By: Richard Crowder
On a sunny day, which is often, Okanagan Lake from any angle is stunningly gorgeous. Gouged out by glaciers over ten thousand years ago, it is one hundred and thirty kilometers long, three to five kilometers wide, and located on an almost perfect north-south axis in the southern interior of British Columbia.
It is the largest lake and the centrepiece of the Okanagan Valley, which is part of British Columbia’s Interior Plateau located roughly 400 kilometers east of Vancouver and a short 75 kilometers north of the US border. The Valley is surrounded by three mountain ranges; Columbia Mountains to the east, Coastal Mountains to the west, and the Cascade Mountains on the south-west.
What makes Okanagan Lake perfect for boating is that the Valley has a semi-arid climate with long warm summers and short mild winters. Summer temperatures average 25 to 30 degrees Celsius with only a few days of rain per month and an average of 2000 hours of sun per year.
What also makes it perfect for boaters is that there are virtually no obstacles in the main body of the lake. There are only two small islands, Grant and Rattlesnake, and the few shoals are near shore where you would expect them to be. You see, Okanagan Lake is a clear and deep lake with an average depth of 75m (250 feet), with the deepest area a staggering 230m (750 feet) near Grant Island.
Outdoor recreation of every variety is not only promoted and encouraged, but also readily accessible throughout the Valley. Because the lake serves as the centrepiece for the surrounding area, boating in all its forms receives prime attention. Okanagan Lake is host to canoeing, kayaking, pedalboating, paddleboarding, sailboating from dinghys to catamarans to daysailers to cruising boats, parasailing, kiteboarding, surfboarding, wakeboarding, waterskiing, personal watercraft, runabouts, express cruisers, performance boats, and of course scuba diving and fishing boats of every description.
Not only do you find all of the above on the lake at any given time but in-season most of the time. You can bring your own boat or you can rent almost every one of the above vessels almost everywhere and you will find marinas and yacht clubs and launch ramps and rental facilities and access points all around the lake. Some boat charters and dinner cruises are also available. Boating on Okanagan Lake is paramount to locals and a major tourism attraction.
Surrounding the lake are many Provincial Parks, municipal parks, and public access points including boat launches and sandy beaches ideal for swimming. In addition, there are many private lodges, resorts, cabins, hotels and motels that cater to the boating public. Docking is available at many facilities as are rental outlets and retail establishments to service all your needs. When on Okanagan Lake be sure to take in the almost surreal scenery of lakeside homes, towering mountains, rugged cliffs, and the miles and miles of terraced benchlands devoted to some of B.C.’s renowned vineyards, wineries, and a variety of fruit orchards famous for their cherries and peaches.
Penticton at the very south of the lake, a city of around 35,000 and with a regional airport, is home to the small dam that regulates the water level in Okanagan Lake. The lake drains through this dam into the Okanagan River which eventually joins the mighty Columbia River in Washington State on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The first European fur traders passed through here in the early 1800’s aided by the Syilx First Peoples.
Just like the movie capital of Hollywood, Penticton is known for its name displayed in giant letters on the side of the mountain northeast of the city. Along with welcoming amenities and conveniences for boaters one must-see attraction is the S.S Sicamous, the “Queen of the Lake,” a preserved CPR steamship and the largest surviving ship of its kind in Canada. It first provided needed transportation on the lake beginning in 1914 and is now a museum.
Vernon, at the very north end of the lake, is a city of about 40,000 and a smaller airport offering mostly local connections. Vernon actually borders three lakes; Okanagan on the southwest, Kalamalka with its must-see emerald green waters on the southeast, and the much smaller Swan Lake to the north. All of these provide boating activities relevant to the size of the lake and all offer complimenting amenities depending on the type of boating you wish to pursue.
Around the middle of Okanagan is Kelowna, by far the largest city with a population of close to 130,000 and serviced by an international airport. Kelowna proper on the east shore and West Kelowna on the west shore are joined by the five-lane William R. Bennett floating bridge. Until fairly recently, this bridge had a lifting section to let sailboats pass from one section of the lake to the other, but the bridge has been rebuilt with a high arch to allow most boats to pass beneath without disturbing traffic flow.
Being a large city, Kelowna offers every possible resource to suit every taste and desire- from accommodation, to food, to entertainment, to recreation, and especially to boating of every kind imaginable. Its waterfront on both sides of the lake offers every transient and permanent boating service you could ever want or imagine. This is truly a boater’s paradise. Kelowna is also the home to Campion Boats, Canada’s largest fibreglass pleasure boat manufacturer.
Both shores of Okanagan Lake offer many sightseeing opportunities for the cruising boater along with parks, beaches, launch ramps, temporary mooring buoys, docking, marinas, restaurants, pubs, entertainment, plus overnight accommodation. There are several small communities and settlements along the shoreline that cater to activities on the lake. Even though the lake is deep, make sure you bring a hydrographic chart and be careful when venturing close to shore as there are some sand and rock outcroppings in the most unsuspecting areas and not all are marked. Also, keep a weather watch as a strong north or south wind can bring heavy wave action.
Okanagan Lake is one of Canada’s best held secrets and one of its finest boating destinations.