Workshops at the Okanagan branch of BIRS
Richard Smith

From June 27-July 1, 2022, I took part in a workshop organized through the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) and taking place at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus (UBCO). This is a new offshoot of BIRS; officially it opened in 2020, but most if not all the activities during 2020-21 were cancelled because of COVID, so ours was one of the first workshops to actually take place. I'm writing this mainly to give other mathematicians/statisticians invited to UBCO some idea of what to expect.

The first issue is how to get there. You need to fly to Kelowna International Airport (YLW). This is only a couple of miles from the university, and a short cab ride ($16). Most of the routes there go through either Calgary or Vancouver. From my home airport (Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina) I flew through Dallas and then Calgary, which was a bit of a long day's trek, but hey, the flight from Calgary to Kelowna is shorter than the bus ride from Calgary to Banff.

The second issue for me was whether to go in person at all, since participating remotely in hybrid format was definitely an option, and in fact the one that most of the participants chose. In support of this, I have to say that the facilities for remote participation are very good - there were two large screens in the conference room, and we could see and hear the remote participants very well. I imagine that the demand for remote participation at meetings like this will persist for some time, but after several email exchanges with the chief workshop organizer Johanna Neslehova, I decided to go in person (and I didn't regret it!). In the end the on-site participants were a group of 11 (reduced to 10 after the first day as one needed to get back home) but the small numbers really did give us all a chance to get to know each other.

We were all staying in the Nechako residence hall, which I think is the newest residence hall on campus. Presumably the intention is to organize workshops only during university vacations, as otherwise the residence halls would obviously be full. The single rooms are well equipped but remember this is a hall of residence, not a 5-star hotel. You won't be able to order, as I once did in Banff, a room service meal at 11pm. I will mention, each room has its own private bathroom (at Corbett Hall in Banff, two adjacent rooms share one bathroom). Each floor has a common room including a kettle, coffee maker, microwave and fridge. For meals, we were given a preloaded debit card that could be used at any food outlet on campus (and a few off campus). This includes the Sunshine Cafe, the main student cafe where most of us had lunch each day, as well as Starbucks and Tim Hortons (the Canadian coffee chain). There are other fast food options on campus, but I don't think they were open while we were there. You can also use your card at the Orchard convenience store in the Nechako building, a good option if you want to keep some food options in your room.

If you want to go beyond the food options on campus, I recommend heading for the small complex at 975 Academy Way, just a 10 minute walk from Nechako and off campus. (You have to pick up a footpath that starts behind the gym at the south end of campus, crossing a footbridge over John Hindle Drive.) Here you will find Tossing Pizza, a very good Chinese restaurant (Golden Island Asian Cuisine), a brew bar that also serves pub food (the Kelowna Brewing Company), another convenience store, and a well stocked liquor store. As far as I can tell, there is no place on campus that either sells or serves alcohol, but if you head to Academy Way, you will have plenty of options.

If you're looking for more options than that, you can head towards downtown Kelowna, for which you will need to take either a taxi or a city bus ($2.50 one way, exact change in coins required).

The workshop sessions are all held in the Arts Building at the center of campus, an easy 5-minute walk from Nechako, and right opposite Tim Hortons and the Sunshine Cafe. Coffee and snacks are provided in another room in the same building.

Weather. So far, I haven't said a thing about the subject matter of our workshop, but the topics included the statistics of extreme weather events, a particular specialty of mine. So I started my talk with the following graphic.

Yes, that's right, exactly one year before our meeting the temperature hit 44.6 degrees Celsius (112.3 Fahrenheit), by far the highest ever recorded in this part of Canada, and a poster child for how global heating can give rise to extreme weather events. Naturally I was concerned that we might see something similar again, and indeed the first day there was talk of a heatwave with the temperature getting up to 33 (91 degrees Fahrenheit), which for me coming from North Carolina, didn't feel hot at all. But then the weather pattern changed and the rest of the week was much cooler, with some rain. The morning of June 30, the one year anniversary of last year's extreme, I headed out running at 7am when it was 11 Celsius (52 Fahrenheit), much cooler than we ever get in North Carolina at this time of year.

The only advice I can offer is: if you're coming to Kelowna in summertime, be prepared for both hot and cool conditions, and bring a rain jacket!

Excursions. With so many of our participants connecting remotely from different parts of Europe, the organizers arranged most of the technical sessions in the morning, which left some time free for other activities in the afternoons. Johanna did a lot of work behind the scenes to organize two excursions for us. One was a hike up Knox Mountain, a moderate elevation gain (about 300 meters in total) and a stiff climb in places. Here we all are at the top, overlooking Lake Okanagan (photo by Johanna, in the red rain jacket on the right; I am second from the left).

The second excursion was to the Frind Winery, on the far shore of the lake in West Kelowna. Here we had a wine tasting followed by an outdoor meal overlooking the lake, washed down with more wine of course. I personally found the wines in the tasting all rather on the light side; if you want a full bodied red, try the Cabernet franc.

Exercise/Fitness. There's a small exercise room in Nechako (one treadmill, one exercise bike, a few more heavy duty items). There is also a full size gym at the southern end of the campus, and other facilities including a soccer field. I didn't use these so I cannot give you a review, but my understanding was that BIRS participants could use them. Instead, I had several runs on trails near the campus; for a detailed description of the running route I eventually settled on click here.

Concluding Remarks. The Okanagan campus may not have the same superficial attractions as BIRS' home campus in Banff, but my motivation in writing up this account is to show that if you're willing to explore a little bit, there is plenty to do here and no barrier to having a good time. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and although the focus of this account has not been on the scientific side of the workshop, I was able to do some new research of my own which I hope will see fruition as a new paper some time over the next year. So overall, I'm glad I participated.

Thanks to those who made the workshop possible: the organizing team of Johanna Neslehova, Linda Mhalla, Philippe Naveau and Marloes Maathuis; to UBC-Okanagan, the Department of Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics and Statistics, and the Bank of Nova Scotia for financial support; and all the other participants who made it a success. Thanks also to John Braun for correcting some errors in an earlier version of this report.