Paddles dip into the water. The gentle swoosh blends with the traditional song Indigenous cultural knowledge keeper Justin “Sonny” Prairie Chicken sings.
Facing us from a seat in the bow of our long canoe, he plays a flat, round drum painted with eagle feathers. We paddle with his drum and voice, moving easily along the South Thompson River to the gentle rise and fall of his singing in Secwepemctsin, the language of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) people.
We’re heading towards Tk’emlúps, the Secwepemc name for the site where two rivers met. We know the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers as the city of Kamloops.
Indigenous tour company Moccasin Trails is taking us along the river that has been travelled by people of the Secwepemc nation for centuries.
Moccasin Trails co-owner Greg Hopf is in the stern, steering us past dramatic rock hoodoos on one side and urban and desert landscapes on the other. It’s hard to block the city out but with Prairie Chicken’s songs and compelling stories, it gets easier to let imagination take over.
At the start of the trip, each of us dipped a pinch of tobacco from a birchbark basket, scattering the strands on the water as an offering to Mother Earth. Hopf suggested we think of a blessing for people in our lives.
A member of the Piikani and Secwepemc Nations, soft-spoken Prairie Chicken tells us about his family and childhood. He shares creation stories and explains cultural practices and traditions. He’s fluent in a half-dozen Indigenous languages, plus Portuguese and French. He speaks Secwepemctsin while teaching school kids how to build canoes, using the old ways, from a single massive tree. It’s a chance to build their language skills as they learn the craft.
Ask me anything, he says.
Will he tell us more about participating in the sacred Sundance?
Prairie Chicken pulls the neck of his shirt down to reveal a necklace-like pattern of round scars across his upper chest. There are more across his back, he says, places where pegs have pierced his flesh.
These are affixed to ropes, enabling Sundancers to drag heavy buffalo skulls behind them, or be suspended from a tree or dance pole in a deeply spiritual and sacred ritual.
The ceremony, preceded by a four-day fast alone on the land, is one he has been doing in some form since he was 15.
“It’s the only thing we can give the world; give ourselves,” he says.
Our morning on the river was a highlight of a recent trip to Kamloops, and the kind of cultural tourism encounter visitors to British Columbia increasingly want, Hopf says. Of the more than six million people who visit the province annually, “One out of every three wants an Indigenous experience.”
Moccasin Trails leads interpretive canoe trips and a hike to a nearby sacred site. There’s also a new Water to Wine Experience. The five-hour Sunday tour starts with an interpretive paddling trek that ends at a private dock at Kamloops’ oldest estate winery, Harper’s Trail. There’s a VIP wine tasting and light lunch.
The Thompson Valley is British Columbia’s youngest wine region, with three wineries — Privato Vineyard and Winery, Monte Creek Ranch, and Harper’s Trail — growing and making red, white and rosé wines. They’re all close to Kamloops.
Terri Axani of DiVine Tours runs a variety of excursions along the Kamloops Wine Trail, as well as to some of the tasting rooms and restaurants of four local craft brewers. (Cider fans will want to stop by the tasting room at Woodward Cider Co. on the Privato Winery site.)
Axani also teamed with Moccasin Trails to create the Water to Wine tour and handles the land portion of the excursion.
“This whole region is rich in history,” says Axani, who is Cree and Métis.
On our winery tour, she took us down “the road less travelled,” forgoing the highway for East Shuswap Road. We saw stirring old west-style views of the rock faces and hoodoos, and stopped to photograph elegant California Bighorn Sheep posing on outcroppings like they were aware of their magnificence.
Later, we got a look at a rare white Kermode bear, the legendary spirit bear. Native to the northwest rainforest, Clover is unable to survive in the wild and now lives at the BC Wildlife Park in Kamloops. With a spread-out population of less than 100,000 of the spirit bears, Kamloops could surprise travellers who think BC means cool green forests and ocean.
Explore Kamloops Unique Landscape
This area is pure desert and has its own spectacular beauty, with sagebrush, rock formations, rivers, and brilliant sunshine. Kenna Cartwright Park has a series of trails close to the city centre and is the largest municipal park in British Columbia. Peterson Creek Park also has good views and is about a five-minute drive from downtown. Riverside Park is where the rivers meet, a good place to cool off, walk on the beach or catch a free concert (there’s one every summer evening at 7 pm).
Another surprise is the elevated dining scene, propelled by chefs and owners keen to showcase the bounty from local farms, including game and area ranches. There are three excellent restaurants downtown, all handy to hotels. And Hello Toast makes a fine breakfast, including pesto-laced green eggs and ham.
Terra is in a Victoria Street building that was once home to a theatre. A young Boris Karloff appeared there very early in his theatrical career, before becoming a monster movie star. Chef-owner David Tombs creates artful plates that focus on freshness and local bounty, with a squeeze of humour. The soup of the day is listed as “made with love and ugly vegetables.” My nose-to-tail local lamb entrée was exceptional.
Forno on Fifth is the sister restaurant to nearby microbrewery and eatery The Noble Pig, which is neighbour of another newish brewery, Alchemy Brewing Company. Named for its signature pizza oven, Forno offers family-style dining for groups of four or more, or an a la carte menu. It’s upscale but not stuffy. An impressive wine list, too.
At Brownstone Restaurant, in the 1904 Canadian Bank of Commerce building where poet Robert Service once worked, I had a massive chunk of super-savoury, bacon-wrapped elk meatloaf. It paired beautifully with Privato pinot noir, grown and made just a few kilometres away. All of these restaurants include local wines on their lists, rightfully proud to introduce the best from nearby vineyards that visitors might not taste anywhere but in Kamloops.
And a traveller can’t help but say cheers to that.
MORE ABOUT VISITING KAMLOOPS
Ski Season Tips: Sun Peaks Resort is a 45-minute drive from Kamloops. A popular ski resort when the snow flies, in the summer take the chairlift up about 1,800 feet to the crisp air of flower-covered alpine meadows. The $23 day pass includes access to 18 trails of varying difficulties and a bonus: There’s a barrel of ski poles when you get off the lift in case you forgot your hiking poles.
Getting There: I travelled from Victoria, taking BC Ferries to Vancouver and driving about five hours to Kamloops, including a stop for lunch and a coffee break. I took Highway 1 to Hope, then followed the churning Fraser River for breathtaking views of the Fraser Canyon gorges. On the way home, 5A (the old Merritt Highway) makes for a beautiful drive past lakes and ranches. I stopped for lunch in Merritt at Kekuli Café, which serves Indigenous food under the banner: “Don’t panic, we have bannock.” The twisty Coquihalla Highway took us to Hope and Hwy. 1 onwards to Vancouver.
Where to Stay: Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel is downtown, directly across from Riverside Park and has free parking. Some rooms have river views. A recent search of the hotel’s booking engine returned a fall rate of $117 per night.
More information: Visit the Tourism Kamloops website for help with additional guidance with your trip planning.
Linda Barnard was a guest of Visit Kamloops, which did not preview this article.