Steve Noakes turns his big Ford Excursion off the pavement south of Kelowna and we head up a bumpy back road into the forest that surrounds the city.
The landscape here, like many of the people who lived in the surrounding neighbourhoods, is still deeply scarred by the wild and much-publicized fires that raged through this region only six weeks ago, destroying hundreds of private homes and thousands of hectares of parkland.
But like many local residents, Noakes has already turned a tragedy into an opportunity, adding a half-day exploration of "the burn" to his list of GeoQwest Excursions, backcountry driving tours through British Columbia's forests along kilometres of gravel mining and logging roads.
"I call them overland safaris," he says of his customized road trips for visitors who want to venture into the wilderness but not on foot. Noakes, a former exploration geologist with Cominco, specializes in B.C.'s "working culture," with heritage mining tours to abandoned gold and silver mines and wilderness drives focused on forestry.
But this year, his Okanagan Mountain Park Forest Rejuvenation Safari -- a day trip past Chute Lakes along the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), through an area hit by some of the most devastating fires in the region -- is already proving popular.
"The fire came down the mountain and this is where it hit town," he says, turning up the deeply rutted Gillard Forestry Road where firefighters and heavy equipment worked from mid-August into late September to quell the fire that burned almost 26,000 hectares of forest in and around the city.
It is not exactly a scenic drive, but it is an enlightening one.
"On average, before 1950 and Smoky the Bear, there was a fire every seven years," says Noakes, who blames the old, untouched parkland for the rapid spread and size of the fire. "Now, hopefully, parks will come up with a strategy for these heavily fuelled forests."
Much of the forest here is an eerie, charred landscape. The forest floor is buried in a thick layer of fine, grey ash, punctuated by deep sinkholes where fires burned underground through mazes of old roots. The blackened trunks of lodgepole pine, tamarack and spruce stand like ramrod rows of soldiers marching down the steep slopes to the glittering, blue water of Okanagan Lake kilometres below.
Noakes's tour skirts the boundary of Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, the 10,000-hectare wilderness park between Kelowna and Penticton that was destroyed by the fires, and nearby Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park, where 12 of 18 historic wooden trestle bridges along the KVR route also burned. Both areas remain closed to the public.
But Noakes's focus is positive. He points out that at least 15 per cent of the forest was untouched -- even in the most devastated areas, there are pockets of greenery -- and that just weeks after the fire, plants are poking through the ground. Carpets of new grass cover burned-out slopes, and some deciduous trees and bushes are already pushing green shoots up from their roots and sprouting new leaves.
Noakes's tour is a bit of a metaphor for what's happening all over Kelowna these days. Behind the destruction, there is a feeling of excitement and rejuvenation in the crisp fall air. Construction crews are busy rebuilding many of the 238 homes that were reduced to ash along the city's southeast edge.
At St. Hubertus Estate Winery (and sister label Oak Bay Vineyards) -- where the fire destroyed the historic 1930s winery, one owner's home and the 2003 crop -- the family has adopted an entrepreneurial attitude, laced with a touch of gallows humour. Not only have they bottled a 2001 St. Hubertus "Fireman's Red" Oak Bay gamay noir and a "Glowing Amber" chardonnay (with $2 from every bottle sold going to the local fire-relief fund), they are raising even more cash by selling T-shirts emblazoned with a dramatic photograph of the hillside behind their winery in flames and the caption, "You think you're having a bad day."
Co-owner Andy Gebert said the loss was initially devastating, but neighbours and competitors are helping the brothers produce at least some wine for 2003 and they will soon have a brand new winery on the site. By the first week of October, the family had opened a new permanent tasting room to replace the one lost a month before, and visitors were lining up to taste and buy.
"From that low point, it's been a steep ride up," Gebert says. "It's exciting, it's thrilling. St. Hubertus will definitely have a positive impact in the end."
While tourist numbers dipped sharply in August when the fires began, down between 30 and almost 50 per cent in the peak summer season, St. Hubertus was the only winery damaged by fire. Meanwhile, the annual Okanagan Wine Festival attracted near-normal numbers, says Nancy Cameron, manager of Tourism Kelowna. By October, a visitor to the pretty city of 100,000 would be hard-pressed to notice any sign of the recent fires.
Still, the disaster has been hard on businesses that depend on tourism. Gary Reid of the rustic Chute Lake Lodge said his property was saved, but with fires raging all around him, the area was evacuated for weeks.
"August is the peak of our business when we're doing $2,500 a day," he said. "They had the road blocked until just a couple of days ago -- the whole season was shot."
At Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where Asian visitors routinely arrive by the busload and purchase cases of icewine, the fires slowed traffic to a trickle.
"We are the most visited winery in Canada, we are a tourist attraction, so the fires were very hard on us," says owner Stephen Cipes, whose winery was threatened by nearby fires but not damaged. "The winery was closed for eight days in August and we lost half a million dollars in wine sales."
"9/11 hurt us, then SARS. Since the fire, our visitors are down 45 per cent over last year."
After preliminary tests, St. Hubertus decided against harvesting its grapes, reporting that some reds had an "ashtray" aroma and flavour when crushed.
Neighbouring wineries such as Summerhill and Cedar Creek say they have yet to find problems with their fruit, but both agreed they would not release any wines that show even the slightest smoke taint.
"We've been picking, and so far the results are encouraging," Cipes says. "So far, we've found no damage, so we may have been spared."
Other businesses have faced more immediate challenges. Ed Kruger, owner of Monashee Adventure Tours, specialized in cycling tours through Myra Canyon over the historic KVR trestles, a national historic site and a spectacular 20-kilometre section of the Trans-Canada Trail. Those tours ended Aug. 16 when the fires began.
"I've gone from $100,000 in business to a year when I'll be lucky to do $30,000," says Kruger, who was forced to lay off all of his four-member staff and redesign his hiking and cycling packages. Not only are the bridges gone, he says, world-class, extreme mountain biking terrain such as the Crawford area trails have been closed indefinitely.
The Kelowna Crags, a popular rock-climbing area within the fire zone may have been compromised by the heat of the fires, and six rugged marine campgrounds along the Okanagan Lake shoreline, accessible only by boat, have also been lost.
Still, with money already pouring into a fund to rebuild the bridges and a study under way by the federal government, Kruger is confident that Monashee will once again take tourists through this spectacular landscape. Until that happens, he is planning alternative routes through the area, offering cycling and snowshoe excursions along other sections of the KVR/Trans-Canada Trail, west from McCulloch Lake or north from Naramata; snowshoe and ice-fishing trips to Beaver Lake; and day trips around Kelowna that incorporate cycling to wineries and orchards with local flora, fauna, history, gourmet meals and wine tastings.
Gorman Brothers Ltd., the local forestry firm logging in this area, had long warned that the park was "a disaster waiting to happen," with trees dead from beetle infestations and heavy, tinder-dry underbrush. Now residents seem to agree, many expressing a fatalistic view of the fires and embracing them as natural, inevitable and even necessary. Even those hardest hit are moving forward with few complaints.
"This winery has quite a bit of history," says Gebert of St. Hubertus, one of the valley's earliest, "but this is just the next chapter of it. At first, I thought we should go somewhere else, but this is paradise. I wouldn't have it any other way."
If you go
Situated midway between Vancouver and Calgary, Kelowna is the Okanagan's major city, with an international airport with direct service from Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle.
By car, Kelowna is four hours from Vancouver and seven hours from Calgary.
THINGS TO DO
Monashee Adventure Tours:
monasheeadventuretours.com; (888) 762-9253. Cycling, hiking and snowshoe tours.
GeoQwest Excursions: (250) 769-0031; geoqwestexcursions.com. Specializes in back-road driving trips, including the Forest Rejuvenation tour.
In Kelowna, a walk through the newly established Kelowna Cultural District encompasses a variety of museums and galleries, from the B.C. Wine Museum to the Rotary Centre for the Arts, which includes eight studios and galleries. For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.kelownasculturaldistrict.com.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Fresco Restaurant: 150 Water St., Kelowna; phone: (250) 868-8805. For big-city-style dining, visit chef Rod Butters' beautiful contemporary restaurant featuring creative regional cuisine paired with top Okanagan wines.
Restaurant Le Triskell: 467 Bernard Ave., Kelowna; (250)763-5151. An authentic French creperie, serving sweet or savoury crepes for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Okanagan wineries are open year-round for tours and tastings. Plan your wine-tasting tour by visiting http://www.bcwine.com.
For more information about Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley, call (800) 663-4345 or visit the Web site at http://www.tourismkelowna.org.