BC creatures great and small

By Sue Hoffart

Outside the dusty town of Osoyoos, it's tough to imagine any place further from the cliched moose-and-spruce version of Canada's wild west. No bears. No snowy peaks. Certainly no one dashing about in animal-fur hats, what with the temperature nearing 40C and venomous reptiles slithering over the scorched earth.

Rattlesnakes are the darlings of the Nk'mip (say "ink-a-meep") Desert Cultural Centre, where sympathetic staff rescue, tag and monitor the kind of critters most of us like to avoid. The invertebrates now risk extinction, we learn during our tour, courtesy of human intrusion and the fact that snakes never look both ways before crossing the highway.

The cultural centre and nearby Osoyoos sit in a southwestern corner of Canada where vineyards, golf courses, cacti and motorhome-driving senior citizens thrive beneath the fierce summer sun. At this time of year, the roads are lined with stalls selling boxes of berries and peaches to tempt visitors drawn by the heat and the watery playground of Osoyoos Lake.

For us, it is the half-way point on a meandering five-day, 1866km journey between coastal Vancouver and husband Marty's family in the neighbouring prairie province of Alberta. We know Canadians who'd plug the kids into a portable entertainment station and tackle this trip in a day. Given that we're tourists and sons Jake, 8, and Tom, 5, are unaccustomed to driving 10 hours to visit Grandma, we find plenty of excuses to stop and stretch; a town buried beneath a landslide, a house made of embalming bottles, a dip in the lake.

It's an easy family trip free of language problems and cultural clashes, aside from the universal Canadian horror of seeing a child in bare feet outdoors. The roads are uncrowded and smooth and we're armed with a long list of no-tech children's travel games (thanks, Google) and extra maps for the boys to follow with pointed fingers.

Our route cuts through southern British Columbia, avoiding snakes and the more touristy Trans-Canada Highway to the north. The boys have appointed themselves road sign police, checking to ensure we stick solely to secondary routes and byways.

They are also watching for Sasquatch. The hirsute, big-footed creature started showing up on day one, as we reached Harrison Hot Springs. Two hours east of Vancouver, the small resort town sits at the southern tip of a gorgeous, glacier-fed lake, encircled by steep, thickly forested mountains.

In addition to Sasquatch Provincial Park, the Sasquatch Inn and some tacky ape-like statues, Harrison Hot Springs is home to an author who has chronicled multiple sightings of the beast and his legendary footprints. The hotel receptionist shrugs, "It's like some myth or something," she says. "Like the abominable snowman."

A couple of friendly Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers suspect the Sasquatch tales are a ruse to bring tourists to a town that sits at the end of a road and has a permanent population of around 2000. After all, one of them points out, the lake monster theme has been working in Scotland for centuries.

A visit to the information centre reveals Sasquatch is between 2m and 4m tall, smells terrible, has a tendency to snatch women and may live in caves on the west side of the lake.

It's a stinking hot 35C-plus in Harrison Hot Springs, which is hosting its annual arts festival and sand-sculpting contest, where international artists create fantastic temporary art. We are happy to forgo serious Sasquatch hunting trips to listen to live music while wading in the chilly lake, fed by glaciers big enough and close enough to be visible from the shore.

Our close encounter with a hairy beast occurs while driving out of town. The car windows are down and a skunk carcass delivers a memorable farewell whiff.

The back road to Penticton, 300km away, affords exactly the kind of wild piney remoteness that Canada is famed for. There are neck-craning mountains and rivers racing through craggy canyons, with road signs warning of wandering elk. In the forests, ragged red-brown veins mark the deathly path of the pine beetle that has killed trees across the province.

Closer to the Okanagan Valley, the trees thin, mountains sink to mere hills and the increasingly arid land is scattered with wild sage bushes. Beneath a pale, cloudless sky, the relentless heat seems to have washed the landscape of colour.

While empty outdoor ice skating rinks suggest things look different round here in winter, summer is synonymous with crowds of stone fruit stands and signs advertising "pick your own cherries" or "apricots 45 cents a pound". We eat greedily and driver Marty declares the peaches a traffic hazard as he tries to steer while swatting errant juice from his chin and shirt.

Penticton township is wedged between the foot of Lake Okanagan and the head of Lake Skaha. The northern lake is home to Ogopogo - N'ha-a-itk to First Nations people - a legendary water creature said to have a serpent's body and a horse head. Blurry photos suggest Ogopogo bears a striking resemblance to the Loch Ness monster. He may or may not be related to Sasquatch.

Our oceangoing Kiwi boys are impressed though slightly befuddled by this vast tract of water. "Hey, let's go for a swim now," the 8-year-old says. "While the tide's in."

The manicured northern end of Penticton deteriorates into a conglomeration of budget motels and strip malls before reaching Lake Skaha and a barren strip of dusty sand across the road from the airport. Real estate developers have torn down the water slides that once littered this shore and banged up apartments and town houses. But Skaha's waters are still clean and refreshing so we head for a waterfront park and some relief from the soaring temperatures. The skin cancer message does not appear to have reached this far inland, where fellow swimmers are notable for the depth of their tans and the width of their burger-fed bottoms.

Naramata Bench is a small, enormously pretty wine region on the eastern side of Lake Okanagan. The hot summers are just long enough for wine - unless the snow arrives early. A few minutes drive from town, the road climbs clay cliffs above the lake and winds between grape vines, orchards, winery signs and elevated water views. In the thumping 10am heat, a hand-painted "U-pick raspberries" sign draws us into a patch of raspberry canes. The berry farmer is nut brown and shirtless, a confirmed beer drinker who has been here since '59 and he doesn't care much for the vineyards springing up and ousting traditional fruit-growers. One vintner, who also makes cheese, claims the nation's dairy industry is only slightly less regulated than the nuclear power industry.

Locals recommend lunch outdoors at Lake Breeze winery, where enormous wooden bowls of salad are served at tables scattered beneath sun umbrellas. We order wine while the boys quiz the waitress, having long since discovered that everyone will talk to a kid with a funny accent.

Fifty kilometres south, the heat haze around Osoyoos is intensified by a colossal forest fire across the border. Perspiration trickles as we dash from air conditioning to the pool. Our rather swanky resort accommodation sits opposite the Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre and its snakes, next door to a golf course and yet another winery. The large-scale development is unique in Canada because it is partly owned by the resident Osoyoos Indian Band, considered one of the most successful, progressive bands in the country.

At the United States border, a five-minute drive south of Osoyoos, we accidentally spark a minor international incident. Turns out the border crossing road designers did not allow for tourists who merely want to view the invisible line dividing the nations. Stuck with nowhere to turn, we are forced play the "stupid foreigner" card. The armed US border guards are initially suspicious, then amused, and wave us through so we can take photos in no man's land, before looping back to the Canadian entry point.

The officious Canadian guard asks oodles of questions and wants to know how long we've been out of Canada. "Erm. About three minutes," we tell him.

As we continue east, into the deepening forest of the Kootenay region, the boys quiz us on the concept of borders and try to imagine living so close to another country. Or the vastness of a single province that is three and a half times larger than New Zealand.

This particular corner of British Columbia encompasses five mighty mountain ranges including the Rockies and boasts glaciers and excellent ski hills, redneck mining towns, hot springs and ritzy tourist resorts.

Grand Forks does not fall into the ritzy category. It's a blue collar mill town that lays claim to have "the best borscht in Canada".

Downtown is a 1970's time warp, where pawn shops and empty stores are plentiful and the undeniably fabulous borscht is served on tables draped in plastic and fake flowers. A block away, an elderly Polish gentleman writes furiously at a desk, wearing a green top hat festooned with cannabis prints. He relates some pretty interesting stories about Nazi uniforms made from Australian aboriginal hide and there is a lot of talk about God, though I am unclear whether he is for or against.

We learn Grand Forks has a reputation for harbouring especially colourful characters. A Russian sect called The Sons of Freedom once caused a bit of trouble with public protests that involved some placard waving and a lot of nudity. I hope, for their sake, the protests didn't happen in the sub-zero winter months.

Further into the mountains, it's easy to see why the town of Nelson has charmed its way into the hearts of the artsy, outdoorsy, mountain biking crowd and winter skiers. The knock-out location, between lake and mountain, is physically stunning and the vibrant main drag is lined with prettily painted Victorian buildings decked in flower boxes. It's the place to buy your technical climbing gear, handcrafted dishes and something called metaphysical clothing.

We stock up on organic treats and down margaritas at a Mexican restaurant.

The town even boasts its own microclimate and we are certainly sweltering on the top floor of the landmark Hume Hotel. What the old building lacks in air conditioning and modern convenience it makes up for in wide staircases, ornate pillars and history - former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau liked to stay here.

Morning brings a hasty trip to the vehicle ferry pier on 144km-long Lake Kootenay. Billed as "the world's longest free ferry crossing", the serene blue and green journey takes 45 minutes and is deemed part of the road network. Son Tom dons his cutest 5-year-old face and gets us onto the control bridge to gather travel tips and local history from the captain and crew. Don't miss visiting the lakeside glass house, they tell us, where a funeral director built his home from embalming bottles.

But the first shore stop is Crawford Bay, where two barefoot sisters treadle wooden looms to weave cloth. A scattering of other buildings house a potter, blacksmith, wood crafter, glass blower and, best of all, a woman crafting Harry Potter-esque brooms from Mexican corn and knotty branches. I don't fancy my chances of slipping one of the beautiful brooms past the Ag and Fish people at Auckland Airport.

Our last night on the road is spent high in the Rockies, ogling ragged snowy peaks and a cocky little mule deer that munches flowers near the entrance to Island Lake Lodge.

Fancy log structures and spa facilities aside, the real draw is here is 2800 hectares of genuine Canadian wilderness for back country skiing and hiking. Grizzly bear, lynx, coyote and elk roam the surrounding lakes and old growth cedar forest and a sign near the restaurant - we dine on musk ox and bison - warns visitors to watch for a grumpy cow moose with her calf.

Sleep fails us all thanks to a massive lightning show that blows in from nowhere to rumble and flash wildly, for hours.

The storm is not a bad metaphor for our journey, actually: wild, vast and just as surprising as a single province that can produce snakes, decent wine, mythical monsters, brooms, glaciers and a crazy Polish guy in a green hat.

GETTING THERE:

Air NZ has direct flights between Auckland and Vancouver. See
www.airnewzealand.co.nz

DRIVING:

Self-drivers should note New Zealand AA members have automatic membership to Canada's equivalent CAA services, which include a great personalised mapping service called TripTik. For further details visit www.bcaa.com

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Visit www.BritishColumbia.travel, or check out www.KootenayRockies.com and www.vcmbc.com

- NZ Herald

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