On a cloudy mid-September day, we load up our motorhome, leave Vancouver and hope for one last week of summer sunshine before winter sets in. Osoyoos, desert of the north - lowest rainfall, highest temperatures and warmest lakes in Canada – is our destination. Three hundred and ninety-six kilometres from home, an easy five-hour, scenic and sunlit drive through the mountains to the lush South Okanagan Valley and we arrive.
Osoyoos, we discover, is a friendly little town, with a resident population of just over 5,000 and many additional visitors during the summer months. It sprawls comfortably on the narrowest part of Osoyoos Lake, close to the Canadian/U.S. border at Oroville, Washington. Originally named Suisus (pronounced Soo-Ewss), translated from the local Okanagan Salish First Nation’s dialect, means where the water narrows or sand bar across. The “O” was likely added by early settlers, perhaps to lend more dignity or to blend with the other “O” names in the region - Oliver, Okanagan, Oroville and Omak.
Arriving in late afternoon and needing to stretch our legs, we meander around downtown and admire the quiet, well-groomed streets and vibrant, profusely flowering hanging baskets. On a downhill slope, the main street curves to the right, then loops east on a wide causeway past a variety of lakeshore hotels, motels, parks and beaches.
Behind the town, shaded light and dark by sun and cloud, Osoyoos Lake stretches as far as the eye can see. Beyond the lake, contrasting sharply with rows of bright, lush vegetation, acre after acre of vineyards and orchards, which surround the town and lakeshore at lower levels, rises a mountainous landscape of dry semi-desert.
Clumps of sagebrush, greasewood, bunch grass, and rabbit and antelope bush dot the rocky, grey-green hillsides. Known as the Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone, or Pocket Desert, the area is part of the Great Basin Desert and part of the network of deserts that extend southward to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It is Canada’s only “arid” desert environment, one of the most unique and endangered ecologically regions in North America, and home to over 100 rare plants and 300 rare invertebrates.
Rattlesnakes make their home here, as do toads and turtles, beavers and bats, muskrats and mice, salamanders, scorpions and the black widow spider. Deer and bighorn sheep roam the hills. Along the lakeshore, grasses, reeds and willows provide habitat to many varieties of wildlife and a large variety of bird species.
Day two promises to be hot, but our lakeside campsite on the east side of town at the Nk’Mip RV Resort is tree-shaded and cool. Rising early, wanting to explore before the heat of the day and keeping a wary eye open for rattlesnakes, we follow the scrub-dotted shoreline to a small, deserted cove and white sandy beach. Sand dunes make walking difficult, so we remove our shoes and enjoy the feel of warm sand squishing between our toes. A clutch of canoes and a rowboat appear around the point, but after a cheery wave and “Hullo, there!” the occupants keep going.
The Nk’Mip, or “bottom-land” native people, who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, own the land. The Nk’Mip (pronounced Ink-a-meep), in a highly successful eco-tourism project started in the early 1990s, have resourcefully developed the area into a popular year-round resort. Large swaths of eco-sensitive land are left untouched to protect endangered plant and animal life. Through educational and protective programs to support them, the Nk’Mip have succeeded in creating an ecologically and culturally responsible tourism business venture that not only not only generates annual revenues in excess of $40 million, but creates hundreds of jobs for Aboriginal people. Economically successful, the project allows the band to administer its own health, education, social and municipal services.
At lakeside level, there is a huge RV park, complete with bistro, general store, laundry and shower facilities, swimming pool and recreational centre. Higher up the hill is a riding stable, and beyond that, hugging the side of the canyon, rows of grape-laden vines lead to a state-of-the-art winery. A five-star vacation resort and spa, restaurants, a golf course, conference facilities and Aboriginal cultural centre complete the hilltop complex.
Leaving our quiet, sunny beach, we return to our campsite to freshen up before hiking up the hill to enjoy lunch at the Nk’Mip Cellars’ award-winning winery. Seated on a wide, flower-bedecked plateau overlooking the vineyard, lake and town beyond, we sample wines and a delicious meal of venison and cherry meatballs, served with quinoa walnut salad. It is our first taste experience of quinoa, an ancient, highly nutritious protein-rich grain, and we love it.
After lunch, we head over to the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre to take in the “Snakes Alive” educational program. Gopher snakes, garter snakes, racers and rattlers - we watch, mesmerized, as handler Russell, a Cree Indian presenter, shows with videos and live “models” the seven snake species native to B.C. We are encouraged to touch some of the smaller ones and are surprised to learn they are not slimy and cold, but smooth and dry. We learn about their habits and habitat, and what to do if a rattler, the only venomous snake in B.C., bites us.
Fortunately, rattlers, now on the endangered species list, are shy creatures that normally depart or seek cover when people approach. They strike only after a warning rattle, giving an intruder time to walk around or away. They do not follow; they don’t want to bite an animal too big to swallow. Bites, if they do occur, are seldom fatal, but medical help should be sought immediately.
After another early morning beach walk, a circle tour the following day brings us to the neighbouring town of Oliver. Vineyard after vineyard, large estate wineries and orchards growing almost every kind of fruit imaginable - cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, grapes and apples - line the route. Roadside market stalls display mouth-watering displays of fresh fruit and veggies. Year-round tours, wine tasting, excellent food and even lodging are offered by some of the estate wineries in the area.
We tour Oliver and then circle back towards Osoyoos, visiting wineries on the way. A delicious lunch on the patio of the Sonora Room, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, is followed by an informative self-guided tour. We learn about wine production, and the significance of terroir: a combination of factors that give wine its distinctive flavour. Climate, soil and sunlight topography (geographical exposure to the sun) create the terroir that produces the unique taste and aromatic characteristics of each winery’s grapes.
Armed with brochures about the area and its history from Oliver Information Centre, we follow back roads to the historic homestead of the Haynes family. Built in 1860 during the pioneer cattle ranching era for John Carmichael Haynes, a highly respected and prominent judge, customs officer and landowner, the house, now derelict, commands a breathtaking view of the valley and surrounding hills. Later, Judge Haynes became a cattle rancher. After increasing his cattle herd to 4,000 head, he acquired the title Cattle-King of the South Okanagan. Along with other Irish landed proprietors, he established cattle ranching as the first industry of the Okanagan.
“Hey, pull over, what was that?” Heading home on Highway 3, nine kilometres out of town, I spy what appears to be a lake, but one that’s dotted with large green, white, and yellow spots. Walking back up the highway to investigate, we find a rare natural phenomenon. The spotted lake (situated on privately owned land, but visible from the road), covering 15.2 hectares (38 acres), contains one of the world's highest concentrations of minerals. Fed by run-off from the surrounding hills, the lake dries out as the summer progresses, its mud forming into white, yellow, green and blue circles, depending on its mineral composition. Known to First Nations people as Klikuk, the lake is of cultural significance and revered as a sacred place of healing.
Reluctantly leaving warm and wonderful Osoyoos, we already make plans to return.
NOVEMBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND