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A Canadian Oasis: the dry grasslands and open pine forests of Southern British Columbia are an endangered ecosystem being threatened by the human settlement it attracts.


There is a place in British Columbia where a landscape of caves and semiarid wilderness harkens back to another era. Eagles hunt rattle snakes here, and horses gallop free amid sage, cactus, and dunes, as if in a scene from the Wild West. The wind blows across prairies that stretch out alongside intricate labyrinths of canyons, and the rocky terrain embraces a winding chain of glacial lakes--oblong fresh-water seas that reflect the oasis of their fertile banks like mirages.

"I haven't seen my horse for two months," murmurs our guide, Robert Stelkia, an indigenous native of Okanagan Valley. "He lives free in the desert." As Rob speaks, his dog "Pop" is sliding under a natural stone roof amid the rocky scenery. We are out looking for pictographs near Lake Osoyoos. But the paw prints on the sandy soil under the massive stone distract both of us: "This could easily be a mountain lion den during this time of year," Rob tells me, as he urges Pop to follow its trail. "It's a small cat, but we have to find my horse; he might be spooked by it. When he was born, he was attacked by a fox; that's why I call him Fox."

The dignified and genuine presence of this man, with his faithful cattle dog who appears and disappears blending into the rocky cave-filled landscape, opens a window on a world that takes us back in time as we move amid the natural vegetation of this "Indian country."


The land we are travelling through as we search for the ancient paintings is reservation land given to the Indians in 1861 during the period of Governor James Douglas. Douglas was said to have been moved by the injustices committed against the Okanagan people by fur hunters and other Europeans coming in to explore and exploit the natural resources of the area. His intentions were nobler than his actual accomplishments, however. "As long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the imperial flag continues to fly over Great Britain," Douglas proclaimed before he left office, "these lands will belong to the Okanagan peoples." But the power of his words was consumed by colonization that was advancing like wildfire across the prairies. Much of the land that Douglas had reserved or promised to native peoples was lost as a new chapter was written in the natural and cultural history of British Columbia.

Suddenly, our guide stops and turns around near a massive wall of granite. There, under the natural cover offered by the slope of the west-facing rock, is the painted figure of a man. It is perfectly preserved and stands out because of its intense red color and well-defined lines. This treasure is exposed to light for all to see and yet anyone who passed by too quickly would miss it.


Rob follows the outline of the rock and moves forward pointing to lines coming out from the top of the rock. He turns a comer and finds another section with similar paintings. "This part looks like a message with mathematical symbols," he says, also noticing patterns that may have to do with the seasons, the solstices, and the lunar cycles. Mathematical or not, it is definitely a piece of cultural heritage that is as old as it is symbolic; an indelible memory that goes back to the birth of art in this part of the new world; a tribute to a mythological deity waiting to be deciphered. Unlike the surrounding area which, though unpolished, already shows the signs of a couple of centuries of modernity, these pictures have survived and remained mysteriously uncorrupted by the elements or by time.

The South Okanagan and Similkameen valleys--together known by the abbreviation S.O.S.--bring together with eloquence the wild virtues of this south-central area of British Columbia. They are migratory corridors between the prairies of the north and the Sonora, Mojave, and Chihuahua deserts in the south. As a connection between the interior dry plateaus of British Columbia and other far away ecosystems, these valleys have the distinction of housing the only desert-like lands in Canada.

The combination of geology and geography here has contributed to producing an especially friendly climate with exceptional conditions for the proliferation of a great variety of habitats in unusual proximity. In this one place, there are wetlands, prairies, rocky outcroppings, evergreen forests with pine trees, and deciduous forests. All of these habitats are the permanent or temporary homes of numerous species of Canadian plants and animals. Eight endemic species of invertebrates are found here, which means they do not exist in any other part of the world. Another eight species of vertebrates and 28 invertebrates are not found in any other part of Canada.


These valleys are important access and migration routes that permit the flow of life across North American borders. Crucial channels for many animal species, they are especially important corridors for birds during their annual migrations. Along these routes, birds flock to wetlands where they can rest, escape predators, and find food before continuing their long journeys.

Experts in ecology tell of how these corridors have experienced gradual changes over long periods of time as new plant and animal species have extended their ranges of occupation. Southern species, for example, have had the opportunity to arrive and disperse into new areas in the north. These corridors are truly a "living geography" and an integral part of the processes of ecological change and adaptation that make British Columbia the rich and diverse province that it is today. As the climate warmed after the last ice age, for example, many species moved from the arid zones of Washington and Oregon through the narrow S.O.S. corridor northwards to populate the so-called Central Interior area of the province along the Thompson, Chilchotin, and Fraser rivers.

Human colonizers followed the same route over the years in migrations before and after the time of Columbus. The geography and climate of the Central Interior has attracted a growing human population that has colonized lands with intense activities ranging from large ranching operations to the production of fruit and wine. Small businesses have turned into large industries quickly.


Wine production is one of the youngest but fastest emerging industries in the Americas. Okanagan's own wine industry has taken shape over the last two decades with new vineyards, brands, and labels emerging each year. Already, international festivals attract people from all over the world who come to taste summer wines that are as competitive as they are original. One exquisite dessert wine is bottled with a chili pepper! It is produced by the "Silver Sage" winery, named in honor of the predominant vegetation of the open grasslands.

Unfortunately, from the time the first fur hunters arrived from the Hudson Bay to this "interior paradise," human activity has transformed the landscape to the point where it has become one of the three most threatened ecosystems in Canada. Among the life forms moving backwards towards extinction are five species of vertebrates that have already disappeared forever and 23 species of plants and animals in danger of extinction. Organizations at the forefront of conserving biodiversity in the province say that about 31 percent of all animal species and 35 percent of plant species are on British Columbia's so-called "Red List" for species and ecological communities considered "extirpated, threatened, or in imminent danger of extinction." Their final destiny will depend, above all, on the preservation of their original habitats.


Two seemingly antagonistic forces--rich biological diversity and exploitable natural resources--are precisely what have attracted such a large human population to the region. But perhaps they are not completely irreconcilable forces. One opportunity for the reconciliation of development and conservation may be what is now being called "the green industry," tourism. The friendly geography and climate of the Central Interior area of British Columbia give it the potential to become a recreational epicenter with tourism along beaches and hillsides during three radiant seasons of vacation splendor. Tiffs modern paradise can be travelled by foot, horseback, bicycle, boat, or highway. And visitors are already coming to the sun capital of this boreal country to climb the rocky walls of seductive promontories like the "Skaha Bluffs," or to hang glide off the sides.

Today, most people in the south-central area of British Colombia--about a quarter of a million of them--live in urban areas, in towns like Osoyoos on the southern border with the United States and in cities like Salmon Arm north of the Okanagan valley. Penticton is a booming city located between two majestic lakes; the native Salish determined Penticton's destiny with its name, which means "a place to live in forever."

The grace and abundance of this place seem sure to leave a lasting inheritance of diversity and quality of life for those who live here. Their future will depend, however, on finding the right balance of development that will benefit the entire population, whether human or animal, migratory or local. The name S.O.S. does not have to be a voice of environmental alarm; it could simply be a name for a certain oasis in a "living desert" of North America.

Aldo Brando, a frequent contributor to Americas, is a documentarian who specializes in nature photography in the Americas.
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Author:Brando, Aldo
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CBRI
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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