Water, Slowed Down, Wayyyy Down

Today, we’re continuing to follow the water down from the high slopes. Here’s the obvious water in the Okanagan, and the seeming destination of any water flowing down off the hills.

Okanagan Lake Beach

Human swimmers and sunbathers compete with ducks for these muddy shores. The humans like to think they’re winning, but then comes swimmer’s itch.

The surface water of the lake looks like water you might find in more common human habitats, such as coastal areas, where most humans live. The lake looks, for instance, a bit like this, just a couple hundred kilometres away:

The Broughton Archipelago

View from Telegraph Cove Over the Coastal Arc Towards the Dry Interior. This is a landscape rich in water. Water management strategies for the Okanagan are largely based on experience with landscapes and waterscapes of this kind.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Okanagan Lake in the same terms as this ocean. One reason, is that the lake is not the destination for water flowing down through the hills. This is:

The Last of the Okanagan Landing Wetlands

Sharing its space with soccer fields and a trailer park. This is the true destination of the water of the grasslands on both sides of this arm of the valley. If the system is working properly, the water will only enter the lake once it has spent months slowly percolating through extensive beds of rushes here. Note the juvenile humans enjoying this, one of their natural habitats. Note as well the translation of water into recreation, in the terms of the soccer fields — broad transpiration engines, shedding water into the air.

The water that makes it to the lake is, in other words, not water that has flowed down off the hills, to rejoin the water of the lake, but, rather, water that has flowed down through the hills. This, the delta of all that water, does not moderate the return of that water to the lake, but, rather, modulates its return to the air. By slowing the water’s return to the lake, the greatest point of water loss to the dry air in the entire system, the marshes ensure that water remains protected for as long as possible, with its evaporation limited to the wettest and coolest months.

Tomorrow: some cool ideas on how to convert this principle into effective water management, all the way from the tops of the hills down to the lake itself.

Hills of Water

At first glance, the grassland slopes of the Okanagan and the Okanogan appear to have little to do with water. They look dry indeed, perhaps with the lightest scattering of snow.

High Grassland Slope in December

Not a lot of water moving around here.

If water does flow here, it’s often in the form of clouds, high overhead, or in the form of animals, which shift it in complex patterns…

White-Tail Stag High Above Okanagan Lake

Water moving through the ancient story of the land all packaged up and protected from the weather.

Occasionally, the grass manages to sieve a little fog out of the air, which it holds in the shadows through the heat of the sun, but that’s about it.

Hoarfrost on Turtle Mountain

Mid-December. 2:30 pm. About five minutes before sundown.

But is it? Here is another slope that has been cut to put in a road, interrupting a slow downward flow of water.

Alkaline Salts Deposited by Evaporation

These seemingly dry soils aren’t dry at all, but are a continuous wave of water moving downhill…until we cut them. Only then are they exposed to the air and lost to the system, leaving the salts they are carrying behind.

And here is a slope cut on purpose to protect a subdivision road from mountain run-off…

Diversionary Dike

The road it was built to protect lies just downhill to the right of the frame of the picture.

This is technology designed for a different climate. Water here is underground water. Surface water is not an issue. The air would remove 11 times as much water from the soil as falls as rain and snow if it could, and does do so, as soon as the flow is dammed.

Dams are not of soil here, but of air. What’s more, they don’t store water, but disperse it.

This fascinating story of water will be continued tomorrow.

Whose Water?

The 2011 Ice Wine season looks like it’s going to be a long time coming yet, deep into January or even February 2012. Maybe it’s time to think of making a late harvest wine instead.

Ice Wine Bins, Waiting for the Cold

The Rise, Okanagan Landing

The weather outlook? Great for drinking ice wine, at any rate:

Temperatures: 5-7 Degrees Above Normal: Vernon B.C. Source.

For Ice Wine, though, Minus 12 would be grand.

So, here’s the deal: it takes between (very roughly) 250 and 500 millimetres of water per square foot to grow a crop in the Okanagan, depending on soil, agricultural practices, the nature of the crop itself, and weather. That’s about 50,000 litres of water per acre. Typically, a vineyard will produce approximately 7500 litres of wine per acre out of that water. If the production is geared to ice wine, all that water will produce only 500 litres of wine. Think of it: for each acre of rather risky ice wine, we are converting 50,000 litres of water into 500 litres of luxury wine for sale in China. That’s enough water to support 106 people in the Okanagan, for every acre of ice wine. In other words, the 250 acres of ice wine-dedicated grapes in the Okanagan are using water that could otherwise support about 26,000 people. That’s the population of Peachland, Summerland, and the entire area between Okanagan Falls and the US border, including the cities of Oliver and Osoyoos. I’m all for agricultural water and its larger social and economic benefits, but I think the politics of using a rare, common resource for the sole benefit of the wealthy is hardly palatable, especially in a time of economic distress.

For my part, I think it’s like shooting elephants.

A Pruning Tip

This is the time of year when those pruning clippers and saws in the workshop start looking very attractive again. It’s such a great joy to go out in the cold and prune a tree in the late afternoon wind as a crescent moon or the first stars burn through the high, thin air.  Here’s a tip, before you go out:

Domestic and Wild Cherry Trees  Along the Gray Canal Trail

A common Okanagan sight. The domestic cherry tree on the left is trying hard to become like the wild cherry tree on the right, but keeps getting a bit of human assistance along the way.


Tomorrow: ice wine update.

The Glory of the Sun

Late in the year, when summer visitors are at home, the Okanagan light comes into its own. This is the season when the sun just crests the hills, blows in almost horizontally through the grasses, fills their hollow stems, and glows with all the fire of a maple forest in New Brunswick in October. This is the season to celebrate the mixture of darkness and fire in the December light, one of the great pleasures of living on the northern shoulder of this earth.

Summer  House Alone in Glory

This light is our great secret, and though perceptive builders and landscape designers arrange houses to take advantage of it in the landscape, like this…

Shadows on Fire

The houses of late Western civilization are sited like view machines.

…too often, visuals get expressed as a huge carbon footprint, like this:

A Propane Patio Heater?

This is the problem with defining the sun by Mexico, California, and the Gulf Coast. Here is a better alternative:

Winter Fire

Live where you live.

Love where you live.

Winter Tomatoes

I wonder how much we need greenhouse tomatoes. Take a look at the tomatoes I picked from my garden on October 12, with a frost coming:

The Last Tomato Harvest of the Year

October 12, 2011

Here are the last of them, two and a half months later, after many sandwiches and tomato dishes:

Tomato Soup Waiting for Onions and a Pot

December 26, 2011, after 2 1/2 months in the basement. A little shrivelled and past their salad days, but soup and salsa, ah, that’s good too, right?

Greenhouse tomatoes are a minor agricultural crop in the Okanagan Valley and, as far as I know, not a crop at all in the Okanogan to the south. Maybe it will stay this way. They use a ridiculous amount of fossil fuels. According to the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, the crop cycle for greenhouse tomatoes goes like this: Planting, November; Harvest, March through October. That gives, I suspect, 7 or 8 months of heating. If we did it right, however, we could have a solid late crop of tomatoes in mid-October (of better quality than mine above) and eat them through January. The costs for refrigeration or heating would be zero. Even if only half of the crop was grown in this fashion, we could reduce our heating costs by 50% — a huge savings on greenhouse gas emissions.

To heck with ethanol fuel processing plants. The future starts with tomatoes.

Merry Christmas

I hope that your journeys through this past year have brought you the blessings of earth, water, air, and sun, and I send you my wish that they will lead to future flight.

Eurasian Collared Dove Taking Flight

Now that it’s gone native here, it might best be called the Collared Eurasian-Turtle Island Dove. Photo by Anassa Rhenisch. I love the wing shadow on the fence post!

Christmas is a celebration of birth out of darkness, and today the first pussy willow of the year has opened to the grey light filtering through the clouds:

2012 Begins Early

Peace on earth.

On the Eve of Christmas

Here in the darkest weeks of the year, it’s good to remember where we’ve come from and where we’re going to. Sometimes it’s to a place none too serious:

Gate Post, Okanagan Style

Bella Vista Road, Vernon

Sometimes it’s from a place that’s totally surreal:

Canadian Tire Christmas, Okanagan Style

Bravely waiting for snow. Or the zen grasses of spring. Or both at once. Notice the tail. This is what your computer mouse will look like when it is all grown up.

And sometimes it’s a place of welcome and glory:

Okanagan Seasonal Wreath

Blue spruce, spreading juniper, pine boughs, oregon grape, globe cedar, and wild rose. I quickly put this together to see how my idea last week of growing roses for the floral industry might work out in practice. I think I need a little more practice at the old nip and tuck, but it looks mighty promising,

Tonight, according to the old stories, the Christ Child comes. The story endures, because it’s old and new at the same time, as the best stories are. Blessings, that years may continue on this earth.

Okanagan Chestnuts

Here’s a crop we see too little of in the valley: nuts. It’s like having Christmas on the tree. Gone are the days when we used to sit in front of the crackling fireplace with a bucket of heartnuts, a ballpeen hammer, and an anvil, and smash the nuts open to get at their sweet hearts. But here are the days when the Italian grocers of Vancouver are starting to source their biggest, sweetest nuts not from Italy or China, but from the South Okanagan. The only limitation is that the few acres we have are still young and only coming into production. Here’s an image of a young commercial chestnut orchard at McIntyre Bluff:

Chestnuts in First Snow

These trees are growing in almost pure sand. What’s left of the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture suggests that chestnuts will thrive wherever apricots and peaches have proven hardy. These, actually, appear to be doing better on this “soil” than the apricots and peaches they share it with. 

In order to ensure pollination and to vary the genetic stock of the orchard so that it is less resistant to blight or other unforeseen attacks, the main stock of the farm is being augmented with seedling trees, currently under trial production. Here’s another view:

Chestnuts too Small to Make the Grade…

…but looking mighty fine against a Christmas sky.

Now, here’s a game you can play…it’s called: find that orchard. If you know the Okanagan, you should be able to locate it by the hints in the words and images of this post. If not, hey, a trip from Penticton to Haynes Point, with a map on the seat beside you, should do the trick.

And if you keep on driving, and say nice things to the ladies at the Oroville Border Crossing, you’ll come to this:

Packinghouse Waiting for a New Life

Downtown, Ellisforde, Washington

The Canadian Okanagan might have very little land left for chestnuts, that’s not already committed for houses, winery gift shops, strip malls, and peach orchards, but the valley has lots, just a few miles south where the sun shines with almost incandescent brightness. Here, for example:

Abandoned Orchard 

Near Ellisforde, Washington

It’s time, I think, that we started thinking of what we could achieve together.

Note: my promised post on trails is waiting until the New Year, as Christmas is fast approaching and feasting season is upon us. Tomorrow: views of an Okanagan Christmas.

Wine for Christmas and the Future

There are two new vineyards on the block. The first is Meyer Family Vineyards, which is located under this Coyote Rock in Okanagan Falls, on deep gravels and sands that appear to have been deposited in a fast ghost river flowing along the edge of the ice in the last gasp of the last ice age.

Coyote Rock at the Confluence of the Okanagan and Mclean Creek Valleys

Meyers Family Vineyard soaks up the heat below.

Meyers make a truly exceptional world class Rose, or did, because they tore out those grapes to plant more pinot noir. Personally, I think the pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley in Oregon are the ones to match, with their complex structure built on the tenderest of foundations.

Young Vines at Meyers’ Preparing their First Vintage

October, 2011

Meyers’ 2009 Pinot Noir is an Okanagan pinot noir that shows the potential to meet that standard. Just decline the invitation to taste their exquisite candies and chocolates at the same time. They’re not well matched to the complexity and lingering strength of this wine (Chose your pinot with both eyes open. In the topsy turvy world of Okanagan wine-making, some are sourced in the far north, in Okanagan Mission, albeit on similar soils and with more direct sun exposure.) Here it is among a list of its sisters, and here it is below:

Two Bottles in Search of Wine 

After the solstice fire. A fine choice for Christmas.

A totally different wine is the Fort Berens 2008 Cabernet Franc. Fort Berens is not located in the Okanagan, but in that other hot area of British Columbia, Lilloet in the mid-Fraser River grasslands. I was intrigued as to what that land, also with its high cliffs to absorb incredible amounts of heat, might achieve. Here’s what “Wine Diva” has to say about it. That was a year ago. Maybe all that complexity has aged out of the wine by now. Still, for the real story, though, we’ll have to wait. So far, this is an Okanagan wine. What we’re really tasting is Black Sage sand, south of Oliver. Black Sage is hot, Lilloet hot, make you dance hot, so it’s a good place for Fort Berens to start. What does this wine really have to speak of? Not much, so far. It’s very drinkable, young, fresh, and solid. It’s all fruit, this one, all ripe berries beaten up by incredible amounts of sun, tasting as if they were picked early in the season, without the benefits of cold nights to keep their acids up and tease deep waters out of deep soil. It’s such a hot wine, you’d expect a Spanish or Italian variety to have been a far better choice for its soil. A Cabernet Franc is a cool climate red, and the good Cabernet Francs of the Okanagan come out with complex stem, root, and leaf flavours. This one is just juice. Still, it’s very cleanly done, and remarkably integrated. Most BC Cabernet Francs separate in the mouth into a story of great seasonal change and cool, late season fermentation that will take years in the bottle to bring together into a note as smooth as Meyers’ pinot noir. Fort Berens is unified right from the start. If that’s going to be the style of this winery when they bring out their first Lilloet vintage in 2012, we can expect something exciting. In the meantime, we have an untold story of a hot piece of vineyard soil in the South Okanagan that could, perhaps, find its grape, as Meyers have found theirs.

Note: Although the Meyers’ site can produce a fine pinot noir, it can also produce this remarkable rose. Get it quick. When these are gone, that’s it forevermore. This is a rose that could meet duck with grace.