British Columbia

It could be a lot colder: Kelowna historian remembers Okanagan Lake freezing over completely

A Kelowna historian says the current cold spell in the Okanagan is nothing compared with the frigid winter that saw Okanagan Lake freeze right over.

Okanagan Lake has frozen over completely at least 8 times since 1907

Okanagan Lake frozen over in 1929. (Lake Country Museum)

The current cold spell in B.C.'s Interior has many people pulling on their long johns and digging their parkas out of the closet.

But historically this cold snap is almost T-shirt and shorts weather.

There have been several winters over the past 100 years where the mercury in the Southern Interior dropped so low, Okanagan Lake completely froze over.

In those years people in Kelowna walked, skated and even drove vehicles right across the lake and to other Okanagan communities, said Okanagan Historical Society president Bob Hayes in an interview with CBC Radio One's Daybreak South.

An aerial view of the ferry lane broken through the ice on Okanagan Lake between Westside wharf and Kelowna wharf during the winter of 1949-1950. (Kelowna Public Archives: KPA#1075)

The last time Okanagan Lake froze over completely is up for debate, said Hayes.

"I believe the last time it froze solidly — and that's always the question — was it solidly frozen — was probably 1986 but the year that I think most people will recognize it freezing was the winter of 1968-69," he said.

"That was a very cold winter." 

Historical records from the Kelowna Public Archives show Okanagan Lake froze at least eight times over the past 110 years. 

The lake froze two winters in a row in 1949 and 1950.

The S.S. Sicamous sternwheeler is bound in ice at the Kelowna wharf in 1928. (Kelowna Public Archives: KPA#6200)

1958 and 1937 were recorded as particularly cold with stories of people using dynamite to break up ice that formed overnight on ferry routes across Okanagan Lake.

Skating and driving on the lake

"People had fun on the lake too. They would go and skate and they would drive their vehicles," Hayes said.

"I well remember people doing donuts out on the lake. It was a form of recreation."

Hayes said he remembers a motorcycle once fell through the ice.

Articles in the Kelowna Public Archives also mention instances of vehicles falling into the lake including a car that successfully drove from Kelowna to Penticton, but fell through ice on the return trip.

People took advantage of a frozen Okanagan Lake for recreation as seen in this photo of skaters on the ice in 1928. (Kelowna Public Archives: KPA#487)

A team of horses and a tow rope had to be used to remove the car from the water.

Hayes said 1968 was the coldest winter he has ever experienced growing up in Kelowna.

"Once the lake freezes, it creates its own climate and it is like being in an ice age or living on a glacier," he said.

"It was bitterly cold. It just seemed to drag on and on."

The S.S. York (middle) pushes a barge through the ice on Okanagan Lake with the S.S. Aberdeen (right) following behind. (Kelowna Public Archives: KPA#6261)

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Cold? This winter hasn't been cold; Historian remembers years Okanagan Lake completely froze over.