Under an asphalt roadway, buried in rocks and fill, lies the most wonderful beach in the Okanagan Valley. It is the perfect beach of my childhood memories—a clear sandy strip alongside a narrow road, with clay cliffs rising vertically behind the road.
Okanagan Lake, all 135 kilometers of it, or as we said back in the day, 84 miles, features many wonderful swimming beaches. But for many Okanagan residents of the mid-twentieth century, no beach could match up to Summerland’s Rotary Beach.
What was so special about this beach? Surely the sandy shoreline was always a pleasant place to spread out one’s beach towel or blanket and soak up the sun. And if the sun was too hot, there were large shady weeping willow and cottonwood trees to relax beneath, though the roots made stretching out on the sand beneath the trees a rather lumpy experience. The water was always clear and blue, perfect for swimming. But other Okanagan beaches had all these features. So what made this one so memorable?
As children, we loved Rotary Beach and went there as often as possible. We spent much of our summer at our grandparents’ house, up the hill on Solly Road, right across from the hospital where I was born on Mom and Dad’s vacation. Grandpa and Grandma Mott’s beautiful old Victorian home with wrap around porches and ivy covered walls, and acres of cherries and peaches and apricots in the orchard, had plenty of room for lots of aunts and uncles and cousins to come and visit, and “help” in the orchard. All morning and into the early afternoon, till the heat reached its peak and we had to retreat to the coolness of the veranda, we picked fruit.
After lunch, the older folks, our parents and grandparents, wanted to have a siesta, but we children longed for Rotary Beach. Finally our parents would give in to our begging and tell us to go ahead, and we’d run down, down, down the long steep curves of Solly Road, or, better yet, we’d slip and slide precariously on narrow footpaths on the clay cliffs, till we arrived at the beach, covered in clay dust. We were always reminded not to swim for an hour after eating our lunch, so sometimes we’d have to content ourselves with splashing around in knee-deep water until that hour was up. Later, our parents would often drive down and join us. It seems, looking back, that children were allowed to go to the beach on their own (in groups with siblings, cousins, and friends), at much younger ages than children today would be allowed to do.
Other beach lovers would trek down to the beach via twisty Peach Orchard road, or via the highway which in that day twisted down the gulch between the clay cliffs. They would always be watching out for scorpions on the roads and paths which wound through the gulches, or hoping to spot an elusive rattlesnake. In fact, it was a long, dusty walk on a hot summer’s day to reach the beach, whether from the small older “Lower Summerland” community on the orchard-covered hillsides and even along the shoreline north of Rotary, but especially from the newer, larger “West Summerland” community far up the cliffs above. Those long, steep twisting roads joined the upper Summerland community to the older community along the beach, but the younger generation often thought it was far more fun and daring to take the very narrow clay cliff footpaths.
Another alternative to walking or getting a car ride, was to bike ride down long twisty hills like Solly Road. Going down was fun, even exciting and a bit hair-raising … but riding (pushing, struggling) up was another story, needless to say.
If you chose to walk down the highway or the roads, there was always a chance that someone driving down the road might stop and give you a lift—Doc Evan’s wife was one of those kind folks. Those who didn’t have a car to get to Rotary Beach and back home, would most likely be hot and sweaty by the time they reached home again, despite the lovely refreshing swim at the beach. In fact, many swimmers would end up running through sprinklers in the orchards on the hillside, or dipping their feet in the irrigation flumes, trying to cool off on the long walk home. And while that might sound like a “downside,” actually it really did add to the fun!
Before Rotary Beach was taken on as a project of the Rotary Club, it was known as “Louie Beach,” named after an old fellow who lived in a white plaster shack at the end of the beach, by a wharf located just where the highway split to Lower Town before the new highway hill was built. The wharf was also sometimes home to boats anchored there, such as Mr. Tavender’s small open sail boat. Old “Louie the Lug” was a bit different, and some of the smaller children were a bit scared of him, but he was really just one of several colourful local small-town characters. He worked in the Tavender orchard on the front bench, earning just enough money, along with vegetables and fruit stored in the cold cellar he dug in the clay cliff, to keep himself through the winter. Another memorable character at Louie Beach was Lawrence Gentry, known as “Calgary,” who lived in a tent on the beach. The Lower Town homes started at the north end of the beach, the first being the Evans home on aptly named Evans Point. And with the highway running by on the other end, the beach could not be expanded, and so maintained its cozy, community atmosphere.
The Rotary Beach area itself wasn’t all that big, really just a nook hemmed in close to the water by the clay cliffs behind, and the winding road between cliffs and shore. The washrooms and change area weren’t fancy either—a small, slightly smelly, not very clean, forest green building across the road, tucked in against the cliff, and accessed by a soft powdery clay path. Surrounded by trees and brush, it was a favorite, somewhat hidden spot for young people to meet. The small parking lot was marked off by logs which children would clamber over in their haste to get to the water—and more than a few ended up with slivers as they slid across the rough wood. One child at least had to make a trip to the hospital to have a big sliver removed!
There weren’t the picnic tables or water slides or playground equipment which many other Okanagan beaches—and even Summerland area beaches—featured. If you wanted “equipment” you had to bring your own—air mattresses or inner tubes, picnic foods, fishing supplies. Yes, the docks were fun for fishing, not just swimming—there were always huge sucker fish swimming through the crystal clear water. And snorkeling around the docks, you could chase those suckers, watch schools of shiners, and gather fresh water clams. Younger children had fun “fishing” with homemade willow poles and string; or if they were lucky, those high-tech brightly coloured plastic kiddie-rods with red-and-white floaters and plastic “hooks,” purchased at Summerland’s famous “Five to a Dollar Store” in its magical downstairs toy department.
But often, youngsters would create their own water-play devices. While a few had modern plastic air mattresses designed for floating in the water, many more rustled up old inner tubes, patched up the holes which had caused them to be tossed out, and had a wonderful time with them on the water. Another example of home-made beach devices is illustrated in an old newspaper clipping photo from around the fifties, which shows two local boys, Jim and Jackie, ahead of their time with a homemade paddle board. They were standing bravely on it, balancing themselves with poles, when the local newspaper photographer happened by and snapped a picture. It seems the lads were rather horrified when the photo was printed in the paper, and their parents found out they’d been on the lake without the life jackets they’d been ordered to wear! Busted! But although they had to invent the inexpensive home-made version of a paddle-board, they were undoubtedly having just as much fun, or quite possibly more, than modern swimmers with their expensive, high-class, commercially produced versions.
Rotary Beach was, above all, community, and “beaching” was central to that. Prior to the advent of game machines and personal computers, people (particularly youngsters) could become absorbed completely in the act of “beaching,” without reference to the urge to get back to technology. There was a “lost in time” total absorption they used to get from the beaching experience. Bliss could be found there at Rotary Beach. All the universe was centered there, in that moment. And that absorption lives on in the community’s memories—which is why so many community members have shared their memories for this truly “community story.”
Everyone would take a dip in the water at Rotary Beach, children, teens, parents, even grandparents. Well, grand-dads anyway; proper grandmothers often chose to sit on blankets under the shade trees, as the new-fangled swimsuits, modest though they still were compared to now, were perhaps a bit too scandalous for those brought up in the days when swimsuits covered neck to ankles. Of course, over time swimming costume styles changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes perhaps for the worse (those speedo-style suits for the guys in the 50s and 60s come to mind, especially when the elastic didn’t always do its job). There were no bikinis for girls until the 60s, and even then the “two piece swim suits” were quite modest, though only the young ladies and girls dared wear them. It was also the day and age of “perms,” and the older girls and women wore bathing caps to protect their carefully coiffed curls.
Going to the beach was an adventure, a day’s “event,” for just getting there and home often involved a long hike or bike ride both ways for those who did not have cars—and public transit was not even imagined. If a family did have a car, it would inevitably be packed to overflowing with extra riders—family and friends alike. No seatbelts then, so as many folks as could be squeezed in would be along for the ride.
Whether the beach was accessed by foot, bike or car, folks intended to stay for a while, to swim, eat, and even catch some zzzz’s in the shade after a hard days’ work, and so they often brought along their lunch in a picnic basket, along with a blanket to spread it out on. Not only were there no stores or restaurants close by to purchase snacks, but the picnic baskets always held “real food”—home-made meals! Sometimes there would be a light snack like sandwiches, but often there would be wonderful salads with ingredients fresh from the garden, and home-baked chicken pieces or slices of roast beef. And of course home-baked pie or cake or cookies to top off the meal—along with cherries, peaches, apricots and other summer fruits picked from the orchard trees that day.
And then there were the docks—oh my, the docks! One long dock stretched out into the lake, with side piers stretching from it, parallel to the beach, each featuring different water depths, something suitable for everyone. The docks provided countless hours of entertainment and adventure. Children played “seaweed tag” with friends. The games were usually acrobatic, as the young folk would often run, jump spectacularly, and dive into the refuges under the docks to avoid the tag from the dreaded clump of seaweed. Things got especially interesting when the water level was just high enough to cover the docks, as you could hide on the underside of them in the water and no one could see you! The braver—or crazier—took on the challenge of riding bikes off the long dock with the diving board. And how many times could you swim back and forth under the docks while holding your breath under water? How many times could you flip under water without coming up for air? Growing up at Rotary Beach was the greatest!
Beyond the docks, at a distance just far enough that young swimmers were forbidden to swim to it, the “big kids” lounged about on a solidly grounded diving platform raft, which featured two levels, with a ladder and tower from which strong young men performed daring dives and flips. It was a perfect place to suntan, or to show off one’s diving skills, or for the teens to splash each other and toss each other in the water… and flirt, of course. Puppy love—more than one young romance was ignited on that beach and those wharves and diving platform. Sometimes some group or other would claim the raft, and interlopers, especially younger kids, would be chased away. Diving under the raft was an adventure of its own, as the deeper waters there were dark and creepy. You dove deep to get handfuls of mud for taking up top and throwing at your friends from the diving board—everyone thought it was the best throwing mud in the whole lake. Other fun activities at the diving dock were rag tag and the touch bottom diving platform challenge. Some swimmers would swim out to the high-dive with one arm, while trying to hold their beach towel out of the water with their other hand, in order to stretch out up top and suntan.
Once the diving platform was there, swimming out to it became a sort of rite of passage, a way young boys proved their manhood, because now they could swim out to the diving platform without drowning. That first swim out to the platform was a great feat; it seemed like a mile—and then that feat would be topped off by that first breathtaking jump off the high dive. To this day, a half century or more later, they remember the sense of elation and triumph they had the first time they made it to the diving platform, pulling their sopping wet bodies up onto the wooden platform. Catching ones breath, the ultimate reward of diving off the high platform, then … gulp … I have to swim back, too??
Powell Beach, down the highway at Trout Creek, had a similar diving platform, which was also very popular. However, the Powell Beach platform was right on the edge of the drop off and you couldn’t see the bottom on the deep side. It also had a lot more weeds than the Rotary Beach platform, and swimmers legs could get caught in the weeds if they jumped off the deep side. Other differences between the two beaches included Powell Beach being much larger, with lawns and picnic tables perfect for family reunions, Sunday School picnics, and other group gatherings. Powell Beach also had a tall, long slide that stretched out into the water. Both beaches were very popular, and sometimes memories of what happened where get a bit tangled up. Yet Rotary Beach always stands out as the ultimate favourite beach.
But in the end, going to the beach for a swim—that was the point. Often the beach would be quiet during the morning and mid-day, as many in the community would be picking or packing fruit—and dreaming of the cool lake waters which were a much-anticipated refreshment after a hot summer’s day without the modern convenience of air-conditioning. In a small agricultural community, focused around endless hillsides of orchards, nearly everyone was involved in the intense summer harvesting months, and in the activities that surrounded that work, including of course that wonderful dip in the lake at the end of the day.
Before Rotary Beach was created, swimming lessons took place at Powell Beach in Trout Creek. But after Rotary Beach was opened, generations of Summerland children learned to swim at Rotary, and their memories always include those 7 or 8 a.m. swimming lessons in chilly, cold, cold water—shivering so hard, teeth chattering, while learning how to bob or do the crawl or backstroke. Some folks claim looking up and seeing a light dusting of frost or snow high up across the lake during those chilly swimming classes.
Those lessons taught dog-paddling youngsters not only more advanced swimming skills, but also challenged youngsters to do the best they could: those swims from dock to raft, for example, taught children to reach beyond their comfort zone, and success developed courage and persistence and built well-deserved pride in an effort well done. At the end of each set of lessons, there would be a finale at which all the parents watched their kids demonstrate their new skills. Some of course would put on a flawless demonstration to enthusiastic clapping, but for others there might be an embarrassed moment, such as missing the timing in one’s breathing and choking on a mouthful of water—but even then, the audience would give a polite clap for the effort; it was a community after all, and all were valued and appreciated. Some ended up being excellent swimmers, others never got quite brave enough to swim to the diving platform or to dive, but no matter what, growing up in Summerland and going to Rotary Beach engrained a lifelong love of a day at the beach and a swim in our beautiful lake.
At Rotary Beach, swimming was a family and friends and community activity. Everyone had fun together, and watched out for each other. There was no need for lifeguards, nor was there need for markers indicating depth. The side-docks were markers themselves, indicating different water levels, and friends and family kept out a sharp eye for overly-adventurous little folk who tried to sneak past an acceptable depth. Of course, from time to time incidents would happen—like boys pushing girls into the water (that way young boys have of showing off to their friends—or showing attention to girls they secretly like), and then it was either sink or swim. Most could swim, but once in a while someone would have to come to the rescue. There were the odd scary moments, like one Sunday afternoon when a foolish older boy came along and pushed a toddler under water and held him there. The toddler’s dad, still in his Sunday suit from church, jumped in the water, shoes and all, and rescued his little guy from the older boy. But those were the rare moments; most of the time Rotary Beach was a wonderful, safe place for the whole community.
Despite Rotary Beach being at “Summerland” and in the “sunny Okanagan,” the weather didn’t always cooperate, and there were days when a storm could whip up on the lake, and the wind could cause huge waves—great fun for the bigger kids, but a bit scary for the little ‘uns. Folks would be chasing their towels and air mattresses or inner tubes around the beach, grabbing them before they sailed off into the water. And then there were those late summer afternoon downpours, when the thunder and lightning flashes lighting up the sky over the lake would force everyone out of the water.
Like all Okanagan beaches, Rotary Beach included beautiful vistas. The largest stretched across the lake to the Naramata area on the opposite side. If one swam out a bit, the vista also stretched north toward the lake’s turn near Peachland, and also stretched south toward Penticton.
On the lake waters between Summerland’s Rotary Beach side and Naramata on the opposite shore, all manner of water craft could be observed plying the lake at various times: tug boats and barges carrying freight and train cars, pleasure craft ranging from simple row boats to sailboats and motor boats, medium size passenger craft linking Summerland and Naramata communities, especially in the earlier days, along with the SS Sicamous and other sternwheelers that plied the lake’s waters, and even, in the mid-1960s, one could watch amphibious cars drive across the beach, into the water, and across the lake to the other side.
And if you were sitting out on the Rotary Beach docks or the raft, you could look back to the shoreline, watching the activity on the other docks and in the surrounding water, and the gatherings on the beach. You could also watch the traffic pass by on the road and highway, and wave wildly to cars you recognized. Not only locals and tourists passed by, but sometimes truck after truck after truck of young people headed up the hill on their way to the Army Cadet camp in Vernon.
Sadly, as the local population grew, the highway was expanded. This so-called “progress” caused Rotary Beach to disappear, as fill was brought in to widen the highway and buried the old beachside road, which was then moved closer to the water, where the beach used to be. A new “Rotary Beach” was created a kilometer or two down that road, bigger and with more facilities and equipment—yet it would never gain the popularity, the wonderful memories, that the old Rotary Beach engendered.
And perhaps that is part of the “magic” of the old Rotary Beach—the fact that it lives on in memory. Modern progress has passed it by; it will never have to compete with the facilities of modern beaches. It lives on, a wonderful moment in time, in the memories of the community who swam in its waters, and in the photographs they casually snapped, not realizing that in those pictures and in the stories from their memories, they would preserve for future generations a beloved beach that was at the heart of a beloved community.
Many thanks to the following people who have shared their Rotary Beach memories, in words and pictures, on Facebook and in emails with the writerl. You are all part of this story, and I thank you with all my heart! I hope I haven’t missed any of you. And if you’d like to add other memories, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add your memories to the story, and add you to this list.
Cathy Galbraith, Rick Selinger, Bryan Baillie, Patricia Ward, Aaron Loewen, Kathie Steuart, Dorothy Inglis, Carla McLeod, Marlene Parish, Leona Wolff Niedzwiedz, Cathy Galbraith, Bruce Strachan, Zoe Ferlin, Blayne Andres, Bruce Strachan, Richard Estabrooks, Dorothy Haddrell, Betty Thomas, Ann Ganzeveld Gregoire, Dean Chapman, Diane Cockell, Stewart Hill, Jon Broadbent, Colleen Hack, Janet Dawson, Clifford Dunsdon, Michele Carrington, Patty Gale McDowell, Andrew Cammell, Jeannine Vass, Jan Downing, Karin Mitchell, Loraine Etter, Bert Simpson, Taryn Lowe, Nancy Summerill, Jeremy Hiebert, Mick Harper, Leona Arcand, Curtis Rajacich, Dwane Roberge, Ralph Henley, Sue Dennis, Yvonne Campbell, Denise DeLeeuw, Yvonne Campbell, Darlene Forsdick, Natasha Chudyk.
July 16, 2015