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Sicamous to Washington State cycling/hiking trail (painstakingly) takes shape

Imagine there was an uninterrupted all-abilities biking/hiking/walking/running route spanning the entire length of the Okanagan.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

You could reach this imaginary route with just a short walk or ride from virtually any spot in the valley, then use it to journey as far north as Sicamous or as far south as the border. And potentially in the future, all the way through the border to Brewster, Washington (the approximate southern boundary of the ancient First Nations "Okanagan" region).

On this route, you'd be safe from high-speed cars and trucks. You'd get up close and personal with the area's lakes and waterways, you'd travel through scenery so beautiful you'd think you were in a postcard, and you of course could use it to get closer to all the other trails in the Okanagan.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

The surface of the route would oscillate between hard-packed dirt, hard-packed gravel and pavement. It would never de-evolve into sand or rocks or anything else that makes riding unpleasant, and it would always be wide enough for safe two-way traffic.

This is not a new vision. An unbroken Okanagan pathway has been discussed for years. But if you listen to passionate folks like Janice Liebe, the president of the advocacy group Trail of the Okanagans Society, you come away with the feeling that it's not an "if" but a "when."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Janice Liebe

Founded in 2013 primarily by members of the Summerland Rotary Club, the Society has expanded and grown substantially since then and now has members in a number of communities throughout the Okanagan. And it’s quite likely the leading voice for this grand dream.

Last week we took a walk with Liebe and her equally enthusiastic husband Rick Ingram. We strolled and chatted while traversing a pastoral section of old-school rail bed just south of Okanagan Falls that may very well become a key part of the concept. And as we strolled, we listened.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Old rail bed west of Vaseux Lake

Now more than ever, says Liebe, a pan-Okanagan trail makes sense. For starters, people are looking for increasingly diverse ways to keep fit. They're greener too, some leaving their cars at home in favour of bikes.

And not just any old bikes either. Increasingly, folks of all ages are dropping big coin on gear like electric bikes, which offer more range and capability than ever before and are showing up in droves just about everywhere.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Scene from the Penticton to OK Falls trail section

But she saves her biggest weapon for last. It's called "cycle tourism," and Liebe believes it could be a massive deal here in the Okanagan(s).

"The Okanagan valley is considered to be low in the diversity of its tourism amenities," she says. "We have great beaches, we have great wineries, people flock here in the summer. But we need other things to grow our tourism economy. And one thing that can do that are trails. Rail trails. Particularly of the quality we want."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

According to Liebe, cycle tourism is huge in other parts of the globe, where multi-day rides of 50-plus kilometers per day are common and where businesses and governments cater to the pastime.

"They want their trails to be connected and safe -- away from motorized traffic. They want to be able to stop for lodging or to eat. In Europe, for example, there are thousands of kilometers of great bike paths."

Furthermore, says Liebe, cycle tourists come earlier and stay later in the season than regular tourists -- up to two months.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Scene from proposed trail section west of Vaseux Lake

And then she points to the Okanagan Rail Trail -- a beautiful, easily navigable 50-kilometer multi-use pathway that runs from Kelowna to Coldstream -- and says the goal is to stretch that concept throughout the region.

"It's been a huge success," she says. "They predicted they'd have 500,000 users after five years, but in fact they exceeded that in the first year."

She references the manager of the Oyama General Store, who she says wasn't initially in favour of the trail but is now "its biggest supporter." And the two bike rental shops that have also sprung up in little Oyama since the trail's 2018 launch.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

And she believes the commerce bump is an example of how things could be over the entire Okanagan. Cyclists do, after all, tend to stop in the little towns that motorists blow right through.

But what would it take for a Sicamous-to-Brewster passage to become a reality? According to Liebe, the situation is best understood when you divide the trail into three sections of approximately 125 kilometers apiece.

The northernmost chunk, Sicamous to Kelowna, is being built by two different groups.

From Coldstream to Kelowna you have the wildly popular and almost fully constructed Okanagan Rail Trail, while Sicamous to Armstrong is a First Nation-led development spearheaded by Chief Wayne Christian of the Splatsin Band. It's called the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail and this year it received grants in excess of $700,000 to build a trial piece.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Okanagan Rail Trail

That leaves Armstrong to Vernon in between, a shorter stretch that would connect the two rail trails on either side. And Liebe believes it'll be the next natural step for the two rail trail organizations once they're finished their current tasks.

But south, from Kelowna to the American border, things get quite a bit more tricky. This is the realm of Liebe's Trail of the Okanagans Society, and she recognizes that there's a "big difference in what we have ahead versus what's happening north of us."

"Up there, they were able to get tenure over those rail beds that were already in existence. They took the tracks out and resurfaced the trail. But it was a lot more simple there because there's just one long piece to deal with."

In the South Okanagan, there are huge swaths of land where rail beds have never existed and others where bits and pieces of trail are scattered all over. And the terrain is tough.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Society prez Janice Liebe and hubby Rick Ingram on a trailside outcropping

"For example, there was never a rail bed from West Kelowna to Summerland, frankly because of the topography," says Liebe. "The KVR did come as far north as Summerland and as far south as the border, and that section largely exists, but pieces of it are missing. Pieces in the Osoyoos area, for instance, were sold to landowners."

"So when we mapped it out last year, we found there are 125 different sections of trail to be connected, running through three First Nation reserves, two regional districts, seven communities and a few pieces of private land."

So that leaves Liebe and her organization in the challenging position of filling copious "missing links."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Old rail bed west of Okanagan River near Vaseux Lake

And that's precisely the reason we'd met up this day on that section of old-school rail bed just south of Okanagan Falls. Once part of the KVR, this stretch lost its tracks long ago and today exhibits only rare signs of civilization.

To reach it, we'd driven south on Green Lake Road almost to the steep climb cyclists call "The Wall." The rail bed, barely visible at spots, runs along the west side of the Okanagan River and eventually the western edge of Vaseux Lake right through to its southern tip.

It's serene and it's beautiful, and Liebe and her Society believe all 6.5 kilometers of it would make a superb addition to its planned Okanagan route.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> View from Hwy 07 across Vaseux Lake to old rail bed

Earlier this month, the Society met with officials from Recreation Sites and Trails BC and the RDOS, and area MLA Roly Russell and Osoyoos councilor Myers Bennett to discuss converting it from a rail bed that's already used informally by bikers and hikers into an approved, habitat-friendly multi-use trail.

"Vaseux Lake has long been known to be a wildlife sanctuary," said Liebe as she walked. "It's one of the few areas that's not been developed. A hundred years ago this rail bed went in, and since then nothing has really been built."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Scene from old rail bed west of Vaseux Lake

"But in the last five years or so, there's been two environmental studies commissioned by Recreation and Trails BC. The first identified that if a trail was to go in, it should go where existing trails already are. And it already is that way informally now.

"The second study determined if a formalized trail would have an impact on the wildlife habitat that's on either side. And the report said a trail is possible as long as the design included mitigating factors -- essentially stopping people from meandering off the trail and creating disturbances. So that opened the door."

Follow-up meetings are scheduled for later this fall, and that fact alone has Liebe and her fellow members psyched.

Still, the proposed "Vaseux Lake West" segment is just one small and complex piece of a very large and even more complex puzzle.

The long Summerland to Penticton segment, for example, is completely up in the air. Just a few years ago, there was talk of a paved path paralleling the water side of Hwy 97. Indeed, a section of that path, connecting Trout Creek to the lower town of Summerland, was completed in 2015 with the support of the Trail of the Okanagans Society.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> The Penticton to Summerland lakeside cyling route was abandoned after this section was unvieled in 2015

But the project was scuttled less than a year later over unexpectedly high costs. A second study in 2020 was thwarted when new concrete safety barriers installed in the median and on the lakeside shoulder usurped too much real estate.

That leaves two possibilities. The first, says Liebe, is a route adjacent to the hillside (southbound) highway lanes.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Penticton to Summerland route -- adjacent to southbound lanes?

"But that's a tough one," she says, "because we don't know if people want to ride there right next to a highway. And it's in the Ministry of Transportation's easement."

Given the topography, the only other feasible option would seem to be the sandy and partially eroded Penticton to Summerland segment of the KVR that culminates at the famed Trout Creek Trestle. But its ownership recently reverted from the CPR to the Penticton Indian Band, and Liebe recognizes its future is purely the call of the PIB.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Old rail bed between Penticton and Summerland

"It's their right to determine how that land is used," she says. "We're not focused on that section right now because we're busy on other projects, though in the long term we'd hope to open dialogue with both the Ministry of Transportation and the Penticton Indian Band to see what might be possible."

One of several more immediate concerns is a workable, safe link between West Kelowna and Peachland.

"There's a really tricky part from the north end of Peachland to Goat's Peak Park," says Liebe, "where there's nowhere to put a trail other than in the Ministry of Transportation's highway easement -- across a very steep section."

<who>Photo Credit: Trail of the Okanagans Society</who>

"But the Society has been working with the District of Peachland and a group out of West Kelowna called the Gellatly Bay Trails and Parks Society for ten years to create a link, and we recently submitted engineering details to the Ministry of Transportation that were developed by a geotechnical engineer.

"We received some positive feedback and at the next meeting we're hoping we'll be in a position where we can move forward and have that as a shovel-ready project early next year."

And there's so much more to be done. Liebe talks about the two "missing links" on private Land in West Kelowna and what's being done to address them. She discusses the 7.8-kilometer "Fur Brigade Trail" that runs from Hardy Falls south of Peachland to Garnet Lake, substantially north of Summerland. This is another missing link and will continue to be so until its rough, rocky surface is fully amended.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Garnet Valley Road, north of Summerland

But not all the route needs work. Indeed, through existing trails and low-traffic secondary roadways, much of it is already in place. Like the path through Penticton and along the west side of Skaha Lake right into OK Falls. Or the nearly 20-kilometer length of the "International Hike and Bike Trail" that starts just south of Gallagher Lake and ends just north of Osoyoos Lake, paralleling the Okanagan River the entire way.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Scene from the "International Hike and Bike Trail," south of Oliver

Moreover, says Liebe, recent feedback has been incredibly positive.

"Over the past year we've done presentations to every community from West Kelowna to Osoyoos. We've spoken with two of the First Nation groups, we've had presentations to Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, and the regional district, and we’ve had really interesting meetings with MP Richard Cannings and another group meeting with the three MLAs.

"And of all those groups and all those people, we've met with unanimous support."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Unfortunately, the situation in Washington State isn't quite as advanced.

"There was a meeting from January of 2019 where Society members got together with border officials and American-based trail groups," says Liebe.

"(Okanagan Tribal) elder Arnie Marchand, who lives south of the border, was involved in an Indigenous tourism convention I believe, and he heard a number of groups talking about trails independently. He suggested they start talking to each other, and that resulted in the meeting."

According to Liebe, the idea was to take the trail all the way to Brewster, 45 kilometers south of Omak. But, she says, the "conversation was interrupted by COVID and I'm not sure of the latest word."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Scene from old rail bed west of Vaseux Lake

In Canada though, the push continues. To communicate with or learn more about the Trail of the Okanagans Society, or to join (memberships are currently $20 for three years per individual or family), go to its website here.

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