The Shuswap is poised to reap substantial benefits from the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail once it is completed.
The 50-kilometre-long, three to 4.6-metre-wide, non-motorized trail will extend from Sicamous to Armstrong and one day it could be connected to the recently completed Vernon-Kelowna Rail Trail that may eventually reach Osoyoos.
The success of the project to date is due to the collaboration between the Splatsin, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District and the Regional District of the North Okanagan, with strategic expertise from the Shuswap Trail Alliance.
There are many examples of successful rail trails in B.C., Canada and throughout North America, including the Slocan Valley, numerous trails on Vancouver Island, the Galena Trail near New Denver and the very popular Myra Canyon Trestles Trail that was once part of the Kettle Valley Railway, and sees more than 40,000 visitors per year. All of these trails attract many thousands of hikers and bikers every year, which has benefited the local communities immensely.
When work began to secure the corridor from Canadian Pacific Railway, organizers determined there was no need to produce an economic impact analysis, because there was already an excellent study done for the Okanagan Rail Trail, which could be easily extrapolated to the then proposed northern section. Their study projected more than 500,000 yearly visitors, nearly $7 million in spending and nearly 70 person years of employment after five years.
Amazingly, the study vastly underestimated how popular the trail would be, as the projected number of visitors in the fifth year was achieved in just the first full year, 2019, and the numbers continued to increase last year. Many of the businesses along the route have increased their number of customers, including a general store in Oyama that added a bike rental service. Of course, the Okanagan trail is situated in a region with more than 200,000 residents, which is nearly four times greater than the Shuswap/North Okanagan. However, if the positive impacts here were one quarter that of the Okanagan, the benefits would still be very significant.
The benefits of the rail trail are more than just monetary, as it will encourage healthy living as more people will be actively enjoying the stunning scenery along Mara Lake, the Shuswap River and the surrounding farmland. Environmental stewardship will be a key attribute of the trail, as improvements will be made to prevent erosion and discourage misuse and users will gain more appreciation for nature. As well, it will help foster improved relationships with the Splatsin community as the trail will help improve understanding of Secwepemc values and culture.
There are a number of focal points along the route that will add to trail experience. Sicamous is filled with tourists every summer, and many of them will undoubtedly discover the merits of the rail trail and decide to spend an extra day to experience it. Some might decide to simply take a short walk to Mara Point Provincial Marine Park to enjoy the view, or hike just over seven kilometres to Mara Beach for a swim.
Rosemond Lake, which was likely once part of Mara Lake before the inlet was mostly blocked when the original Shuswap and Okanagan Railway was built in 1892, is another key feature.
Another value of the trail will be its potential to provide non-motorized transportation options between rural communities. As well, planning work is continuing to provide more opportunities for access from the trail to other features along the route.
All the benefits from the rail trail will not come easily, given the total cost of the project will be $17 million or more. It will be necessary for both the provincial and federal governments to provide a substantial amount of funding. However, in order for that to happen, it will be key for local residents and businesses to contribute a significant percentage of the total. A clever funding project is now underway with a goal to “sell” 50,000 metres at $160 each. Visit shuswapnorthokanagantrail.ca to contribute to this most worthwhile project.