Skaha Bluffs purchase blunts urban sprawl

June 24, 2008

Text CR Jack Christie

Photo of Crystal Klym CR Louise Christie

Crystal Klym’s efforts to rid Penticton’s Skaha Bluffs of invasive plant species has earned her the nickname “Noxious Weed”. That moniker might not suit everyone’s taste, especially a young woman’s, but during a tour of the bluffs last July, the South Okanagan Valley resident said that she proudly wore the handle.

As Klym led the way along the trails that run below a series of renowned climbing pitches, including the sheer-faced Doctor’s Wall, she repeatedly pulled up handfuls of knee-high Dalmatian toadflax. Her interest wasn’t in the yellow flowers budding on the slender stalks. Instead, she examined the stems for signs of a weevil being tested as a bio-control agent on invasive species such as knapweed and thistle. Weevils eat the stems, she explained, which stresses the plant into producing fewer seeds. “Even though toadflax is a root propagator, the bugs might help make the plant feel overwhelmed and,” she sighed, “give up.”

For Bill Turner, giving up is not an option. On the phone from his office in Victoria, the executive director of the Land Conservancy of British Columbia laughed heartily when asked if he ever thought the multiyear campaign to purchase the Skaha Bluffs and surrounding land might not bear fruit. “I never lost faith,” he said. “You don’t lose if you never give up. That’s the secret to success in this business.” Indeed, on January 19, the conservancy, the B.C. Ministry of Environment, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced that they had joined with Mountain Equipment Co-op (more than 700 of whose members made personal donations), and other supporters to acquire a 304-hectare property, including the popular Skaha Bluffs, for $5.25 million.

Anders Ourum, former executive director of the Climbers Access Society of British Columbia, believes this is the largest sum ever spent in North America to acquire a climbing site. Ourum said there were both parallels and dissimilarities between the scenario that played out in Penticton and the Access Society’s efforts to preserve the Little Smoke Bluffs in Squamish a decade ago. “They’re both in urban settings. We were able to preserve the Smoke Bluffs for climbers and hikers as a municipal park, but that didn’t stop development for going ahead immediately adjacent.”

Ourum pointed out that although there was still work to do to finalize the details of the proposed Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park, the threat of urban sprawl had been blunted there. “We could be thanking people for a whole week,” he said, particularly MEC, which Ourum credited as being the most instrumental partner. “They went to TLC [the Land Conservancy of B.C.] with $400,000 impetus-and-seed money. That’s where it all started several years ago, when the co-op said the access situation was critical.”

In a city such as Penticton, which routinely hosts large sporting events and festivals, climbing may not seem like much of a tourist-generating engine. Appearances can be deceiving, especially as most of the action on the gneiss rock takes place beyond sight of the surrounding beaches and vineyards. Howie Richardson, author of Skaha Rockclimbs (Elaho Publishing), knows better. When contacted, he asserted that over the course of a year, the bluffs draw as many people as the annual Ironman triathlon, which in one weekend attracts more than 2,500 athletes plus supporters and spectators. “The bluffs are a major destination for climbers throughout western North America, especially in spring, when this area dries out before anywhere else,” said Richardson, who is widely credited with popularizing rock-climbing in the Okanagan. Although a few climbers had explored there in the 1970s, Howie was the first one to begin in earnest, in 1987. Today, he estimates the number of routes is approaching 900. “This is a gem of a little place, with rock sculptures, wildlife habitat, and views over Skaha and Okanagan lakes and the city. When the new park opens, it will be used a lot more than it is now.”

And how. During a phone conversation, Keith Baric, a planner at the Ministry of Environment’s Okanagan regional office, pointed out that the area used by climbers, about eight hectares, represents only a small portion of the newly acquired property. Mountain bikers, hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, and community ecologists such as Klym are just as eager to explore the planned park. “A purchase of this magnitude is a new one for me,” Baric said, noting that as far back as 1991 a 109-hectare site surrounding the bluffs was identified as a possible park under the regional land-and-resource management plan. “The ministry has been involved for years but couldn’t muster up funds until TLC got things going.”

In all likelihood, two herds of California bighorn sheep, which Baric characterized as an “umbrella” species, are among the biggest beneficiaries of the land purchase. Baric pointed out that had the property been converted to housing and a golf course, this would have divided the north and south sheep populations, which intermingle in a steep, narrow draw around Gillies Creek. “It’s critical to mitigate the impact of development on wildlife movement through this highly fragmented region between Okanagan Mountain Park and the Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area.”

Clearly, humans can be just as invasive a species as noxious weeds. On that count, Skaha is a bluff that was called just in the nick of time.

Access: For detailed climbing-route information, visit skaha.org. Until a new access route is completed in 2009, follow Crescent Hill Road east of South Main Street, then Valleyview Road south to the well-marked trailhead at Braesyde Farms, a short, pleasant drive along a narrow, winding road. Note: depending on the size of vehicle, an escalating parking fee of $10 and up is charged at the farm.

Myra Canyon’s cyclists ready to roll again

June 16, 2008

Text CR Jack Christie

Photography CR Louise Christie

The trestles are back! The trestles are back! Phoenixlike, 12 wooden trestle bridges on the Myra Canyon section of the Kettle Valley Railway Trail near Kelowna have reappeared after vaporizing in flames during 2003’s forest fires. At the time, the loss seemed irreplaceable. Five years and $13.5 million in provincial and federal grants later, the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society ( www.myratrestles.com ) plans to unveil the new bridges on June 22.

From his home in Kelowna, Ken Campbell, chair of the reconstruction committee, said that the results are “pretty fantastic”. In the early 1990s, Campbell and a group of volunteers created the society and set about making the Myra Canyon trestles safer for walkers and cyclists by installing railings and deck coverings. “Our group took over the management of this section of the former railway line and helped turn it into Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park as well as a national historic site.”

The task of replicating the trestles was contracted out to professional bridge builders, who drew on the original plans. How do the new ones compare? “Virtually identical,” claimed Campbell, who said his emotions since he viewed the charred remains have gone from devastation to elation. “There was never any doubt in our group that they would be rebuilt. They had become so internationally popular. I met a German tour group yesterday coming through to see the results.”

Since 1994, the bible on the network of rail trails that spirals across the southern part of the province has been Dan and Sandra Langford’s Cycling the Kettle Valley Railway (Rocky Mountain Books; www.planeteon.net/~dan/). When reached at their home in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Dan recalled that after reading a magazine article in 1991, the couple took “a leap of faith” when they rode their mountain bikes along the Kettle Valley from Midway to Penticton. They would have gone farther but rails were still in place west of there. “We wrote a book hoping someone would notice,” he said with a chuckle.

Over the years and with subsequent revisions, the Langfords received daily e-mails from cycle tourists across Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Then the inferno struck. Book sales plummeted from 5,000 to 500 per year, and so did the trail’s reputation. “Before the trestles went down, an average of one group tour a day would start out,” Dan said. “Suddenly the perception was that the fire had finished the trail. This is a 1,000-kilometre route, but the 18 kilometres from Myra to Ruth [stations] were the diamond in the ring. When word of the loss got around, it spelled the end, not just for us but it took the wind out of small businesses along the way which had caught on big with international cyclists. Hotels and B & Bs changed hands or closed their doors.”

With a new edition in the works, Dan figures that’s all about to change. “The next couple of years could be really big.”

One factor mars this renaissance: damage inflicted on the trail by all-terrain vehicles. “They were just a little hiccup in the late 1990s,” Dan said, “but now it’s a mess, especially when conditions are dusty. The fat tires scuff up the trail and make it too soft for cycling.” Articles have begun appearing in Europe about the issue, prompting calls to the Langfords from magazine editors. “The KVR is also a part of the Trans Canada Trail system, which is supposed to be for nonmotorized use only. This is such an important resource for B.C. We’re going to lose a lot of international business. It’s embarrassing to be on a tour and find the trail is almost impassable. Word gets around really quick. Fifty percent of our e-mails now concern ATVs.”

Léon Lebrun, Trails B.C.’s provincial vice president and the southwest regional chair responsible for the Trans Canada Trail (www.trailsbc.ca), is keenly aware of the problem. Reached by phone at his home in Coquitlam, Lebrun said B.C. is “probably the slowest location on the continent” to come to terms with licensing ATVs. “We’re still up in the air about motorized vehicles for a host of reasons. The primary problem with ATVs is that they degrade trails for cyclists, making riding arduous and discouraging.”

Lebrun feels that Quebec provides the best example of separating the two user groups. ATVs are licensed, trails are patrolled, and fines are handed out where necessary. “There’s still an element in B.C. who feel they can have access to anything they want on Crown land any way they darn well please.” Lebrun pointed to the Recreation Trails Strategy initiated by the Ministry of Tourism, Sports, and the Arts to deal with the problem, but he said Trails B.C. is still “not really happy” with the current trial model. “It’s a huge issue for us, especially given that we’ve already resolved conflict between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers where there’s no longer the animosity that once prevailed.”

This cloud won’t overshadow the excitement surrounding the reopening of the trestles. Celebratory rides and walks along the Myra Canyon route are planned both in June in Kelowna and in July to Penticton by Trails B.C. as part of the Peach City’s centennial festivities. Locally, Vancouver-based cycle-tour operator Great Explorations (great-explorations.com) is leading a two-week, 650-kilometre tour of the Kettle Valley Railway from Castlegar to Hope to coincide with the festivities. Owner Robbin McKinney, who guided Lebrun and Dan Langford on a similar tour in 1996, has scheduled the ride to arrive at Myra Canyon in time for the trestles’ reopening party, with Lebrun and Langford once again in tow. Like trestles, one good ride deserves another.

Talking Travel with Bill Good on CKNW

June 5, 2008

On May 30th, Jack had the pleasure of talking with Bill Good on CKNW 980 AM in Vancouver about the new book, and took viewer calls about travel in BC.

Have a listen!

 
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