedia and other sites have it listed as 135 km long. I'm not sure if they know the exact length of the lake but I have updated the blog to 135 to reflect those sources...

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  6. I used to live at the Summerland Research Station back in the late 60's. I know that 1968 was a very cold winter and I recall my parents taking a photo of the lake completely frozen over. I think this could have been the last year for an end to end freezing of the lake. 1971 had a freeze across to Naramata from Summerland but I don't think it froze end to end that year.

  7. Okangan lake looks so calm and peaceful. Hi Joe! Would love to know if stand up paddleboarding is allowed to this beautiful place?
    Snowcoast Canada

  8. I'm sitting on the Natamata shore right now and the Lake is full of paddle boards.

  9. West Kelowna now has a population of 34,930, according to BC Stats Est 2016, making it the third largest centre in the Central Okanagan.

  10. It really is Westbank, not West Kelowna. The "West Kelowna" label is simply aploy to get the taxes for Kelowna.