K is for Kicking Up My Heels

K is for Kicking up my Heels

Kicking up my heels in dry, colourful autumn leaves is one of those seasonal rites that makes living in a “four seasons playground” one of the true joys of life. I truly feel sorry for folks who live in parts of the world where winter is just a damper and slightly cooler variation of summer, and spring and fall barely exist. Where I live, in the sunny Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, there are four distinct seasons, and I look eagerly forward to every new season.

The Okanagan Valley in Canada is an extension of the Okanogan Valley in Washington State, USA. The southern desert section of the valley is a “pocket desert” extension of the Sonora Desert, and is the only classified desert region in Canada. Lying on the lee side of the Coast Mountains, the annual rainfall ranges from about 15 centimeters (6 in) at the southern boundary up to about 40 centimeters (16 in) at the end of the valley, about 240 kilometers (150 mi) north. Fairly steep hillsides intensify the summer heat, with mid-summer average maximum temperatures in the mid to high 20s (C) and mid-winter average minimum temperatures between minus 5 to 10 (C). Yet dry as this region is, there is a string of beautiful lakes from Osoyoos Lake in the south to the northern end of Okanagan Lake, itself 135 kilometers (84 mi) long and almost 305 meters (1000 ft) deep in some areas.

The famous Ogopogo lives in Okanagan Lake. This prehistoric monster is reported to be anywhere from 6 to 15 meters (20 to 50 ft) long with a horse-like head and an undulating snake-type body, and I am always on the lookout for a glimpse of our valley mascot, though I have only seen it once (I think!). Because of the favourable climate, irrigation, and fertile soils, the Okanagan Valley has also become famous for its orchards (peaches, apricots, cherries, apples) and its grapes and resulting world-class wines. There is somewhat more precipitation on the upper mountain slopes surrounding the valley, which results in beautiful powder snow in winter in quantities deep enough to support a number of successful ski areas.

Summer vacation and the Okanagan Valley go together. Tourists come from all over the world to spend their holidays here. Every town has its major summer festival, and some towns have several, drawing tourists to events such as an Elvis Festival, sailing contests and other aquatic events, and antique car shows. The lakes are warm and clear, and perfect for swimming, waterskiing, canoeing and sailing, and also fishing for the delicious kokanee land-locked salmon. The rivers in the surrounding areas are also excellent for river-rafting.

For me, a summer is incomplete without a ride down the Similkameen River on an inner tube, and a few jumps off the Red Bridge, one of the few remaining covered bridges in Canada. In fact, I celebrated the summer of my 45th birthday by jumping off the bridge deck (about 20 feet above the river) 45 times over a period of about 3 or 4 weeks! I became known as the “jumping granny!” At one time I jumped from a higher point, about 35 feet from the water, but the young folks like to jump from the top, a 50 foot drop.

At the moment, I live a 5 minute walk from the southern end of Okanagan Lake, and a summer day is not complete without a walk along the lakeshore, a hike up along the high clay cliffs rising from the lake, and of course a dip or at least a wade in the lake. Although the lake is usually calm, sudden storms can blow up from time to time, and it is great fun to run down to the lake and splash around in the huge waves.

Summer in the Okanagan also means picnics and camping. There are commercial sites all through the valley, but it is also easy to find quiet little spots where you can get away from it all, and feel like you’re way out in the wilderness, even though civilization is just a few minutes drive away! Even though I live downtown, I can take a picnic lunch, and walk along the beach for 10 to 15 minutes, and be completely alone, out of sight of all human habitation in the area!

Summer means lots of company. We often have folks sleeping on our couches, floors, and outside in the tent. I have a gazebo in my side yard, where I love to sleep on hot summer nights, cooled by the evening breezes, and gazing up at the stars in the clear summer skies. Sudden thunder storms often light up the summer night skies with amazing displays of lightning, and sometimes sudden downpours that freshen the air. Because it is so hot and dry much of the time, when the rain pours down, we often run out into it and dance around, laughing and enjoying a good soaking!

A summer Saturday is not complete without a visit to the weekly farmer’s market, where freshly picked organic fruits and vegetables, as well as beautifully made crafts, are available from May through September. There are also many fruit and vegetable stands throughout the valley where fresh produce is sold straight from the farm at amazingly inexpensive prices. So the Okanagan summer is also a time of lots of canning and freezing!

Around mid-August the nights suddenly start to become much cooler, though the days remain quite hot for some time. Although the valley bottom remains green for another month or so, at mid-hill levels the trees and bushes turn into a blazing display of yellow, red, and gold autumn leaves! Every fall I “head for the hills” with a picnic lunch to enjoy the beautiful sights, and to go for long rambling walks through the woods, the dry fallen leaves crunching underfoot. In mid-September, the leaves also change on the valley floor, and yards are full of fallen leaves, which means hours of raking up the leaves – and inevitably, jumping into them, full of laughter, and then having to rake them up all over again. I think this is the time when my “inner child” most comes out! Fall is also a time of taking in my garden harvest, especially my overflowing supply of tomatoes, and also time for the fall apple harvest. For several years I operated a small orchard of about 120 apple trees, and September and October were busy months indeed!

Okanagan fall nights can be very chilly, but the days often are still warm and sunny, with just a slight edge of autumn chill. “Indian summer” can go on well into October. Our family had a tradition for many, many years of truly heading for the hills, and going into the high mountains of Manning Provincial Park on Thanksgiving Monday (an annual Canadian holiday always held on the second Monday of October) where relatives from far and wide would gather for a day together. We would climb to the tops of the mountains to see the mountain vista from the forest-fire spotting towers, or hike along the mountain lakes, and sometimes even go canoeing on the lakes. The day would end with a big pot-luck family picnic. Eventually my generation grew up and many moved far away, but we still dream of getting together once again.

Fall is also time for the salmon runs, and a one-minute walk from our home brings us to Penticton Creek, a major spawning creek for the Kokanee salmon. For several weeks each fall, I daily walk over to the creek to watch the salmon, now dark red and black in colour, valiantly fighting their way up the creek through the fish ladders and rapids, to lay their eggs in the gravelly spawning beds. It is an important part of the life cycle of the seasons, and one that I never miss! Some years we drive 3 or 4 hours north to the Adams River salmon run, one of the largest salmon runs anywhere. It is an amazing sight to see countless thousands of salmon filling the waters of the river, until it looks like a boiling cauldron of fish jumping and swimming and jostling each other, packed so closely together than you feel like you could walk across the river on their backs.

The Okanagan climate is great for growing pumpkins, and fields full of the big, ripe, bright orange vegetables add to the colour of the autumn landscape. In some communities, farmers grow large fields of pumpkins especially for the children of the area, and all the children look forward to the annual school field-trip in mid-October to the farms to each choose their perfect pumpkin. Even as an adult, I look forward eagerly to the annual ritual of carving the Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns. My creations aren’t very artistic, but I just love the feeling of the gooey, slippery seeds slipping through my fingers! After the pumpkins are carved, we wash the seeds and dry them in a slow oven, sprinkled with salt and sometimes a variety of herbs. Yummy!

Usually sometime around Hallowe’en we get our first snowflakes. I love snow! My children think I am slightly out of my mind as I literally start jumping with joy, and singing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland!” Of course the early snows really are usually just “flakes” and rarely stick for more than an hour or two, but they are a sure sign winter is coming! When I was young, winter meant tobogganing. The valley hills above the orchards and below the wooded mountain tops are quite bare of vegetation other than grasses, small cactus and sagebrush, and with a bit of snow make exceptional tobogganing runs. As we got a little older, our parents bought ski equipment, and Saturdays were eagerly awaited for the weekly trip to the ski hill. We started off with family passes to a smaller size ski area called Last Mountain, and then graduated to the larger resorts, especially Big White. Back in those days, a winter-long family ski pass (for a family of parents plus four children) was as little as $125 at the small mountain or $180 at the large mountain! We’d go to the annual ski equipment swaps as we outgrew our old equipment. Those were the days. We lived to ski! We’d often go night skiing once or twice during the week, and always spend all the holidays at the hill. After I grew up, I spent many years living in places where there was no skiing, and I got out of the skiing habit. But I have never stopped loving snow! We lived in the Arctic for a couple years, where the snow was on the ground from late August to mid-May, and even there I never tired of snow. Today, I mostly just go for walks in the snow, but I still love to throw myself back into the snow and make snow angels, or play “fox and goose” and even throw snow balls and make snow forts. More of my inner child!

One winter recently I had a paper route. Every morning I had to get up at 5 am to go out and deliver papers in the cold and dark. But it was so worth it on mornings when the dry, flaky, powdery Okanagan snow would come gently drifting down, shimmering in the light of the yellow street lights, and blanketing the world in its perfect, lovely blanket. The air was crisp and smelled so… well, so snowy! It was truly a winter wonderland! Most Okanagan winters have just a few snowfalls down in the valley, and the snow doesn’t last long, but this year we’ve had more snow than usual, and though it doesn’t get very deep, it has been cold enough to last longer than usual. So I have been having a happy winter indeed!

The final snow usually flies around Easter time, but by then there are already clear signs that spring has definitely sprung! Snowdrops and daffodils are popping up here and there, and the wonderful scent of freshly turned soil in gardens and farm fields is wafting everywhere. Even though March is often windy, grey, and damp, the air is fresh and the world is warming up. The sun is more directly overhead, and a brighter shade of yellow, as it rises up from its low winter angles, and the very pale winter skies are now developing a deeper blue hue. It is a great day when I can shed my winter jacket, hat and mitts, and go out with just a sweater. And then one day I see the first buttercup, truly the Okanagan Valley’s harbinger of spring! One day there is a single little flower, and literally a day later, the hillsides are blanketed with yellow! I can’t wait to dash out, and pick one, and rub its yellow pastel hue on my chin. This was a custom we learned in childhood, an old tale that holds that if your chin turns yellow, you are in love. Well, rubbing buttercups on your skin always turns it yellow, so spring-time love is guaranteed! Buttercups also are easily made into floral crowns, and there is nothing more fun that the first hike and picnic of the year held in the middle of a field of buttercups. Yellow is not only the colour of the sun and buttercups, but also the fields of wild sunflowers, and then dandelions which follow one after the other on the Okanagan hillsides. Surrounded below by the blue of the lakes, and above by the blue of the skies, this riot of natural spring colour is awesome to behold.

Spring is also the season of tree blossoms in the fruit country of the Okanagan. Miles of blossoms, bright pink, white, and shades between, depending on the variety of fruit, create a vista of beauty throughout spring. It also produces beautiful scents, and the combination of the sights and smells is truly a riot for the senses. It is also a time for planting gardens, and the smell of the earth, and the feel of the damp earth crumbled between my fingers fills me with joy. The birds have returned, and overhead the Canada geese fly in their V-formations, honking as they head north once again to their mating grounds, and I gaze at them as they pass, knowing I’ll see them once again, as they fly past heading south in the fall. Local birds fill the air with their songs, and we are always on the watch, listening and looking, for nests with tiny beaks opening wide for worms brought by busy parents. The air gets warmer day by day, and the newly planted gardens start sprouting. The trees which were barren for months gone by, suddenly are covered with mossy new growth, and within days, leaves are popping out, every day bringing a new and wonderful shade of green. I think there must be at least a thousand shades of green in spring! Flowers are coming into blossom, with brilliant multi-colored tulips following the daffodils of early spring, and then multitudes of flower varieties and colours and scents tumbling over one another in their eagerness to fill the earth with their beauty!

And suddenly, one day, I realize it is summer again. As every season in the Okanagan’s four-season playground arrives, I exultantly shout out loud (much to my children’s embarrassment!), “I love this season! It’s my favourite season of the year!” But of course the truth is that every season is my favourite season. When I look around me and see the beauty and glory of the earth in all its seasonal varieties, I wonder how anyone can doubt the existence of a great Creator. Thank You, Lord, for four seasons!

Date: January 2, 2007

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