Life in a slow place that quickly steals your heart.


Okanagan Lake

Leap of faith – Diving into the English Channel

“You’re a land animal trying to swim,” says Paul Sereno, University of Chicago Professor. “You’re what we call a secondary swimmer.”

Jan Johnston and I in April in Skaha Lake


Your deposit has been received £1000.00. We have secured your position (1st swimmer 19th June – 2nd July 2023) with the non-refundable deposit.


Reg (Reginald Brickell, Captain of the Viking Princess II)

With that innocuous looking email, Jan and I are leaping into the English Channel as a team of just two very early in the Channel swimming season. Why does a Channel swim start with securing a boat? Why so early? Why 2023?

There are only seven boats accredited by the Channel Swim Association to pilot swimmers across the storied English Channel from England to France. With the knowledge that the success of our Crazy Canucks relay of six people in 2016 in pretty rough seas was in large measure due to our excellent pilot, choosing Reg and Ray Brickell and the Viking Princess II was a given. As the Brickells’ are much sought-after respected pilots we have to book three years before our swim and coming all the way from Canada it is important to secure a first swim on the tide position. This is key as we may run into weather that will delay our swim and we will get the first shot on that tide.

Our end of June slot was the only first swim position open for all of 2023 and we booked immediately when Reg opened up his booking for that year. What does June mean? The bloody cold English Channel could be very bloody cold (14C).

“It’s a state between a dream state and an awake state,” says famous open water swimmer Lynne Cox. “Maybe we can call it sea-dreaming. The rhythm of swimming lulls your body — which, well trained, seems to keep moving on its own — and your brain is allowed to go wherever it wants.

Here we are in 14 C degree water on a sunny April day

To swim the English Channel has been described by many as the Everest of long distance swimming. “As an open water swimmer, the English Channel is the pinnacle,” says Jan. “I want to be part of that.” I’m looking to up the ante from the six-person team I was on in 2016 as far as I think I’m capable of pushing it. (I will be 67 in 2023. Jan will be 61). Knowing my swim speed and having a pretty good handle on my abilities and mental toughness, a solo swim although tauntingly tempting seems many hundreds of strokes too far.

From the Channel Swimming Association record book

Of all the teams that attempt the Channel, teams of two are pretty rare. The official record shows only 33 duos have made the England to France crossing until 2019 as compared to 483 six-person teams. I guess the thinking is you might as well do a solo if you are going to do that much swimming…

Jan and I (Crazy Canucks II) will take one-hour turns dodging jelly fish while our boat captain dodges cruise ships and freighters in the world’s busiest shipping channel. It will take us anywhere from 16 to 18 hours (very estimated) so 8, 9 or even 10 swims each with a total of 50 kilometres of swimming. It took our Crazy Canucks team 13 hours and 47 minutes to complete the task in 2016.

That smile is why Jan is an ideal team mate. She is up for anything, willing to suffer in the cold and as upbeat as she looks in this photo.

Here is Jan with my brother Dean in a much kinder ocean as we complete the first Canadian relay crossing of the Catalina Channel in 2019.

The beginning of our boat trip to the our relay start at Catalina Island.
The French finish of our 2016 English Channel Relay… a bit of a different beast.

Here I am with Ray heading toward shore in the dingy to start the English Channel crossing for our team in 2016. Some of our swim will be in the dark which is actually less scary than the all-night swim of Catalina (sharks).

Bring on that leap or dive of faith. Here is hoping the pandemic will be over, we will stay fit to train and we experience the rush of it all.

“Who needs psychedelics,” says Lynne Cox. “when you can just go for a swim in the ocean.”

Harvest with Naramata vineyard pioneer

IMG_3141.jpgWe chat quietly with whomever is closest to us in the row as we bend and search for the attachment points (there is actually a word for these…peduncles) for the gorgeous clusters of Malbec and snip and toss them into the lugs. It’s a glorious 14 degrees with not a cloud in the sky in a beautiful piece of the Naramata Bench called Rock Oven Vineyards perched just above Lake Breeze Winery. If I’m working next to Barry (Irvine), who along with his wife Sue, own the vineyard, I ask him about the grapes we are harvesting, what they will be made into and the Naramata wine industry.


Malbec (sometimes called Côt and Auxxerois) is from France, where it grows in the Sud-Ouest. The thin-skinned grape is a natural cross of two esoteric varieties that are from Montpellier and Gaillac in the Sud-Ouest. Today the majority of France’s Malbec is found in Cahors, a small town on a switchback river that gently flows towards Bordeaux.

Malbec quickly became common as a blending grape in Bordeaux’s top five wine grapes. However, because of the grapes’ poor resistance to weather and pests, it never surfaced as a top French variety. Instead, it found a new home in Mendoza, Argentina where a nostalgic French botanist planted it by order of the mayor in 1868. It also grows well in our increasingly hot and dry Okanagan climate.

Malbec produces an inky, dark, full-bodied red wine. Expect rich flavours of black cherry, raspberry, blackberry and blueberry. Malbec wines typically have an aroma of leather, spice and herbs. As with all wines, the characteristics of Malbec can be unique to the area in which it’s grown, but it typically has medium ripe tannins with rich acidity and a smoky finish.

The lovely tasting Malbec we are picking will go right to Lake Breeze and will become a Rosé. The 2016 varietal was award-winning and has sold out.


Barry and Sue Irvine sat on their deck overlooking Okanagan Lake sipping wine almost three decades ago with the founders of Hillside Cellars, Lang Vineyards and Wildgoose discussing the farmgate proposal they spearheaded together that eventually lead to these small producers being allowed to sell their own wine.

“I remember talking to Premier Bill Vander Zalm who said that all the orchards on the Bench would eventually be replaced by vineyards,” says Barry. “I didn’t believe him at the time.”

The Irvines converted their cherry orchards to vines beginning in 1981.


In more recent years, they have sold off much of their vineyards but are still keeping their hand in with the Malbec we are harvesting and with some unusual Schonberger grapes.


Barry says that the vines from the grapes we are carefully hand-picking today are the result of at least 10 passes through the vineyards.  The careful tending includes hours and hours spent pruning, tucking, thinning and spraying for mildew throughout the growing season. Vineyard management is not for the faint of heart.

Fellow harvester John and Barry (right) ready to go at 8:30 in the morning.

Barry was hard at it long before we arrived lifting the nets that protected the crop from birds, moving the lugs and bins in place and sharpening the pruners.

Bend, snip, repeat and once two lugs are filled lift (bend your knees) and dump into the big bins.


On this perfect late fall day it was impossible not to take small breaks to stretch sore backs and soak in the scenery and the enjoy the sun on our faces.

Views include the Schonberger vines down in the gulley and the hills of the Naramata Bench in one direction…

…and the lake in the other.

IMG_3172.jpgCovered in dirt from sitting on the ground to reach the low-hanging bunches, sticky from the grape juice, tired and sore we all converge on the last row working side-by-side until the vines are bare of fruit and the bins are heaped.


IMG_3161.jpgIt’s hard to romanticize harvesting grapes on the Naramata Bench with all the bending and lifting and all the hard work leading up to it but on a day like this with great company, interesting conversation and views so spectacular they don’t look real, it’s impossible not to.

Lake love and the 52 handstands




October swim.

This summer I went swimming. I swam and swam and swam right into fall. I swam in Canada’s largest open water swim race, Across the Lake in Kelowna and I swam 12 kilmetres in Canada’s longest lake swim, the Skaha Ultra. When all the training was done I decided to swim every single day in the lake until October just for the love of the lake. For the love of swimming. My 52-day streak had no fixed swim distance but each swim ended with a handstand. Why? The answer is as unfathomable as the streak.

IMG_0934.JPG“If all you did in your lifetime was enjoy the beautiful things around you — the sunset, moon and clouds or all the plants and animals — that would be a worthy life.” Laird Hamilton

I’ve swum in the English Channel, the Hudson River, the Med, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean and in countless Canadian lakes. Anywhere. Everyday. Always. It’s who I am.

At the cottage, with my mum and dad (left) looking on.

Of all the places I’ve swum Okanagan Lake is as perfect as it gets.

IMG_1606.jpgIt’s clean, big, deep, varied, gets nice and warm in summer, has few weeds, no predators, changing weather conditions to make it feel like an ocean some days and the scenery is spectacular. I’ve seen eagles and osprey fishing, loons diving, vintage planes flying overhead, sailboats, windsurfers and kite boarders playing, outriggers, kayakers, dragon boaters, paddle boarders. I’ve swum beside an historic paddle wheeler. I’ve dodged sunbathers on rafts and talked to triathletes. I’ve occasionally collected beer cans to recycle and dove down to add to my sunglass collection. I watched water bombers fight a wildfire. One awful day I kept an eye for a dead body as searchers looked for a drowning victim.

Sometimes the lake is silver.

Sometimes I wear at wetsuit but not on my streak.

During the wildfires, sometimes the lake was shrouded in smoke.

Other days it was blue.

Calm as a mill pond…

Choppy like the ocean.

I like to watch the water drip off my arms and sparkle in the sun. One magical day during a sun shower, raindrops splashed back off the lake like diamonds. I’ve seen small glowing yellow leaves suspended in dark waters.

Not to over romanticize it, the last two weeks of the streak took some moments of courage to enter the bone chilling water.

One, two, three and swim like hell.

On the plus side, I have had lovely Manitou beach and her sheltered bay all to myself. My swim three days ago was the nicest of the year. The sun was warm, my skin burning in the cold water and I was feeling uplifted, clean, happy, energized and calm all at the same time. It’s a sensory deprivation and sensory overload.

And then there is cake! Time to celebrate the end of the streak with a spiced apple caramel handstand cake. 

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Thanks to the Handyman for the lifeguarding when it got cold and for the HandstandCam photography!

Bring on Spring!

Sunset dinner in the vineyard at the Vanilla Pod

IMG_9482.jpgLingering over dinner at Poplar Grove’s Vanilla Pod restaurant during a warm smoky summer sunset is one of those memories to be teased out on a grey January day.

Summer in a glass.

Negroni sunset

Creme brulee with namesake vanilla pod. Tastes even better than it looks…


Poplar Grove is perfectly positioned for its views of Okanagan Lake.

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Post dinner trip up Munson Mountain to watch the strange sunset.

IMG_9495.jpgThinking of all the evacuees worrying about their houses and their land and the hard working fire crews and wishing for a good soaking rain…

Naramata – Life in a slow place that quickly steals your heart

Old Main Road

Literally at the end of the road lies one of the most unexpectedly delightful places in the world. The temptation is to keep the discovery a secret. Fortunately Naramatians are too sociable and ardent about their home not to share and bloggers can’t keep any secret at all.

A trip along Naramata Road toward the Village is a sensory experience whose end result is an extraordinary sense of well-being. The scientists have gone to work and come up with a formula for scenery that most appeals to people (they study everything right?) and the Naramata Benchlands ticks all the boxes. It’s to do with the proportion of sky, the straight lines of the vineyards and orchards and the expanse of the blue lake grounding it all.


Travelling through a winescape of row upon row of trellised grapevines dotted with sympathetically designed winery architecture and guest accommodation, the road twists and turns to reveal new vistas. Scientists tells us that we like making discoveries and the “I wonder what’s around the next corner?” feeling we get when heading from Penticton to Naramata fits the bill. The vines and orderly orchards advance across rolling hills that all lead down to the shores of Okanagan Lake and the elevation of Naramata Road lets us appreciate it all.

Hillside Winery

Once lured in by the scenery it’s what Naramatians have produced from this naturally gifted growing region moderated by the lake that adds the next layer to our pleasure. Naramata’s artisanal products are lovingly produced by people whose lives are devoted to their craft whether it be wine, spirits, fruits and vegetables, pottery or painting and they revel in sharing this passion. Wine and culinary experiences are top-notch and varied but all share a similar philosophy. Skill and a light touch are used to let the ultra-premium, local, in-season ingredients shine.

Lunch with scenery at Legend Distilling.

The village itself has lost all track of time. No traffic lights, no chain stores, few streetlights to blot out the stars, Naramata is made up of quiet streets with a mix of cottages and modest houses with well-kept gardens. A little church with bells that ring at noon, a general store shaded by elms, artisans and shops sprinkled here and there, cozy restaurants, the world’s best pizza place, a welcoming coffee shop, busy pub… Anchoring the Village, the perfectly in-keeping  Heritage Inn sits and the end of the main street, as it has for more than a century.

Heritage Inn

Naramata’s quality and human pace of life is internationally recognized. We have been given the designation as a Cittaslow town. Cittaslow towns celebrate life in the slow lane, locally grown products and the slow food movement, in places where people care for the land and for each other.

View of the Village from the Kettle Valley Railway trail.

Based in the Tuscany region of Italy, the Cittaslow network and accredited communities have a mandate to improve the quality of life. It’s karma that we have this Italian designation. Our town’s founder, John Moore Robinson produced a brochure in 1907 calling Naramata, with its wonderful climate, the Italy of Canada.

Apple orchards are still a lovely part of the Old Main Estate in the Village.


As part of the Cittaslow philosophy, I’m working to bring local chefs into the Village to teach us how to use all the lovely produce (like the raspberries from our Carpe Diem berry farm) to bake and cook for our friends, families and the many guests who have come to love our secret place.

The first guest Chef, Dana Ewart of Joy Road Catering is an Okanagan superstar. She is going to show us why we need brioche in our lives. CC Orchards will be providing sweet dried cherries for use as one of our brioche ingredients.

Tickets to the December 10 class are half sold and I’m thrilled with the response from the Village about the new venture. Here’s the link to join in Naramata Blend Cooking Class Series Brioche!  A second class on eclairs and profiteroles is in the works for February…

Orange is the new green – The $100 view

Okanagan Lake banded with orange for a few more days before the stark beauty of winter takes over.

Atop Munson Mountain in Penticton is a good spot to be benched although they present a Goldilocks dilemma.

The 360-degree views from the mountain offer a view of ordered orchards and vineyards with a peak at Skaha Lake in the distance. 

Looking toward Penticton and my favourite swimming beach.

The park sits right above Penticton’s landmark giant letters first created in 1937 to put the town on the map. The sign has been maintained by volunteers ever since.

One hundred dollar view – literally – The view from atop Munson was featured on Canadian $100 bills from 1954 to 1974. 

Aside from the striking views, native vegetation makes this a special place with its spicy sage smells.

I’m lichen this rock close-up.

In the distance is the road to Naramata that is a beautiful drive home no matter the season.

Saving the SS Naramata…Whatever floats this boat

She may be a workaday tug, but the SS Naramata has lovely lines that will only be fully admired when her hull is resting in the waters of Okanagan Lake once again.

Camera safely around my neck, I follow Adolf Steffen’s, (a director of the SS Sicamouse Heritage Park board) directions to the letter as I carefully clamber down a ladder into the pitch-black boiler room of the SS Naramata. Immediately engulfed by the smell of what I suppose is old engine oil, it’s easy to paint a picture of men stoking the massive boiler with coal, sweating in the heat with the sound of the pistons pumping madly away in the adjoining engine room.

Boiler detail

Launched in 1914, the Naramata is the last surviving steam tug in the interior of British Columbia. Along with the coastal steam tug, Master, based at Vancouver, they are the only tugs of the steam era, not rebuilt to diesel power, surviving in the province. That makes this vessel and my not-open-to-the-public tour pretty special .

Door for coal stoking

“Wouldn’t she look great out there in the lake,” says Adolf. Once the Naramata was brought back to Penticton (1991) to rest beside the SS Sicamous, it was discovered that her hull was paper thin in places and leaking. The tug was pulled onto the beach and backfilled with sand to prevent her from sinking. Even grounded, she is still shipping in some water when the lake is full at this time of the year and it’s not doing this centenarian any favours.

Adolf says about $75,000 is needed to pay a Vancouver company to “pick her up so a cradle can be built under her to fix the hull, sandblast, paint and push her back into the lake.”

It is thought that all the years of dumping spent coal to cool in an area near the boiler has corroded the hull from the sulphuric residue. The hull felt spongy beneath my feet.

Appropriately named after my village, a prosperous fruit-growing community back in the day, her main purpose was the transportation of fruit from the many packing houses along Okanagan Lake to the railway at Okanagan Landing and on to Kelowna. The ship could haul two fully loaded steel barges moving the equivalent of a 16-20 car train filled with Okanagan fruit at an average speed of seven miles an hour. A carload was 840 boxes of apples and even the early wooden barges could carry eight freight cars.

Engine room detail. The stern houses the compound jet-condensing engine that drove the single screw four-blade propeller.

To use some non-technical terms…it was cool to take photos in the dark and see what neat details preserved from the past of this hard-working vessel were illuminated by my flash.



Sadly, these piston will never likely operate again. It would have been something to see and hear everything firing with smoke pouring out the stack.


A couple more shots before we headed back topside and into the light.

I love this door into the engine room


Another look at the rust on her poor hull.

“If we don’t get at this restoration project soon in another 10 to 15 years she will be a rust bucket and disintegrate,” Adolf says. Once she is restored and back on the lake where she belongs a pier will be constructed to connect the Naramata to Canadian National Tug no. 6 to offer visitors the opportunity to see the SS Sicamous, the Naramata and the CN tug. This second part of the restoration project puts the total tab at about $150,000.


Canadian National Tug no. 6 is a diesel-powered tugboat launched in 1948 to transfer railway barges between Penticton and Kelowna. A pier attaching it to the Naramata is in the restoration plans.

Topside and back into the light, the Naramata’s green and buff yellow paint is accented with simple but elegant brass details like the door handles leading to the various cabins giving this workaday vessel some class.

Adolf says it’s painful to replace the old-fashioned keys needed to open these locks as it’s hard to find anyone to make them anymore.

The restored doors are a beautiful part of the vessel.

The Naramata’s hull and boat works were prefabricated in Port Arthur Ontario in 1913 with as many as 150 men working on her. She cost $40,000 and was shipped to Okanagan Landing for assembly and launched April 20th, 1914.

SS Sicamous Heritage Park board of directors member Adolf Steffen describing the workings of the winch. The tug pushed the barges rather than pulling them.

The deckhouse of the Naramata includes a small mess where a full-time cook worked in the blasting heat which was likely more welcome in the winter. Assistant manager of the SS Sicamous Heritage Park, Jessie Dunlop shared the reminiscences of a former crew member Abe, who stopped by for a tour a few years ago. Abe says the food was always fresh and delicious and a typical breakfast consisted of hash browns, bacon, eggs, pancakes and toast.

This massive coal-fired stove takes up a lot of real estate in the small galley at the bow of the ship which housed 10 to 12 at meal times.

This life ring which indicates where the vessel is registered hangs in the galley.

Some artifacts in the galley.

Crew member Abe also talked of how the cook brooked no nonsense on board and would threaten to pick up a troublemaker, clothes and all and toss him overboard.

The pilothouse at the front of the second deck features the ship’s wheel which would have had a good view of the lake. Today, it offers an unsatisfactory view of land.


The captain’s cabin is behind the pilot house on the top deck. The horsehair mattress is a long way from a comfy a memory foam.

The stairs’ brass fittings are a simple but beautiful detail.

When the Naramata began her service, she was the most modern tug on the southern lakes and rivers. Adolf also pointed out the Naramata’s double steel hull which made it capable of breaking ice on the lake. It’s been many years since the lake has iced up but it did frequently in the early 1900s. The SS Naramata would push through the ice to make a channel for the passenger steamers, including the SS Sicamous.

“The Naramata played a big part in the history of opening up the west here,” says Adolf. “Moving the fruit from the orchardists to market in the barges and onto the rails brought prosperity to the area. In the scheme of things, the $150,000 we need in total to fix her up and get her back in the water is not a lot to pay for preserving this important part of our history.”

So far $25,000 has been raised and the campaign to raise the remainder will launch soon. If all goes well everyone will soon be able see her and to paint their own pictures of what life was like on the SS Naramata during its hard working life on the lake.

SS Naramata photo from the City of Vancouver Archives showing her in all her glory on the lake.

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