The natural beauty. The awesome weather. The wineries. The recreational lifestyle. The spectacular lake. And now, a twenty-first-century skyline. Welcome to Kelowna! Born in 1905 with just 600 lakeside inhabitants, a century later Kelowna has become one of Canada’s most rapidly growing cities. But as it modernizes, does it still have a soul?
The short answer is yes, but you might be surprised where you will find it.
Long-time locals just point to the lake—Okanagan Lake—while Westbank First Nation Elders have revered its sustaining powers provided over many centuries. If you think about it, what would Kelowna be without it? The orchards. The wineries. The golf courses. Our growing population. Are we now taking it for granted?
On July 15th this year, Kelowna is celebrating the 75th anniversary of one of Kelowna’s few remaining celebrations of our community as a lake culture—the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim, the largest and longest-running open water swim event in Canada. For the kids in junior swim clubs, it has long been a rite of passage to demonstrate their capabilities in the lake. For many adults, it has been a bucket list item, a challenge like climbing a mountain—to conquer it because it is there, or to conquer long-held anxieties over water. It would be hard to imagine that Kelowna locals 100 years ago wouldn’t have looked across the lake many times, wondering if they had the self-propulsive ability to cross it.
By 1910, as part of the 4th annual Kelowna Regatta, that pre-occupation became an official race, complete with prize money and a trophy, even though very few community members knew how to swim.
Here is the summary from the Kelowna Courier, August 11, 1910:
Although the Kelowna Regatta was a celebratory mainstay until 1987, the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim had increasingly become established as an independent, annual event with its own following. For decades, it was exclusively the domain of two- or three-dozen junior swim club kids, who, with the support of their parents in a nearby boat, were all vying to be the youngest to swim across the lake. For these youngsters, it was hugely consequential—not only for winning a trophy or for bragging rights, but to demonstrate their prowess and water confidence. Emblematic of the spirit of small-town Kelowna back in the day is this story:
In the late 1960s, there was a scrawny 8-year-old girl who was determined to try this challenging 2.1-kilometre swim. On a warm August Saturday afternoon, with some increasing wind-whipped chop making a lake swim even more daunting, this elementary-school kid entered the water near the old ferry dock on the west side of the lake, started her swim, with her dad in a rowboat near her for support. In those days, wetsuits were non-existent. And her dad, who had suffered polio as a child and had virtually no functioning biceps, triceps or deltoid in his left arm, was struggling not only to keep rowing in a straight line but to simply keep up with his determined daughter. That young girl was Jo-Anne Ritchie, who, despite needing to be rescued after being blown far off course that day, would go on to become one of Kelowna’s best-known athletes, winning consecutive ITU triathlon world championships in the 1990s.
In the last 30 years, the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim has grown immensely in popularity, having under 100 registrants per year to more than 1400 before the pandemic. Today, the event attracts people of all ages, from as young as six years old, to those in their 70s and 80s. In 2022, the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim proudly honoured 90-year-old Conny Stamhuis as she successfully completed yet another one of her record-breaking swims.
It is these individual stories that continue to inspire the community, participants and long-time title sponsor, Interior Savings.
“We’ve had the pleasure of supporting this iconic event for the past 13 years”, says Brian Harris, CEO at Interior Savings. “It’s a celebration of community, courage and resilience—an event that brings a smile to the faces of everyone here at Interior Savings as we cheer on the brave individuals committed to crossing Okanagan Lake.”
It remains relevant that the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim is referred to as an event, and not a race. While many participants do, in fact, race the swim, most see a successful completion of the swim as the only goal that matters. In fact, few people remember their swim crossing times even a few days after the event, while many remain deeply touched by the blessing given by Westbank First Nation at the start of the swim, and the symbolism of the WFN war canoe leading the swim. Given that the event has helped hundreds of people overcome their personal challenges to swim more than two kilometres of open water, from the Old Ferry Wharf in West Kelowna to Hot Sands Beach in Kelowna, completing the Interior Savings Across the Lake Swim gives participants a unique feeling of reverence, accomplishment and self-confidence that usually spills over into the rest of their lives. As the lake becomes an integral part of us, we discover that we have, indeed, connected with Kelowna’s soul.
So, how about you? Why not celebrate our Kelowna Lake culture by participating in an event that might just change your life?
Visit www.acrossthelakeswim.com for more information and registration details.
Photos provided by Across the Lake Swim
Other 2023 Across the Lake Swim Events
Saturday, August 5th, 2023 • Rattlesnake Island
Saturday, August 12th, 2023 • Kalamalka Lake
Saturday, September 2nd, 2023 • Gellatly Bay