OK Falls visitor centre

Volunteers play key role at Okanagan Falls Visitor Centre

[Note: This article was originally written in the 2022 season. The Visitor Centre has since moved to 1109 Willow Street, Okanagan Falls]

From the May long weekend to Thanksgiving, the Okanagan Falls Visitor Centre provides a friendly welcome to visitors from across Canada and around the world.

It may not be immediately obvious, but this important service is provided by five dedicated volunteers, along with two summer students. In fact, without those volunteers, it would be hard to operate outside the summer months when the students return to school.

Matt Leyes and Ravina Johal, owners of Black Sage Butcher in Oliver, show some of their meat products. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Summer student Moriah Bouthillier (left) and volunteer Sherilyn Alexander in the 2022 season were ready to provide information to Okanagan Falls visitors. (Richard McGuire Photo)
The Okanagan Falls Visitor Centre moved in 2023 to a new location west of the fire hall. (Richard McGuire Photo)

For Sharilyn Alexander, one of the volunteers, volunteering at the Visitor Centre is not only fun and rewarding, but it’s a chance to give back to the community.

“I was fortunate enough to retire relatively young,” said Alexander. “I still have my health and I really believe in giving back. I wanted to do something that I would have interaction with people and would help in an area where they need volunteers.”

She puts in a four-hour shift each week, and she’s especially happy that there is flexibility.

“I don’t want it to feel like a job,” she said. “It’s really enjoyable – not that work is not necessarily enjoyable, but it’s really different. Here you have the flexibility to schedule your hours around what works for you.”

A rack of brochures lines one wall in the visitor centre, while pictures on the wall show the falls before and after. (Richard McGuire Photo)

The five volunteers in 2022 consisted of three women and two men, all around retirement age. Alexander points out that different volunteers bring different skills, whether it’s working with computers and social media, previous experience in the wine industry, or knowledge about fishing and camping.

Alexander lived most of her life in the Northwest Territories, coming to Okanagan Falls five years ago. Her background is in human resources, but a stint in a visitor centre when she was a high school student led her to think she would enjoy doing the same in Okanagan Falls.

“I really enjoyed that, and I thought it might be a good fit again to talk to people and share the excitement of this area,” she said.

The 2022 season was her second year with the Visitor Centre.

The visitor centre can lend fishing rods and tackle to tourists who have a fishing license. The program is made possible by the Freshwater Fishing Society of BC. (Richard McGuire Photo)

The volunteer-run centre started in 2005, but in recent years it’s received funding and support from Destination BC, and since 2021, it’s been a fully recognized information centre.

During summer 2022, two students have worked with the volunteers: Moriah Bouthillier and Megan Donesley. The centre received government funding for their employment.

Donesley, who is in a wheelchair, was federally funded through the Open Door Group’s Opportunities Fund, which aims to reduce barriers to employment for people with physical challenges. During the summer, Donesley visited some of the local attractions, making videos of her experiences to show that those with disabilities can enjoy much of what the area offers.

The students worked in the office and got out to meet tourists in parks and other locations.

A display shows birds of the Okanagan Falls waterfront. Many birds can be seen around Skaha and Vaseux lakes. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Visitors to the centre include a mix of people who plan to spend time in Okanagan Falls and those just passing through on the way to other locations such as Kelowna.

Alexander points to numerous attractions that appeal to visitors.

“Probably the most popular thing I see with cyclists is the KVR Trail,” she said referring to the former railbed of the Kettle Valley Railway, which is now a hiking and biking trail. “People love the KVR Trail.”

To the north from Okanagan Falls, cyclists and hikers can skirt the western edge of Skaha Lake through Kaleden and on to Penticton. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of the trail that’s hundreds of kilometres long.

The many wineries are also popular, and some offer excellent eateries.

A popular hike is the approximately two-hour return trip up Peach Cliff, a huge rock overlooking the community, where remains of gold and silver mining can still be seen. It’s mostly a moderate hike with some steep climbs.

The Bassett House and Museum is a popular spot for history lovers. The prefabricated Bassett House was ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue more than a century ago and delivered by sternwheeler boat and horse-drawn wagons.

At the same location is a small museum dedicated to local indigenous rodeo star Kenny McLean, who won numerous championships in the 1960s and ’70s and is the only cowboy to receive the Order of Canada.

The attractions of Okanagan Falls include Tickleberry’s, a wildly popular ice cream parlour in the warmer months, that serves dozens of flavours.

Local craftsman Elvis George makes canes and walking sticks that are sold at the visitor centre. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Visitors also come for the fruit, whether they pick their own or buy it from fruit stands.

The south end of Skaha Lake at Okanagan Falls provides spectacular beaches, a small waterpark, and the pleasant Kenyon Park.

Not far south of the community is Vaseux Lake, which is free of speeding motorboats, making it attractive for kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise. In winter, ice fishing is popular.

Visitors sometimes ask about how to get to the falls, but they’re out of luck. The falls that give the community its name haven’t been there since the 1950s when the river was dammed for irrigation and flood control. Still, there’s an attractive provincial park near where the falls once tumbled.

“We’re here to highlight Okanagan Falls and to try to make the experience here really favourable for our guests to our community,” said Alexander.

Besides the usual free brochures and a few maps and books for sale, the Visitor Centre offers more.

One interesting service is a program where visitors can borrow a fishing rod and tackle. The program is made possible by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC.

“It’s a loan program, so at no cost to the guest,” said Alexander. “We encourage them to enjoy our lakes. Of course they have to have the appropriate fishing licenses, but we lend them tackle and rods.”

They also sell walking sticks and canes made by local craftsman Elvis George.

“If people want a really unique gift from the area that’s functional, they can get a walking stick from us,” said Alexander.

A new addition is a SMART Board, an interactive whiteboard, that can work in conjunction with visitors’ phones to provide local information.

“That is something we’re quite looking forward to using,” said Alexander. “It expands some of the offerings that we can have and it’s an evolution.”

Not bad for a little tourist office staffed by volunteers.

“There’s always a need for volunteers,” said Alexander, who points out that the number of volunteers affects the hours the Visitor Centre can be open.

“If anybody is looking for a great volunteer gig, this is a good one,” she added.

Contact

PHONE

250-497-6260

EMAIL

visitokfalls@gmail.com

1109 willow street

okanagan falls, BC  V0H 1r1