Kamloops, British Columbia: An Age-Old Meeting Place
Sheltered inside a 19th-century replica pit house with a belly full of bannock, berry jam and candied salmon, I listen contentedly as Sepwepemec Museum manager Daniel Saul describes the hectic summer scenes of the annual Kamloopa Powwow.
He’s friendly and open, happy to share his Native American heritage – and snacks – with visitors. But his affability doesn’t surprise me; everyone I meet in Kamloops seems to share Saul’s positive nature.
Leaving the pit house, our group heads up the apple-tree-lined path and towards the museum. We cross paths with a gang of small children, buzzing around the knees of their schoolteachers. “Weytk!” they call out as they pass; the adults smile widely.
“Language teachers,” explains Saul with pride. The greeting is Secwepemcstín; it translates as “welcome.”
An Age-Old Meeting Place
The Secwepemc people have called this area T’kumlups – “meeting place” – since long before European fur traders set up shop here in the early 1800s.
The North Thompson and the South Thompson Rivers converge at this point and today, the city of Kamloops is an intersection both for Canada’s major railways, the CP and the CN, and for the major arteries passing through the British Columbia interior, the Trans-Canada Highway, the Yellowhead Highway, and Highway 97.
People pass through Kamloops all the time; I’m one of them. As a kid, I knew it as a spots our family would pause at for Wendy’s burgers or to put some air in the motorhome tires while on summer road trips from Alberta during school holidays.
One year, I went to the local hospital with an eye infection, and threw up from the intensity of the August sun the next.
It’s funny how it took me 20 years to pay Kamloops a proper visit, one with no heat stroke, no gas stations, and an overnight stay in a bed that wasn’t in a hospital.
But it didn’t take long for my hazy memories of greasy fast food, blurry vision and blistering sunshine to be happily supplanted by vivid ones of its friendly people, amazing craft beer and stark natural beauty. And to think I’ve just been passing through all this time.
What Is Kamloops Covering Up?
One childhood vision that always stayed with me was the view down into the Thompson River Valley and its vast fields shaded by black canopies. So I was excited to visit the Sunmore Ginseng Spa and Factory in Kamloops and find out what exactly is going on under there: the ginseng leaves are avoiding sunburn.
Other than the fact that it needs a parasol, ginseng – the North American version – is perfectly at home in the valley. The key: hot, dry weather altering with a natural winter blanket.
“Ginseng likes snow,” explains our adorable tour guide. That makes one of us.
After a short educational film, we’re shown through a series of rooms stuffed with shelves and baskets of dried root, pickled root, fresh root, ground root, sliced root and everything in between.
I sample a pungent ginseng tea, a searing high-proof ginseng wine, a soothing ginseng breath mint, and mildly flavored fresh ginseng soaked in honey, greatly enjoying – with the possible exception of the wine – every one of them.
But according to staff, I’m not the norm. Because many North Americans are turned off by the flavor of ginseng, Sunmore hit upon the idea of administering the root externally; today, its onsite spa offers a variety of healing treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine.
By the Riverside
Besides its shaded fields, my memories of rolling into Kamloops were mainly of hilly, khaki-colored dirt punctuated by the occasional tumbleweed. That’s probably because the highways, for the most part, bypass the city, giving little hint of the gorgeous network of nature trails accessible from its downtown core.
We walk a portion of the 40+ kilometers of maintained trails that follow the Thompson River; they stretch south to the Peterson Creek Nature Park, west to Kamloops Lake and east to the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park. Without fail, the walkers and joggers we pass smile and greet us warmly.
We stop to say hi to a flock of migratory geese snacking in the grass near a wide sand beach, and peek at the city’s historic steam train in adjacent Pioneer Park, where historical reenactments of Canada’s first train robbery regularly enchant visitors.
Buying Local and Organic at the Farmer’s Market
Crossing the railroad tracks over a spacey looking gold and blue footbridge – apparently the citizens had to be bribed with positive reinforcement and even prizes to get in the habit of using it – we head towards downtown, where the regular Wednesday Farmers’ Market is in full swing along Victoria Street.
Fresh produce, meat and handicrafts are up for grabs, and the vendors are all up for a friendly chat.
Local is the key at this market: just-picked orchard apples and grapes; grain from nearby Armstrong hand-milled into a variety of flours; delicate handmade dolls and brightly colored aprons. The Thompson-Okanagan Region is a cradle of agriculture and the fruits of the land and its people line the tables along the street.
A man selling dahlia bulbs laughs after he mistakes me for a European visitor, while at the next booth, a beef proprietor poses for a photo with a handwritten sign, eager for a free bit of publicity.
Train Robberies and Heritage Buildings
On a side of a building across from the farmer’s market, a new mural immortalizes the Billy Miner train robbery. It’s part of Kamloops’ vivid Wild West heritage, something the city is finally embracing, according to Tourism Kamloops marketing and communications manager Howard Grieve.
With this new attitude, Kamloops is also taking action to preserve its remaining heritage buildings, some of which can be seen along Victoria Street.
Fascist Pig and the Drunken Pumpkin
It’s been a long walk; luckily, downtown Kamloops isn’t short on refreshments. Our first stop: the Noble Pig Brewhouse. This upscale-casual microbrewery and restaurant has been open just a few months and, according to its esteemed brewmaster David Beardsell, a big name in the Canadian microbrewing world, the place has caught on so quickly he can hardly make beer fast enough.
We tour the facility, sampling a few of his concoctions and it’s soon clear why: the man is a genius in his art (and in naming his brews to boot: Facist Pig Pilsner is one clever example).
From a traditional IPA to a Belgian pepper ale and even an autumn offering made with 25 kilos of fresh pumpkin, the Noble Pig doesn’t disappoint. For maximum mileage, order a tasting flight with some deep-fried pickles and a raspberry porter cake, made with Noble Pig-brewed porter, for dessert.
Across the street, the Frick and Frack Taphouse gives off a casual, working-class vibe. With over 130 kinds of beer to choose from, I’m glad to have manager Adrian around to guide us through a tasting.
Each member of our party is presented with six glasses of beer arranged from light to dark; a classic appie platter arrives soon after. Jovial and boisterous, Adrian – a Romanian chemist who immigrated for political reasons and joined the service industry – teases and laughs and makes everyone feel at ease.
Before long, I’m so full of nachos I’ve only managed to taste a few sips from each beer. I pass my drinks down the line and in a few moments, the emptied glasses join the many others crowding the table.
It’s late into the night when we finally wrap up at the Frick and Frack. Saying my goodbyes to Adrian, I stroll up Victoria Street to the Thompson Hotel in the crisp night air.
I pause to gaze into an antique shop window; the streets are quiet, but it’s a temporary state. After all, this is Kamloops – the rivers meet here, the people say hello and things won’t be lonely for long.
For more information, visit Tourism Kamloops online.
Direct flights to Kamloops are available through Calgary, Vancouver and Prince George from Air Canada, WestJet and Central Mountain Air. Via Rail is a good option for train travel to Kamloops, with departures from Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and anywhere along the Via line; the city can also be reached by Greyhound bus. If you’re driving, Highways 1, 5 and 97 all pass through Kamloops.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Thompson Hotel and Conference Centre (650 Victoria Street; $119+) is located right downtown. Slightly farther out from the city, the South Thompson Inn (3438 Shuswap Road; $129+) is another popular option. Budget travelers might want to check out the Kamloops Guesthouse (731 Cumberland Ave; $40+).
WHERE TO EAT:
The Noble Pig Brewhouse (650 Victoria Street) is an innovative microbrewery pub with cuisine by chef Darcy Bolger. Just across the street, the Frick and Frack Taphouse (577 Victoria Street) boasts an impressive selection of over 130 beers. For an authentic Asian experience in the heart of British Columbia, try Warunee’s Thai Restaurant (413 Tranquille Road).
Kamloops has a thriving Native American culture; learn all about it at the Sepwepemc Museum & Heritage Park (355 Yellowhead Highway).
Fresh produce and locally crafted goods are available at the Kamloops Farmer’s Market (Wednesdays Victoria Street; Saturdays St. Paul Street) from late April through October.
When you’re exhausted from all the activity, perhaps a relaxing spa treatment from the Sunmore Ginseng Spa (925 McGill Place; packages $198.50+) is in order. Finally, step into the past on the Kamloops Heritage Railway (#6-510 Lorne Street).
The Thompson River Valley is a sports lover’s paradise. From nearby Sun Peaks Ski Resort to the Sun Rivers Golf Course as well as fishing, hiking, boating and even dogsledding, Kamloops is reinventing itself as a destination for the active. Don’t miss its impressive Tournament Capital Complex (7 Victoria Street) with state-of-the-art facilities to host practically every sport on the Olympic roster.
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