Westbank, being a lake city, has many beaches and areas for public swimming. One thing travellers, as well as locals, should be aware of is something called "Swimmers Itch" that can be picked up from lakes. Swimmer's itch is a temporary, itchy rash caused by small worm-like parasites called schistosomes (Shiss-toe-soams). These little worms are found in many lakes and ponds in British Columbia, usually in the warm summer months when beaches are busy. After a person leaves the water, these microscopic larvae start to burrow under their skin. However, these larvae can not survive in humans and die almost immediately after they burrow into the skin. It is the allergic reaction to these tiny larvae under the skin that causes the itchy rash. The adult parasite lives in the blood of birds, but the eggs of the parasite are passed out of the bird and develop into larvae (cercaria) which seek out snails. As the larvae mature, they pass again into the water to search out a bird to inhabit, but sometimes select a human by mistake. Swimmers' itch is the rash which develops when human antibodies destroy the parasites.
You may be at a higher risk due to the following factors:
The itching feeling gradually gets worse, and may last two to five days, or as long as two weeks, before fading away slowly. Too much scratching can cause severe pain with swelling or other skin infections. The rash cannot be spread from person to person. Repeat infections are usually worse because people become more sensitive to the larvae and develop stronger allergic responses each time they are exposed.
There is no sure way to avoid swimmer's itch entirely, unless you avoid lakes and ponds. Before going into any lake that you are not familiar with, find information about the lake by speaking with other people at the lake, local health officials or parks representatives. Some lakes may be posted as having a swimmer's itch problem. Check for warning signs at public beaches and areas. If you are not sure about a lake, avoid areas with lots of weed growth. There may be more snails around plants, and there may also be more larvae. Applying waterproof sunscreen before going into the water may help keep away swimmers itch.
Most importantly, dry yourself off briskly with a dry towel as soon as you come out of the water. Ideally, you should have a shower and then dry yourself off briskly right away. However, taking a shower will not remove any larvae already penetrated into the skin.
There are a number of steps you can take which may reduce some of the itchiness. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about treatment. Commonly recommended treatments include:
When considering where to swim in any lake, be sure to watch for bouys marking designated boating and swimming areas. For safety reasons, swimming beyond the bouys is prohibited. Some beaches in the area are specified for dogs only, or no dogs allowed. For more information, feel free to stop in at a local visitor's center and pick up some information. Boat launches are many in the Okanagan, and with several great marinas, there's always space to tie up your boat. For over-night stays on the lake, all boats are required to tie up, either to the shore or to a designated float. No one under 16 may operate a boat on Okanagan Lake, and all drivers must have a valid Boating License if under the age of 25.
Because Okanagan Lake is a glacial-carved lake, there are some great areas of high cliffs and deep water for cliff diving. Though not condoned by BC Tourism, or Westbank Tourism as it is a high-risk sport, cliff diving is a popular activity for many locals and visitors. Some of the best cliff diving in the valley can be found on the shores around the Okanagan Mountain Park. Please use extreme caution when cliff diving, as several deaths in the past few years have been reported.
There is a saying in our beautiful valley that goes: 'Water on the water, and Beer on the Pier.' Anyone caught consuming alcohol on the lake, which is regularely patrolled by our local RCMP, or anyone under the influence while operating a watercraft can be fined over $1000 or charged criminally. Please be respectful and safe on our lake, and obey our local laws. Also: lifejackets are to be worn on all craft at all times, for your safety.
Happy Boating, and Have fun!