Past, Present & Beyond – Summer Staycation – Pt. 1: The Thompson River

Barbara Roden describes the many delights of exploring the hills, valleys and rivers close to home this summer.

The English language is continually evolving, throwing up new words to meet changing times. Canada contributed one such word in 2005, when an episode of the TV show Corner Gas introduced the world to the concept of the “staycation”. A staycation is a vacation that uses one’s own house as a base: instead of taking a long trip involving many nights away from home, you stay put and explore local spots of interest during the day, then return to the comfort of your own bed at night.

The staycation became popular after the economic downturn in 2008 and a sharp rise in the price of gas. With the summer travel season less than a week away, I thought I’d spend the next few columns exploring a few staycation-worthy sites in our area; spots that locals might find it all too easy to overlook, but which are worth taking some time out to explore.

First up is the Thompson River, which carves a path through the heart of Golden Country. It is made up of the South Thompson, which comes out of Little Shuswap Lake at Chase, and the North Thompson, which originates at the toe of the Thompson Glacier west of Valemount. The two rivers meet at Kamloops, which is derived from the Shuswap name (spelled “Cumcloups” in an 1812 document) meaning “the meeting of the waters”. From Kamloops the Thompson proceeds west to Ashcroft, where it bends southward and continues down to Lytton, to meet the Fraser and continue its way to the coast.

The explorer Simon Fraser named the Thompson after fellow-explorer David Thompson in 1808, when Fraser’s expedition reached Lytton and saw the convergence of the two rivers. Believing that Thompson and his party were camped somewhere on the river’s upper reaches, Fraser bestowed the name Thompson on it. However, Thompson’s party was on the Columbia River, and David Thompson never saw the river that was named in his honour.

The Thompson River between Savona, on the western end of Kamloops Lake, and Lytton is a place of many contrasts. Much of it is visible from Hwy 1, which parallels the river for a good deal of the way, and one can clearly see the change from a broad, relatively slow-flowing river to a narrow, rapid-filled channel coursing towards the sea. The fact that the Thompson emerges from Kamloops Lake results, many miles downstream, in one of the most dramatic vistas on the river: the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser rivers at Lytton, where the clear water of the Thompson meets the muddy water of the Fraser, creating a stark line of demarcation where the rivers merge.

Both rivers pick up silt and dirt over the course of their runs, which hang suspended in the water. The Thompson, when it enters Kamloops Lake at the eastern end, slows, and anything in the water has a chance to sink to the bottom of the lake, leaving a relatively clear flow of water to emerge at the western end. The Fraser, however, has no such lake to break its journey, so anything in the water remains suspended within it and is carried along. This results in the striking image of the two rivers colliding at Lytton, the original name of which was Camchin, or “cross mouth” (and which survives today as “Kumsheen”—I warned you, during last summer’s road trip, that inconsistency in the spelling of many names in the area is to be expected, with First Nations people having no written language at the time, and names being misheard and mis-transcribed by early explorers).

For those looking at a Thompson River staycation, there are quite a few options. One of the most obvious is a rafting trip down the Thompson, which allows participants to see the river “up close” in a way that isn’t possible from the highway. Special rafting trips, designed for those who want to be able to put in at various locations and explore and photograph areas that are otherwise almost inaccessible, are occasionally offered, and are worth looking for.

A hidden gem on the Thompson that is accessible only by boat is Walhachin Oxbows Provincial Park, located just downstream from the mouth of the Deadman River. Boaters can reach the park by exiting the west end of Kamloops Lake, and will find a lovely 37-hectare park which protects a small area of valuable wildlife habitat sheltered by cottonwood and willow trees and underbrush. Fishing and canoeing are popular activities in the park, which nestles between the Thompson and an oxbow channel of the river.

Further to the west is Juniper Beach Provincial Park, which provides an excellent base for swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. The campground is a popular spot for both visitors and locals, who use it as a convenient spot to get away to during the summer. It’s also a popular spot for fishing, as is the Thompson at Spences Bridge, which attracts anglers from around the world anxious to try their hand at capturing one of the river’s famous steelhead.

West of Juniper Beach is the area known to Ashcroft residents as “the Slough”, where the Thompson makes a wide turn under a “collapse” feature that has left stark cliffs rising on one side of the river. The wide and relatively placid nature of the river here caused it to be used as a natural curling rink, at the turn of the last century, once the ice was thick enough in winter. The landscape around the Thompson in this area looks sufficiently like Afghanistan that two feature films set in that country have been filmed here; so anyone with a hankering (but not the funds) to visit Afghanistan has to go no further than the Thompson River at Ashcroft to see what it’s like.

Barbara Roden

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