Canada’s Pocket Desert

On March 13, 2014 · 3 Comments

Canada allegedly has exactly one lonely desert, or maybe none at all depending on who might have been consulted. Various names were coined for the anomaly known colloquially as "Canada’s Pocket Desert" including Okanagan, Osoyoos and Nk’mip. Whatever the designation, it’s located adjacent to the Town of Osoyoos in southern British Columbia, just north of the United States border.

Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada

Some of it might be marketing hype. Osoyoos registered a trademark for its motto, Canada’s Warmest Welcome® in 2008, stating via press release that it "was a play on the fact that Osoyoos has the country’s warmest climate and lake." It’s tourism website claimed "Canada’s only true desert." and noted "very little rain or snow (12 inches or 30.5 cm a year)."

Osoyoos Desert Centre to Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre

The area even included two distinct Desert Centres. The nonprofit Osoyoos Desert Society operated its Osoyoos Desert Centre on the western side.

The South Okanagan is home to one of the highest concentrations of rare and at-risk species in all of Canada. Through its conservation, restoration and education efforts, the Society strives to generate public knowledge, respect and active concern for these fragile and endangered ecosystems.

The Osoyoos Desert Society seemed to take a solidly consistent position that they were protecting a true desert.

Osoyoos by Claude Robillard on Flickr
via Creative Commons license

The Osoyoos Indian Band of the Okanagan Nation operated its Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre on the eastern side. This First Nations tribe hedged its bets about the status of the desert.

Expecting to see tall cactus and sand dunes? Although we share the same dry conditions as Phoenix Arizona, and many desert dwellers such as prickly-pear cactus, scorpions, rattlesnakes and Canyon Wrens live on our site, the jury is still out about whether we are a true desert. What is a desert— low rainfall, hot weather, cactus? Osoyoos does have years with precipitation below 10 inches but we often have rainy and snowy spells which support areas of lush vegetation.

Whether its a true desert, semi-desert, shrub-steppe, Upper Sonoran — all terms used to describe the area by various sources — a more official designation might be Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone. Desert or not, it’s quite small, quite rare and quite endangered.

The semi-desert area in the southern Okanagan Valley is the region called the Osoyoos-Arid Biotic Area by Munro and Cowan (1947). It is a narrow strip of territory, about 38km (24 miles) long, running from Shaha Lake south to the international boundary. It lies generally below 335 m (1100 ft.) and is characterized climatically by mild winters, hot summers and very little precipitation (less than 20 cm (8 inches)).

I never concluded my thoughts about the controversy. It’s an interesting feature whether it’s an actual desert or not (and certainly more of a desert than England’s "Desert"). That’s when I spotted the nearby Anarchist Protected Area and lost interest.


Anarchist Protected Area? Did Canadian anarchists require their own protected area? As it turned out, no they did not. The Anarchist Protected Area was named for nearby Anarchist Mountain.

Anarchist Mountain, British Columbia, Canada

British Columbia’s GeoBC cited two sources in its origin notes and history for Anarchist Mountain, including "BC place name cards, or correspondence to/from BC’s Chief Geographer or BC Geographical Names Office":

Anarchist Mountain – July 2009 by Jamie Rothwell on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Anarchist Mountain and Sidley were both named after Richard G. Sidley, an early settler and first postmaster at Sidley (1895), who, because he showed some brilliance, was appointed Justice of the Peace and Customs Officer (dates not cited). He held, for his time, somewhat advanced political views; he was often called an anarchist, and this plateau became known locally as "the anarchist’s mountain". Local officialdom eventually relieved him of his posts.

I loved that little throwaway comment at the end — "Local officialdom eventually relieved him of his posts" — like the settlers tolerated him for awhile until he finally got on their nerves. At least he still had his mountain.

On March 13, 2014 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Canada’s Pocket Desert”

  1. Ross Finlayson says:

    Another interesting place near Osoyoos is “Spotted Lake”:

    There’s also a ‘desert that’s not really a desert’ in New Zealand:

  2. My favourite part of driving over Anarchist Mountain is when you reach the top and drive past the ‘Anarchist Summit’ sign. Seems like a really remote location for a protest demonstration.

    In all seriousness, the descent down the west side of Anarchist Mountain into Osoyoos is absolutely stunning.

  3. Ariel Dybner says:

    No discussion of Canadian deserts can be complete without discussing the Carcross Desert, the world’s smallest desert. Located in Carcross, Yukon, it is only 640 acres.

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