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Remember when the lake froze?

It is a topic which evokes more than a little discussion. “Facts” are confidently tossed out for discussion, only to be called into question. Cited sources are rejected as incorrect. Photographic evidence is greeted with much skepticism. This is not a topic for the faint-hearted; to be unsure is to certain face defeat. “Are you sure about that?” is an oft-offered response to a confidently opined claim.

What is this much-debated topic? What is the source of so much disagreement? What topic causes researchers to double-check their sources? It is a question which readers of this article have probably asked this winter: “In what years did Okanagan Lake completely freeze over?”

We have had a long and cold winter, with very impressive minimum temperatures. As I am writing this article (February 9th 2017), the air temperature has risen to 2 degrees Celsius. According to “Castanet”, Lake Okanagan is slightly colder…a numbing .2 degrees Celsius. This is an improvement over last week, when the water was -.1 degree Celsius. These temperatures are enough reason to speculate if Lake Okanagan will freeze over, making the winter of 2016 – 2017 an historic one.

Some local bodies of water provide easy answers to the question about winter freeze-overs. Duck and Wood lakes frequently freeze over. Ice fishers on Wood Lake is not a rare spectacle. Some years, people drive vehicles onto the ice, providing comfort during the hours devoted to the pursuit of finned prey. Mountain lakes – including Oyama, Beaver, Postill, and Bear – freeze over annually. Few would question claims that ice on these lakes can safely support great weight.

What about Okanagan Lake? How often does it freeze? This is not an easy question to answer. It has been claimed that Okanagan Lake froze more frequently in the past. This is possible, especially as we experience the effects of global warming. I have heard it said that Okanagan Lake formerly froze at least once per decade, at least 12 times since 1900. This may be true but it invites sceptics clambering for proof that the lake froze that often.

SS Okanagan
SS Okanagan in the ice of Okanagan Lake 1

As I am writing, I am looking at a historic photograph beside my computer. This 1922 photograph, shows the “S.S. Okanagan” apparently frozen in ice, probably at Kelowna. It would be tempting to claim that Okanagan Lake thus froze in 1922. But that statement cannot be made with any degree of confidence. Possibly the lake froze only in certain areas, including near Kelowna, where the “Okanagan” was photographed.

That is part of the problem. During my 25+ years driving across Okanagan Lake Bridge to my school at Westbank, more than one winter I recall seeing vast expanses of ice, sometimes stretching across the lake. I recall – and this statement will cause more than one person to doubt me – that there was a significant amount of ice on Okanagan Lake about 1986. Or was it 1985? Perhaps 1987? In any case, the ice did not extend the full length and width of Okanagan Lake. And so, regardless of the year, I cannot claim that the lake froze over.

There is one winter which has a wide following, in the discussion about the lake freezing. The winter of 1949 – 1950 was apparently a very long and cold one, with record-breaking cold temperatures. Not surprising, the lake started to freeze over. Many claim that it was in 1949 – 1950 that the lake “froze solid”.

Another popular winter cited as a lake freeze is 1968 – 1969. On December 23, 1968, my family hosted a gathering at our Glenmore home, celebrating my parents’ silver wedding anniversary. The house was full of guests. It was a cold evening, and frequently our guests went outside to check their cars. When it was time to leave, they started their cars well in advance of their departure, letting them heat up. The cold temperatures continued and the lake started to freeze at Kelowna. Ice spread north and south. Many people, the writer included, confidently opine that Okanagan Lake froze in 1968 – 1969. Others disagree.

The writer was in discussion with a long-time resident of Okanagan Centre. He had clear memories of the winter of 1968 – 1969 and recalled much of the lake freezing over. However, he remembers open water between Okanagan Centre and the west side of Okanagan Lake.

Lake-freeze stories evoke memories. One well-known story concerns a man and his motorcycle. This man, whose name shall remain unspoken, worked for a Kelowna delivery company. Hoping to save a bit of delivery time, he ventured onto the lake ice, and headed off. He soon realized the folly of this unwise decision. The ice started to crack, and soon he and his motorcycle plunged into the frigid Okanagan Lake water. Fortunately, the driver and his motorcycle were saved, but the goods to be delivered disappeared into the depths of the lake, never to be recovered. Some claim that he was delivering alcoholic spirits. A more mundane version has him delivering the mail. A simple story such as this evokes different memories.

And so the question remains: “How often has Okanagan Lake frozen?” We can be confident in asserting that a complete lake freeze-up is rare, probably happening only a few times in the past century. We can possibly be confident that it froze in 1949 – 1950 and possibly almost froze in 1968 – 1969. However, it is perhaps wiser and safer to merely respond, “I believe that the lake may possibly have frozen over completely in the past, but I am not really sure!”2

By Robert M. “Bob” Hayes

1 Photograph contributed.

2 This article appeared in The Daily Courier, February 27, 2017 in the “Okanagan History” column, p B4.

Robert Michael Hayes is a life-long resident of Kelowna and is a descendant of the pioneer Clement and Whelan families. He is a life member of the Okanagan Historical Society.


  • I can safely say that Okanagan Lake froze completely over at Kelowna because Dad and I drove across the lake twice in our Model A. In fact, the ferry was frozen in and an ice-road had been marked to cross the lake. I don’t remember exactly where we entered on the Kelowna side; seems to me it toward Kelowna Sawmills but we landed just north of the ferry landing on the West side. I say it was the winter of 1950/51 because I was born April, 1942 and started grade 3 in Septemeber at the Winfield elementry school and I would have been 8.

  • Thanks for the input Gary.

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