In search of Canada's wild west

It's said that a monster called Ogopogo lives in Lake Okanagan. Dom Joly heads to the stunning valley in hope of a sighting

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The Independent Travel

I don't know about you but I always associate British Columbia with rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain. Don't get me wrong; that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing I love more than a moody Pacific Coast day spent driving through mossy old forests. But it's not exactly a summer destination is it?

Then I stumbled upon the wonderful Okanagan Valley. Residents proudly call it the Canadian California and, from the moment I landed, I could see what they were on about. The Okanagan Valley stretches for about 100km, with Lake Okanagan stretching up the middle. The Okanagan is a bit of a geographical oddity in that it is a desert region; as such the weather in the summer is quite spectacular. Vancouver, just a 50-minute flight away in a twin-prop, might be cloudy and raining, but in the Okanagan, the sun is always shining.

You fly into Kelowna, a very relaxed lakeside town that reminded me of the place where Mindy lived in Mork and Mindy: it's full of lots of healthy-looking people driving around in open-top 4x4s waving at each other.

Almost everyone is here for summer fun: the lakeside is crammed with options for boat rentals and cruises. The scenery meanwhile is staggering: the valley soars up around the lake. As if this wasn't enough, the Okanagan has become a major centre for wine in the last 20 years. The valley used to be a major fruit-growing area but many locals have realised that there is far more money in grapes. Wineries are everywhere, and almost all have lovely little restaurants attached so that you can fill up after some tasting.

I visited Summerhill Pyramid, an organic, hippy-ish winery just up the hill from Kelowna. The place has a fabulous view of the lake, and the bonus of a huge pyramid under which all the wines are stored as the owner believes that it has magical powers … Whatever, the food and wine were good. I sat on the terrace and tried to keep my eyes trained on the waters below me.

Why was I looking down there? Well, you see, I wasn't really here for the watersports. Or the wine. I was here monster hunting. I was on the lookout for Ogopogo, a lake monster that is the North American equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. Sightings of Ogopogo in Lake Okanagan go back to the 19th century. When the first ferries were started in the early 20th century, the British Columbian government paid for armed guards to "defend the passengers against the Ogopogo".

While writing my new book I'd been chasing down the "big six" monsters round the world, and I assumed that there would be a huge cottage industry built up around the Ogopogo in the same way that Loch Ness milks the Nessie story for everything it can.

Curiously, there wasn't too much about Ogopogo save for the odd stuffed toy at the airport and a rather dodgy-looking statue of what looks like a Chinese dragon on the waterfront. Then again, nobody really goes to Loch Ness with the intention of swimming, and Nessie therefore works as an icon for the tourist industry. With Lake Okanagan, I suppose the fact that there might be a monster in the lake is a little less attractive to potential swimmers and boaters.

Whether or not you believe in stories of Ogopogo, it seems generally harmless, so don't let it put you off a visit. Who knows? You might even get some footage of the beast on your camera – and use it to pay for the holiday.

For the best view of the valley, you should head off up to the Myra Canyon. There used to be a railway line through here that still stands as a major feat of early Canadian architecture. Huge wooden trestles were built to allow the line to traverse the steep canyon. In 2003 a massive forest fire devastated the whole mountainside and almost all the trestles were lost. Due to a lot of hard work by motivated local groups, they have all now been restored to their original glory. The railway line is open for both bike riding and walking – and it rewards you with quite staggering views of the Okanagan Valley.

If you cross the lake on the bridge at Kelowna you get to the town of West Bank. From here you can drive south along the lake to a lovely little place called Peachland. As the name suggests, this is the site of several large lakeside peach orchards. A fabulous café on the lakefront is the place to watch healthy Canadians jog and cycle past you in revoltingly large numbers.

I always tend to judge a destination by this. I am no jogger, but the number of them to be seen in a place is usually a good indication of an enviable lifestyle.

I drove onwards to the southernmost tip of the lake, where I reached the town of Penticton which again had a fabulous beach and a huge old paddle steamer sitting there dreaming of the days when it used to steam around the lake. No Ogopogo, though. Perhaps it prefers the off-season.

 

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps: In Search of the World's Most Hideous Beasts by Dom Joly (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) is out now

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