Uwe and Gail Johnas are situated on Assiniboine River Valley upland in what has been known as Oak Lake’s “north country”. The Johnas farm home is surrounded by groves of pine and spruce trees.
Uwe (“w” pronounced “v”) and Gail have retired from their respective vocations, operating a mixed farm and a career in Psychiatric nursing.
During a mid-morning visit, Gail serves up home-made pancakes with Uwe’s maple syrup.
The flavourful syrup is not oversweet, like store-bought syrup.
“It’s not as thick, but Gail likes it that way,” says Uwe Johnas. He has been processing maple sap for some 30 years now.
“It actually started as a school project for the girls. Bob Gass up in McCreary had a seminar, took us out on a wagon, drove us around and showed us how,” he explains.
He bought supplies and learned to install spigots in the tree trunks.
They have fourteen quarts of syrup left after their “sugaring off” party a couple of weekends ago. Gail says, “When we have the sugaring off, as we’ve done over the years, sometimes we invite the community, our north country friends, sometimes we invite the church or our family. We can’t have them all at once, there’s too many,” says Gail.
Uwe taps 30 trees, Maples planted years ago by previous landowners.
Homesteaded by Reuben Kennedy and then Ralph Smith, the Johnas family is the third family on the property.
Uwe’s parents Dan and Lina Johnas fled eastern Prussia with two sons, to arrive almost 67 years ago in Oak Lake.
Asked about the circumstances, his response is short. “Because our homeland was taken over by the Russians, and the Poles.”
“They lost everything,” said Gail.
About nine years ago, Uwe returned to his birthplace. “My mum’s house, where she was born, was still there. It was a beautiful location. For a few seconds I actually thought, this would be beautiful.”
He describes a narrow paved highway with a lake just about 30 feet away.
“The barn was still there, all out of brick with fancy arches,” tells Gail. In the barn, harnesses still hanging there. Possibly the very ones his mother put on horses.
It was April 27, 1952 and Uwe was a child of five when they landed at Oak Lake to experience record breaking heat, 32C.
“I remember Mum and Dad always talking about it. When we got off the train in Oak Lake, the grass was eight inches high already.”
Chris Bothe helped the Johnas family emigrate. He was established in the area, “in the early ‘20s I think it was.” His two brothers joined him and they married Uwe’s mother Lina’s two sisters.
“They were so close, they fled the Russians together,” Gail. “When they did move to Kelowna they lived very close together. They worked in the fruit canning factory in Kelowna. They would exchange hours and would nurse each other’s babies.”
The young Johnas picked his share of cherries as a teen, before the family returned to Oak Lake, where the Johnas boys chose to farm.
But years later, Uwe’s affinity for fruit growing continues, part of the fabric of their rural lifestyle.
For some 10 years now real B.C. style peaches ripen on the Johnas farm in August. “You’ve never tasted anything like it!” Gail raves.
Uwe and Gail have been married 47 years. Two of their three grown children live nearby while a third daughter lives with her husband and their two children in Medicine Hat, Alta.
“We actually met when my parents, Mel and Myrtle Reimer, moved to Kola,” says Gail. The family moved from eastern Manitoba; Gail attended VCI. She became friends with Uwe’s sister. The shy young man was surprised when a “Mennonite” girl with long blonde hair and tight jeans showed up at their home. They fell in love and were married.
Uwe began farming where they still live; he taught the town girl to drive the tractor. They raised fowl, pigs, and cattle on a mixed farm.
When interest rates soared in the 1980s and then hail wiped them out, the Johnases had some tough years.
Gail knew she had to go to work off the farm, so at 46 she entered university to earn a four-year degree in Psychiatric nursing. She said, “It turned out really well.”
Yup,” Uwe said, “You saved the farm.”
The couple expresses faith in God and an indomitable spirit. “When you look back and see how the Lord has brought us through,” says Gail, “we did our darnedest, but it wouldn’t have been enough.”
Like the trees around them, the Johnas family has developed deep roots and a tradition of hospitality in Oak Lake's North Country.