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by Lindsay Forslund
Traveling through the Okanagan Valley in early summer is like passing through an impressionist painting. Driving north along Kalamalka Lake, the water's many colours frame a landscape of hills painted with yellow sunflowers and grasses that have not quite turned brown from the scorching Okanagan sun. The pallet is so magnificent I am convinced I'm pulling my Mallard trailer through a canvas by Monet himself. As the highway bends its way through the city of Vernon and past Swan Lake, I have almost reached my destination.
Vernon's Historic O'Keefe Ranch - a ranch as old as Canada itself - is tucked into Spallumcheen Valley, found by heading north of Vernon on Highway 97. Cornelious O'Keefe, son of Irish immigrants, founded this signpost in 1867. After a long legacy as a corner-stone ranch in B.C., it has now been operating as a tourist attraction for the last 45 years. It's one of Vernon' s last historic landmarks and tells the story of the early BC ranching era and its culture.
It is late June when I arrive at the Ranch. I am delighted when I'm greeted with the sound of children's laughter. On this day there is a school tour, and my canon 5D and I decide to tag along. The children are dressed in period clothing and there is a distinct sense as we pass among the old buildings, that we are stepping back in time.
The ranch is comprised of several long-standing structures and perfectly aged details including a stagecoach station, a post office, and school, among many other timeless and notable particulars. We are led through O'Keefe's quaint gift shop that is filled with antiques, souvenirs and everything Okanagan. A large wagon wheel lays its rusty head against the mature cedar exterior of the building; its aging parts and blistered wood tell the story of an era that was rugged and rich and wholesome. I pull out my camera and fix a 24-105 lens on the body. I want to capture the contours of the chiseled grain, a design that only time can etch. Centered in the courtyard is a tiered, Victorian-style fountain; a focal point to offer context and contrast – to communicate the passage of time.
A lazy summer breeze lingers in the rose garden and catches the sweet scent of wild flowers, guiding us to a stunning Queen Anne style mansion, highlighted superbly by the cobalt sky. I secure my 50mm lens to my camera and get some tight shots of the garden's finer details.
The old wooden walkway directs us to the general store and I am struck by the intricate carvings in the door; it speaks of pride and intrinsic craftsmanship. Inside, the General store has been furnished in keeping with the period of O'Keefe ranch; plank floors ground what is now my favourite sweet-spot on the property. Glass containers filled with candy pebbles, gumballs, licorice sticks and jawbreakers the size of baseballs line the counter top. The children squeal in delight, filling little paper bags with as much candy as their pocket change can buy.
Exiting the store, lamp posts line a walkway that itself converges with a flight of steps leading to what is O'Keefe's most iconic structure. St. Anne's church sits alone on a bluff in the distance, its steeple and cross reaching heavenward. It has remained nearly unchanged since it was constructed in Carpenter Gothic style nearly one hundred and twenty two years ago. It's beauty is unmistakable. Its walls have witnessed countless marriages, hosted hundreds of laughing children and welcomed admiring visitors from all over the world. O'Keefe's private cemetery lays next to St. Anne's. The children trace the grave stones with paper and crayons, so as to take home something tangible of this remarkable O'Keefe family history. I can't help but think of the pride Cornelius would feel in knowing his legacy continues to be shared in an authentic and fascinating portrayal of a period that began more than a century before Confederation.
In May 2011, O'Keefe Ranch re-opens for its summer season. Accompanying its renowned hospitality and award winning cattleman's Restaurant, will be 10 new RV sites, allowing visitors to extend their O'Keefe excursion. This ranch – albeit, one of British Columbia's last tactile testaments to post -confederation Canada – is a photographer's dream, a child's wonderland, and a historian's treasure trove; it is an interactive experience uniting all generations with the past - a place to visit again and again.