Get Outdoors! And explore the historical Grey Canal Trails

Every day hundreds of people walk, jog or cycle sections of the Grey Canal’s scenic trails that surround Vernon and the Coldstream Valley.

But who remembers when water flowed from the hills through the Grey Canal’s gravity-fed open ditches, wooden flumes and pipes to supply farms and orchards with irrigation up until 50 years ago? How many marvel at the incredible engineering feat of its day?

Let’s look back into the history of this area.

For thousands of years, the original Okanagan First Nations people always chose areas near creeks, lakes or other water sources for their seasonal encampments. By the 1860s, Cornelius O’Keefe, Francis Barnard (BX Ranch) and a few other enterprising young men from Eastern Canada, Britain and Europe, acquired land in the North Okanagan and grew rich by ranching to feed the hungry Cariboo gold rush miners around Barkerville.

Thousands of cattle free-ranged the tall, lush bunchgrasses of the dry hillsides. These ranchers also settled by good water sources.

Once the goldfields dwindled away by the 1890s, new settlers were attracted to the warm, scenic Okanagan Valley. Land developers, inspired by Lord and Lady Aberdeen’s Coldstream orchards and ranch, subdivided the large ranchlands into orchard estates complete with fruit trees. But the new settlers, mostly British and Belgian aristocracy, were unfamiliar with orchards. They soon realized that more water was required for the fruit trees and demanded an irrigation system.

So in 1906, the land developers began an incredibly extensive engineering feat – an irrigation canal system that would encircle 30 miles (50 km) around Coldstream and the North Okanagan’s growing new city of Vernon. It ran from the hills above Lavington to Okanagan Lake encircling the BX, Swan Lake and Bella Vista and took until 1914 to complete. It was the largest single irrigation system in B.C.’s history. Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada 1904-11, visited the newly constructed headgates and intake of the Lavington section in 1907 and named it the Grey Canal.

Dozens of men with horse-drawn slip scrapers ploughed the extensive wide open ditch canal.

Later a steam shovel and then another was added to speed up the process. Parts of the canal were reinforced with wood stave flumes and wire-wrapped wood siphon pipes were added to flow water through draws.

Technology for the wooden flumes and siphons came from European wine-barrels.

Irrigation water usually ran from June to October. But water loss through continual seepage, evaporation, breaks, droughts and even floods created havoc.

The canal’s expensive construction, along with ongoing repair and maintenance costs, pushed the land developers into bankruptcy. A public utility was formed – the Vernon Irrigation District (VID) in 1920 to take over.

VID kept maintaining, repairing and running the canal until metal water pipes were invented and a buried pipe system replaced the canal by 1970. Once the canal dried up, it became a natural, level walking path with spectacular valley views.

Vernon’s Ribbons of Green Trail Society has been lobbying and advocating to acquire the whole Grey Canal system for a continual trail. Check out their website for the best directions and information on the Grey Canal Trail sections.

You can see the impressive last remaining flumes and trestles on the Swan Lake East section near Glen Hayes Road. And interesting interpretive signs on the Foothills trail section and north of McLennan Road have wonderful historic photos.

Water From The Hills by Peter Tassie is an amazingly detailed history of the Grey Canal with fabulous historic photos and maps. It’s available from the museum and library.

Roseanne Van Ee enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Discover exciting and adventurous natural events, best trails, and wild places. Follow her on Facebook for more.

Going Barefoot

When was the last time you walked barefoot outdoors? Do you remember feeling your feet skimming grass, sand, dirt, stones — or even the sensation of soles-on-pavement in the driveway? 

We might not think of going barefoot outside as desirable or even safe, but, in fact, walking shoeless is so beneficial that it can be used as a therapeutic practice. Here in the North Okanagan, now that the snow has melted and the grass is growing green, it is time to ditch the winter boots and step on the Earth itself with our feet uncovered.

Having toes in contact with the ground contributes to our well-being. It helps with the maintenance of our musculoskeletal system and restores our natural walking pattern. The entire body benefits from the stimulation of foot reflex zones. Note how you feel tickles in different parts of your body when you step, for example, on pebbles at the beach – that’s your nervous system being stimulated.

There’s more. Earthing, or grounding, consists of having direct contact with the planet (by going barefoot, laying hands on the ground or a tree or lying down on a patch of grass or sand), and its enthusiasts claim that the practice speeds healing, enhances vitality, lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and improves sleep. 

Connecting to the ground drains stagnated energies from our bodies. At the same time, we are stimulated by the negative ions and antioxidants coming straight from the Earth’s electric field. It works pretty much like an electrical circuit – the fields of our bodies and the Earth exchange charges. 

Spring is a great time to start practicing earthing. Be mindful, though: having worn shoes for most of our lives, our feet have become conditioned for comfort. Start slowly and choose your terrain, but don’t get intimidated by dirt or dust . My trick is to wear slip-off shoes so I can take them off without much fuss whenever there’s a chance. 

If you want to learn more, a good place to start your research is, where you’ll find an inspiring documentary you can watch for free.

Grounding is a much-overlooked form of natural therapy. It’s simple, has no side effects and costs nothing. It brings not only physical benefits but also fulfills our inherent need for connection with our natural environment – something many of us lack nowadays, whether in lockdown or not, in our busy urban lives. 

Grounding is medicine for body and soul.

Silmara Emde is an artist whose main medium is photography. She draws inspiration from daily life and the people she connects with. Nature is both her studio space and her greatest teacher. She lives in Vernon with her husband and their five year-old son, and you can follow her on Instagram @silmaraemde

Meditative Walking – leave your earphones behind & listen to what nature can tell us

The healing powers of being in close contact with nature have been described in a number of scientific studies and psychological experiments. Most of us can attest to the benefits of a walk in the woods, a weekend in the mountains or a good afternoon spent at the lakeshore. The benefits are partially physical – walking is wonderful exercise – but, as Covid-19 restrictions over the past year changed the ways we live and work, a walk outdoors became one of the most important things we could do for our mental health. 

For me and my 4 year-old son George, the ‘small’ patch of ‘forest’ near our home became our refuge, a place we’d frequently explore to breathe fresh air, exercise, forget about everything else in the world, and, in a sense, stay out of each other’s way for a while (but still be together). We visited the forest so frequently during the spring and summer of 2020 that we could follow the changes in foliage, the blooming and death of flowers, the growth of the blackberries; the work of the park rangers. For George, the forest was a playground – just like everything else in his life. For me it was a sacred sanctuary that bore witness to days of joy and high energy, and, on other days, of sadness and melancholy. 

The woods provided me with wild flowers for my home, special toys for George, and a canvas for fleeting art: arranging rocks and branches on the ground in beautiful patterns for the sake of doing it, and not for an audience, was liberating. Most of all, our little patch of forest was a place I could listen to my thoughts, calm my mind and find my centre. Invariably I would come back home in a very different state of mind – usually feeling lighter, energized and clear-minded.

There is a range of ways we can spend time in nature. The one I’d like to explore here is walking with intention in order to listen to the innate wisdom of nature. Doing so can help answer questions – or to formulate the right questions in the first place.

Have you got a problem you’re keen to solve? Make that your intention with a statement such as, “I’m ready to find the solution for [name the problem].” Is there something you’d like to release from your life? Make that your intention, saying to yourself just before you head out, “I’m ready to release [this situation] from my life now.” Is there anything you want to call into your life? Ask for it, then put your shoes on, grab your water bottle and head outside.

Note that in each case, the intention is not a goal or aim. There’s nothing to be accomplished. The key lies in making space in your mind for the solution to pop up when you least expect it. It might not even come during your walk and it certainly won’t come on demand. But the more you let go of expectations, the sooner the solutions will appear. Of course, when we ask questions we want answers, but the answer might not come the way we predict or hope. The secret is to ask, and then to let go of all expectations. 

A few things might help the process; turn off your gadgets, stay alert but relaxed; breathe deeply and freely. Don’t consciously think about your intention. Instead pay attention to the sights, scents, textures and sounds around you. Breathe, move and stay in the present. 

Our modern lives have disconnected us, to a large extent, from the natural world but we are still ‘natural beings.’ We are nature. Time spent in natural environments is so deeply rewarding because it’s time re-integrating ourselves with universal wisdom. You will find answers as the result of your walk in nature, but more importantly, you will also find yourself.

Silmara Emde is an artist whose main medium is photography. She draws inspiration from daily life and the people she connects with. Nature is both her studio space and her greatest teacher. She lives in Vernon with her husband and their five year-old son, and you can follow her on Instagram @silmaraemde

Get Outdoors!: It’s a berry merry season for Vernon songbirds

California Quails like Saskatoons. (Harold Sellers - Contributed)Our birds need winter berries; they’re the perfect size fruit. Resident birds that don’t migrate, but remain here year-round, need food and warmth to survive the harsh winters. Most songbirds (aka passerines or perching birds) are seed and berry eaters.

Native plants and birds have evolved together. A number of shrubs have berries that ripen in the fall and remain on their branches through winter. This refrigerated fruit is an important food source for frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds. The berry’s pulp is typically rich in carbohydrates and vitamins while the seeds inside are concentrated sources of fat and protein. Berries are delicious little packets of fruit pulp that attract birds and other wildlife to disperse their seeds. Many berry seeds survive passing through an animal’s digestive tract and are dropped in a new place with a bit of fertilizer.

Birds tend to be more territorial during winter to protect their food sources. They’ll often band up in protective flocks to stay warm by huddling together and creating “portable” territories with boundaries defined by available food. Once consumed, they move on to reestablish a new territory. Flocking helps individuals survive if a predator has other targets to choose. Domestic cats and hawks are songbirds’ main predators.

Seed and berry eaters such as jays, crossbills, waxwings, finches, sparrows, grosbeaks, chickadees and nuthatches are mostly found on coniferous trees, berry shrubs and in weedy fields. These perching birds are easier to spot on winter’s leafless trees and shrubs. Scan your binoculars up the trunks of trees in sheltered draws to find them. Birds metabolic rate rises during cold weather requiring almost continual eating. They seek sheltered spots to stay warm. Remember, birds often look “chubbier” under their downy, puffed up winter coats.

Large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings provide lots of entertainment in winter gorging on big, frozen Mountain Ash berries. They don’t get drunk as some people think. Sometimes they will pass berries from bird to bird to bond. Grouse, pheasants and quail eat snowberries found throughout the valley wilderness. But don’t you try them — they’re toxic to us. Other humanly toxic berries that birds eat are the fleshy coral-red yew berry and poison ivy berries. Good grief!

There’s a debate over feeding wild birds. In urban areas, where native plants have been removed, feeders may be helpful, but they’re like fast food outlets. It’s better to grow the native plants that they depend on or leave natural areas for birds and other wildlife to forage, nest and rest on. We can help birds by observing their natural behaviours and by rewilding (aka Naturescaping) — landscaping with native trees, shrubs and flowers to enhance our yards for wildlife.

Do you wonder why some people are “birders”? Borrow a pair of binoculars to find out. The variety of colours, markings, shapes, sizes, songs, sounds and characteristics distinguish the various bird species. Getting to recognize them is like getting to know friends from a crowd.

Discover our local winter birds on the North Okanagan Naturalists Club Saturday hikes open to the public — Great places to find winter birds is with the berries at Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary on Coldstream Creek Road, BX Creek trail from Star Road, the lower BX Creek trail behind Walmart from Deleenheer Rd to 48th Avenue, the lower Foothills Grey Canal trail, the Polson Park boardwalk, Marshall Fields, Swan Lake Nature Reserve Park off Old Kamloops Road and the Okanagan Rail Trail.

This article is written for the Vernon Morning Star by Roseanne Van Ee. Roseanne enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Discover exciting and adventurous natural events, best trails, and wild places. Follow her on Facebook for more.