The hills are alive with the sound of rattlers

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      There's nothing like a rattlesnake–even one in a docile mood–to command an audience's attention. Bob Etienne understands his star attraction's magnetic appeal. When the Georgia Straight stopped in at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos for a tour recently, the reptile specialist skillfully toyed with the onlookers' mixture of fear and fascination while conducting one of the daily snake interpretive sessions.

      For a warm-up act, his assistant, Rainbow Ford, brought out a harmless gopher snake, a western rattlesnake look-alike. Everyone was invited to stroke its brindle-patterned skin. Then, with the help of long-handled tongs, she gingerly coaxed a venomous pit viper named Goliath, who appeared to be in a rather torpid mood, onto a smooth tabletop. A low wall separated spectators from the snakes–a good thing, since almost everyone in the crowd strained forward for a closer look, especially the youngsters. Etienne offered insightful details about the challenges wildlife face in the southern Okanagan's harsh desert environment, specifically Goliath and kin. Research has shown that western rattlesnakes rarely venture more than a kilometre from their wintering dens, some of which lie in the bluffs directly above the centre. Unable to cope with extreme heat, the cold-blooded creatures only slither out at night.

      The $9-million Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which opened in June 2006, is the latest in an impressive list of economic initiatives undertaken by the Osoyoos band over the past 25 years. During a tour, general manager Charlotte Sanders outlined the centre's mission: "We teach the lands, the legends, and the peoples." She pointed out that the centre is still a work in progress, particularly the layout of interpretive trails and displays that surround the architectural marvel.

      Set into a hillside of antelope brush and sagebrush, the centre's rammed-earth walls are striated with pastel shades mimicking its surroundings. An undulating exterior wall bears precise, colour-coded time lines that detail significant geological, historical, and human events from the band's perspective. "Our chief, Clarence Louie, is a keen historian, and we worked on this for two years to get it right," Sanders said.

      At the heart of this latest band-driven initiative–which also includes a winery, golf course, and resort complex–is a desire to preserve a way of life that's undergone considerable change over the past two centuries following European contact. Clearly, Chief Louie sees a parallel between his people's traditional relationship with the land and the relationships that creatures such as badgers, burrowing owls, and western rattlesnakes have with Mother Earth.

      The pace of development in the Okanagan is so brisk that less than nine percent of the original habitat remains, a third of which lies undisturbed on band lands, with more land every year being cultivated for irrigated vineyards. This is why a visit to the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre provides such a timely–and surprisingly entertaining–perspective on this unique microclimate, one that has been characterized as the most endangered environment in Canada.

      The heady scent of sagebrush filled the sun-baked landscape as Sanders left the cool confines of the centre's interior, which features a theatre, interpretive galleries such as a rattlesnake "hotel", and a revelatory display of Inkameep day school children's drawings from the 1930s. (Unlike many Native bands, the Okanagan hired teachers to work on their reserve rather than send students to residential schools.) Life-size metal figurines by Spokane artist Virgil "Smoker" Marchand installed beside pathways suggest what life was like in a traditional village environment. One balances hot rocks at the doorway of a sweat lodge while others spear and dry salmon. The most impressive depicts a stylized warrior on horseback offering a peace pipe to the sky.

      Time spent under the desert sun quickly saps strength from even the most energetic souls. Benches in riparian groves of ponderosa pines and cottonwoods offer shade in which to relax. As you survey the brown hills that roll south into nearby Washington state and north toward Oliver through a stretch of vineyards known as the Golden Mile, take comfort in the thought of a cooling dip in Osoyoos Lake. Directly downhill from the centre at lakeside lies the Nk'Mip campground and RV park. Opened in 1982, it was one of the band's first tourism-related ventures and remains the most popular attraction. Recently, many such privately run waterfront parks, the staple of family vacations for generations, have been sold for redevelopment as condominiums. In their own way, the Okanagan are just as protective of camping as a way of relating to the land as they are within the larger objectives of their cultural centre. And that's good news for everyone who enjoys sleeping under the stars. Just watch your step after dark. These hills are alive with timid rattlers who would just as soon avoid you too.

      ACCESS: Osoyoos lies 397 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway 3 via Princeton. Allow four to five hours to drive the journey. For information on activities, attractions, accommodations, and dining, contact Destination Osoyoos (1-888-676-9667; ), which operates an info centre at the junction of highways 3 and 97 in Osoyoos. The Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre is located at 1000 Rancher Creek Road north of Highway 3 on the eastern side of Osoyoos Lake. Call 1-888-495-8555 or visit for details.