Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 13, 2009

Context and Culture in Kamloops, British Columbia

… Chatting with Lee Morris

 

Traveller-friendly Kamloops

There are some destinations that seem to meet you at the door as if you were either a long-lost friend; or just someone they haven’t seen for awhile. Such special places greet you with a little more bonhomie and graciousness than most, as if to say, “C’mon in and sit awhile.”

This goodwill is at the core of Kamloops, British Columbia; in many ways the heart, soul, and essence of one of Canada’s most topographically and diverse landscapes. I had first visited Kamloops in the summer, but this time I went in the winter, and I can assure you that the change of season was not only an enhancement of that critical “sense of place” that we Canadians have embedded in our psyches, but also a reminder that there is a lot of good living going on away and beyond megalopolis.

As you will hear in this podcast with Lee Morris, Kamloops and area is also a very special landscape in both a physical and human sense. It is a distinct region of British Columbia and Canada where precious grasslands and historic rivers are gently folded into the surrounding mountains which, while substantial and alluring, are not the kind of ethereal mountains that evoke a sense of reverence, and to some degree trepidation.

If mountains have personality, those in and around Kamloops evoke the comforting, nurturing, and benevolent side of our relationship with the land. I should point out that this is also cowboy country (a sub-culture unto itself that should not be underestimated in terms of its humanistic qualities), and therefore there is also a strong and sustaining side to what is essentially an intimate landscape.

Multidimensional Kamloops

In terms of what this part of British Columbia offers, Kamloops is always pregnant with possibility. It is the kind of destination in which you may find yourself “wandering at will.” Here it is best to think in a lateral (as opposed to linear) fashion and to go with the flow. While part of the “flow” will come from the people you meet, it is in many ways the ideal destination for designing your own customized itinerary.

Where to begin

Well wherever you want … but more than likely you will begin downtown.

And when I say downtown I mean downtown, because Kamloops is a true Main Street culture. This is obvious when you see the collection of shops on the main street, some of which of course cater to the tourist trade, but also all the regular small city commerce that caters to the people of Kamloops and their visitors. The shops are distinct in their architectural character, often historic buildings beautifully restored, and down-to-earth businesses that prove that the heart of a city is its downtown. As a kind of centrepiece for the downtown core, the Plaza Heritage Hotel is the kind of community-minded preservation piece that fortunately is being recognized for its real value all across North America. The hotel is another example of common sense urban planning that emphasizes long-term planning without indulging unduly in “nostalgia.” For amateur or wannabe architects and for social historians, the hotel is a true reflection of the historic past of Kamloops. What you will be impressed with is the authentic detail and all the warm woods that have been refurbished and blended into the décor. Each room is decorated to reflect a 1920s style, and antiques, archival photographs, and period piece furniture are found throughout the hotel. The transformation of hotel was the project of a local lawyer and investors, and later Kamloops City Councillor Tina Lange who is also in the restaurant business. Like many in Kamloops who have a deep sense of identification with their city, Tina has been involved on many boards throughout her life and considers herself a native Kamloopsian. She is one of five daughters, has three daughters of her own and three grandchildren. Working with her daughters she opened a local restaurant downtown before proceeding to the Plaza project. Another restored heritage building of note, and a fine restaurant to boot, is The Brownstone Restaurant, a typical 1940s-1950s era bank. Canadians and Americans d’un certain âge will recognize the classical “bank” style.

Thompson Country

To get an overall sense of Thompson Country, as it is called, you might consider following the Kamloops’ Western Heritage Trail. As you will see, this superb interactive and multimedia “travel planner” gives you a great overview of the area: of the topography, wildlife, First Nations people, the vital role played by the fur traders in the area, the history of Western Canada, and the ranching-cowboy culture — Canadian-style. You might also be surprised to learn that Kamloops is considered by many, including an influential group of Tibetan monks, to be literally the centre of the universe. And, if you liked the film The Grey Fox starring Richard Farnsworth, you may also be surprised to learn that the real event happened in and around Kamloops.

And speaking of trains…

Kamloops is a major railway centre and the city has quite wisely preserved its railroad history. (Why is it that train travel is still one of the most romantic and experiential modes of travel?). The “Spirit of Kamloops” heritage train and tour will create a strong sense of identification through your mind’s eye of how train travel was (and still is) critical to the development of Canada’s West. One caveat. When you take the “Spirit of Kamloops” tour, don’t be too surprised if a startling (but fun) event occurs while you are on board. Kamloops is also the major stopover for the illustrious Rocky Mountaineer, although if you are taking that scenic train and can arrange it, I certainly recommend several nights in Kamloops.

Kamloops as a wildlife, nature-oriented, and agritourism destination

Increasingly, contemporary travellers — whether as individuals, families, or groups — are searching for new and meaningful destinations that are “in synch” with the growing “green tourism” approach to travel. In this respect, there is much to see and do in Kamloops, amongst which are the following:

  • The BC Wildlife Park where you will encounter 65 species from the region;
  • the previously mentioned Kamloops Heritage Trail through which you will be able to explore the region through rockhounding and fossil hunting (the geology of the area has made it a region rich in minerals, fossils, and precious stones);
  • over 100 pristine lakes within an hour of the city itself (the region is home to the Kamloops Rainbow Trout) … and don’t forget ice fishing in the winter).
  • Nearby a hop skip and a jump to Kamloops are provincial parks for those who enjoy camping and the RV mode. They include: Lac le Jeune, Paul Lake, and Steelhead

Kamloops as an all-seasons sports destination

I am not at all surprised that Kamloops is the “Tournament Capital” of Canada; the sporting subculture is both in the blood of the locals but also inherent in the landscape which lends itself to so many sports.

I also appreciate the recent marketing slogan and strategy that Tourism Kamloops is promoting under the title of “Playtime. Redefined.”

The role of human play in fundamental skill development and self-determination and the maintenance of individual and community health is often underestimated. As we have seen in so many travel and tourism destinations, an emphasis on physical activity whether it just be rambling through the grasslands of Kamloops in search of birds and other flora and fauna, makes for a cohesive community. Don’t we all yearn every now and then to escape the sensory overload of the urban environment for some proverbial peace and quiet? Well, this decampment is within minutes of Kamloops.

Visiting Kamloops this time in the winter, I was able to indulge once again in two of my favourite outdoor activities which I don’t get to do often enough living in Ontario: alpine skiing and dogsledding. The skiing was a once-in-a-lifetime experience unless some other Gold and Silver-winning Olympic medallist invites me to go skiing. (See the link at the end of this piece on Nancy Greene.)

The resort is called Sun Peaks, and as you will hear in my chat with Nancy, it is one of the most integrated ski destinations (both alpine and cross-country) in Western Canada. And, if you have never done it, dogsledding through winding snow-covered trails is also an experience of a lifetime. As an animal lover (dogs especially), I can vouch for the skill, care, and expertise of the two young men who operate Alaskan Husky Adventures. This is not a rent-a-sleddog operation; it is however an opportunity to learn about the world of “mushing” first hand.

Other indicators of Kamloops as a very healthy sport tourism destination are Kamloops Bike Ranch and McArthur Island Park and Riverside Park.

There are numerous other such attractions available online at www.tourismkamloops.com. And we must not forget Kamloops as a major alternative golf destination … nor the Zen possibilities of that sport. Golf is always about the environment and a very special sense of place that only golfers really appreciate. It is not just the lay of the land but the sensory experiences and the refocussing of the mind that this sport can engender. And of course “green golf” is also becoming more and more a social priority. Well, by now you can imagine the setting in which golf in Kamloops (13 remarkable courses) takes place. Before actualizing your perfect drive be sure to shout “Fore!” so that the moose can step aside.

Kamloops as a destination for the mind

It is probably quite obvious to you by now that I was very “taken” with Kamloops. And I assure you, not all destinations I visit, have the comprehensive feel good appeal that Kamloops does. It is a destination in which “mindfulness” takes on a whole new meaning; and it is the kind of destination that gives you the opportunity to regain some perspective in regards to your own home turf, especially if you live in a sprawling urban environment as I do.

There are a number of specific “markers” in Kamloops which in my experience are indicative of an planned quality-of-life culture. One of the first things I do when I visit any destination, especially of course a town or city, is to look for the local library and the educational institutions. Well the modern architecturally-impressive and state-of-the-art public library in Kamloops (on the downtown main street no less) tells you an awful lot about the priorities of this community.

So too does the Thompson Rivers University which by the way has impressive business education programs, in particular a School of Tourism. Well that just makes sense; a school of tourism in a region in which the students can benefit from the experiential learning opportunities. Of special note in Kamloops for the conceptual traveller are also the following: Western Canada Theatre; the Kamloops Art Gallery ; and the Kamloops Symphony.

But, before I forget, I must mention a unique venue for the mind and body in Kamloops, the Sunmore Ginseng Spa. Now I am not a regular spa goer (especially of the lah dee dah, self-indulgent variety) but I have spent quality time in a European spa and quite understand the long practical history, environmental effects, and holistic health benefits of spa treatments. If only my health insurance would cover them! But the Sunmore Ginseng Spa is remarkable not only for its treatments (Ginseng is integral to them all) but it is also a wonderful Asian art venue. The very feng shui décor, the collection of unique art treasures from throughout Asia, and the vision of the owners makes it a local treasure that, let’s face it, you probably would not have expected to find in the interior of Brtitish Columbia.

Well let that be a lesson to us!

And finally, First Nations culture is an integral part of the mindful and historical experience of Kamloops. Aboriginal people have lived in the Kamloops area for over 12,000 years and their culture and oral traditions have played an important role here. A visit to the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park will also give you a perspective on the history, land, and multidimensional culture of this part of the British Columbia interior. On my next visit I hope to take in the Kamloopa Powwow

Resonance

In my experience, great travel destinations are not always the ones we hear so much about. As a matter of fact, there are many hidden gems — throughout North America especially — that really strike a chord. It has something to do with authenticity, the historical framework, and of course the people in the place.

Henry Miller could have been talking about Kamloops when he said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

A final note

One of the largest growing niche markets in the travel and tourism business is what is known as MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Expositions). If you are looking for a corporate getaway that can provide that crucial “get us out of the office now” team-building dynamic, Kamloops is ready and waiting.

Also, thanks to Spoke n Motion (one stop shopping for your winter and summer sports needs) for the snowshoes.

And don’t forget …. summer in Kamloops!

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