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Atnarko River in British Columbia

A glimpse into the uninhibited wilderness

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posted November 25, 2019
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When travelers circle through British Columbia, they’re traveling a path of ever-changing landscapes and time periods; woven together by special people, places, and wildlife.

I joined an early October Fam trip hosted by NTA members Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association and Tourism Kamloops. I’d been enchanted by Canada’s westernmost province before, and this journey would be just as remarkable, but also quite different.

BC Wildlife Park - bear training exercise
Bear training exercise at BC Wildlife Park

I flew into Vancouver then took an easy 30-minute flight to the Kamloops airport. I’d flown out of a blanket of 95-degree heat in Kentucky and landed in 60-something-degree mountain air; it felt so refreshing when I stepped off that plane. I immediately met up with my comrades for the week, and we enjoyed dinner together. Although I was tired, I was pretty pumped for my first-ever hockey game that evening.

We strolled from the Commodore Grande Café & Lounge to the Sandman Centre to watch the Kamloops Blazers take on the Seattle Thunderbirds in a junior ice hockey game. I’m not well-versed in hockey technique, but I thought the teams played incredibly well. The game was so exciting to watch!

The next morning, after a comfortable sleep at the Wingate by Wyndham, we visited NTA-member Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel. With 202 rooms and 5,000 square feet of conference space, the hotel’s interior featured cool mood lighting, a pool with downtown views, intriguing color schemes, and a hip adjoining restaurant: Moxie’s Grill & Bar. Many of the tables were bar level but could drop down to a wheelchair-accessible height. The hotel and restaurant sit across the street from Riverside Park and the Sandman Centre.

We headed to BC Wildlife Park, which houses more than 65 species native to British Columbia and is the largest breeder of burrowing owls in North America. Most of the animals are rescued and rehabilitated, and the park takes in 300 to 500 orphaned or injured animals a year while operating solely on donations. We saw bobcats, bald eagles, arctic wolves, and elk, and we got to know two grizzly bear siblings that were orphaned as babies. We viewed an exercise with their trainer, and, as it turns out, grizzlies will do just about anything for a treat! At the trainer’s command, the bears sat down, stood up, opened their mouths, and were rewarded with grapes. They were like two big, fuzzy dogs that I could have just squeezed! Though part of their story was heartbreaking to learn, it was a joy to see how they thrived in the park environment.

Canoeing with Moccasin Trails
Canoe trip in Kamloops with Moccasin Trails

“No matter how many times you go to the wildlife park, it’s always different,” says the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association’s Beverly Evans. “You go to lots of zoos and see animals, but these were all saved, and they’re still living the dream of a wild critter. It’s amazing every single time.”

And while BC is known for its unique species of wildlife, Kamloops is known for its Rieslings. We shifted gears and visited the Monte Creek Ranch Winery, a 1,200-acre vineyard with views of grazing goats and the notable Lion’s Head Mountain. We tasted various wines and learned a little about the region’s burgeoning reputation as a wine community, the area’s history, and the guy on their bottles: the infamous train robber “Gentleman Bandit” Billy Miner.

Our trip was destined to be an immersive experience with the province’s indigenous tourism offerings, and it started with Moccasin Trails in Kamloops. We canoed with our guides down the South Thompson River and heard stories of their ancestors, learned about their languages, listened to their songs, and participated in a “feeding of the water” ceremony.

The CCCTA’s CEO Amy Thacker says there are 203 distinct First Nations in BC and about 44 in the region they engage with regularly. Many have dreams and goals in the pipeline that will develop into a tour product, she says, and she sees that many of the First Nations people most enjoy sharing their culture.

After the canoe ride and a delicious espresso at Moxie’s to warm up, we joined up with ACT Adventures to tour downtown Kamloops—and heard exciting tales of the Wild West days.

Tourism Kamloops' Lisa Strachan says the city is ideally located for a traveler’s BC journey.

Nimpo Lake
View of Nimpo Lake from Stewart's Lodge & Camps

“Right in the heart of British Columbia’s interior, Kamloops delivers vast, open spaces with endless outdoor activities. Access is easy, with daily direct flights from Vancouver and Calgary,” she says. “It’s a great starting point along the route taking visitors from our sunny, sage-covered hills to lush, green forests within a few hours.”

She says some of her favorite things to do in Kamloops include hiking (trails are open year-round), mountain biking along the world-renowned terrain, boating at Bruker Marina, and taking day trips to places like Clearwater and Sun Peaks Resort—the second-largest ski area in Canada.

We grabbed a beaver tail (the tasty pastry, of course) on the way out of town the next morning, which, as a foodie, was something I very much looked forward to after having my first in Toronto earlier this year.

That drive toward Nimpo Lake was just the beginning of the dreamlike scenery. The sun was rising over the vast mountains covered in sagebrush. The clouds were sitting low over the bluffs, and the morning sky spilled pink onto the water below. We watched a train wrap around the mountain for miles as we drove.

Bear at Tweedsmuir Lodge
Grizzly Bear at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge

After spotting two black bears and a coyote along the way (as well as horses and cattle that roam free in the area), we arrived at Stewart’s Lodge later that afternoon in Nimpo Lake, where the group took a flightseeing tour. Amy emphasized how air travel is a huge cultural and practical component in getting from place to place in BC.

“I’ve been blessed to fly with the some of the old pilots (who have traveled around BC for many years). They tell the best stories,” Amy says.

Stewart’s Lodge owner Duncan Stewart is proud of the lodge’s rustic feel, which it has maintained since its origins as a hunting and fishing lodge. With no phones or TVs, he says his visitors open themselves up to a world they would never have acknowledged otherwise. It’s a well-known spot for some amazing flightseeing, and they offer those tours daily.

“This is a jumping off point to a big outlying wilderness area,” he says.

We were at one of the highest elevation points of the whole trip, so Nimpo Lake was cold. I slept cozily in my cabin with a fire in my wood-burning stove, and in the morning, the view of the lake was breathtaking. Frost blanketed the ground, and even though the fog was beginning to thicken, I could see the loons that I’d heard singing through the night and fish jumped out of the water—all painted against a background of the snowy coastal mountains in the distance.

We arrived in Bella Coola that day, but not before “the drive” down the mountain. It’s a steep, winding road, but wide enough for all kinds of vehicles, and we saw more black bears!

Bella Coola was somewhere I’d wanted to visit ever since Beverly spoke so highly of it when I was in BC last year. I knew any spot where British Colombians vacation had to be a bucket-list destination.

River drift on Atnarko River
Drift down the Atnarko River

“It’s just a place where time stands still,” Beverly says.

We had a delicious lunch at the lovely Tweedsmuir Park Lodge just outside of Bella Coola (the veggie burger is something to write home about), and, after touring the lodge, we saw a grizzly bear grazing on the lawn. They are spotted in the area frequently (there were two just that day) and almost everyone we met on the trip is proficient in what to do if they encounter a bear. The grizzlies are known to roam at nearly every place we visited, and I loved seeing how revered they are. They were there first, and the people who arrived and built around them know to simply let them be.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the snake that slithered into my path while touring the lodge grounds! It was a type of snake I see regularly in my own backyard (literally), but it gave me a startle. I thought the weather would be a little cool for them, but the sunshine made it quite comfortable—for both people and reptiles.

Along with a bear-viewing area by the river just down from the lodge and cabins, other activities Tweedsmuir offers include heli-skiing in the winter, and in the summer, heli-hiking, nature walks, river drifts, and flightseeing. They plan to offer a glacier walk next year.

Mountain view on Atnarko River
Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and bear-viewing station

During our river drift, we saw a black bear and a grizzly bear while we took in undisturbed views of the surrounding, towering mountains. Our seasoned guide pointed out fish, eagle’s nests in the trees, and bear tracks on the riverbanks as we floated downstream. We drifted along the river on two different days—each time seeing bears walking near the water and on the lodge’s lawn. It was thrilling to see them outside of zoos in the wild.

Bella Coola is a quaint community. Eighty percent of the population is indigenous, which is quite special. There is a love for the old ways and a deep cultural influence, which is what Beverly referenced before we arrived.

“Everything just slows down. It’s a place you go (from being) super busy to calm and peaceful,” she says. “You’re disconnected, but you’re not (totally) disconnected. You’re connected with nature. It’s a place that rejuvenates you.”

We stayed at the Bella Coola Eagle Lodge the next two nights. It was a beautiful, contemporary accommodation with absolutely gorgeous scenery (a given in BC). I FaceTimed my husband and son so to show them my mountain view, but it’s so hard to convey the vastness and beauty of those mountains through a phone. You just have to be there.

We had a wonderful dinner at the lodge: a cauliflower and truffle tart; marinated tofu with rice, peas, peppers, and eggplant; and cherry gelato with allspice atop bread pudding. That night was notable, too, for camaraderie amongst our group in a warm, charming setting.

Petroglyphs in the Great Bear Rainforest
Petroglyphs in the Great Bear Rainforest

The next day, we walked through the Great Bear Rainforest alongside a crystal-clear, glacier-fed creek to see ancient petroglyphs with Copper Sun Gallery & Journeys. We heard songs and stories from our guide and saw the carvings in rocks that were created as many as 10,000 years ago by the Nuxalk people. The area is sacred—visitors soon won’t be allowed to take photographs there—and what a unique experience it was to see the images etched in the stone still so perfect.

We visited several sites in the area, including Rip Rap Camp and Bella Coola Grizzly Bear Tours’ deluxe cabins. Rip Rap has one of the photographic scenes from its wildlife viewing station: the turquoise blue Bella Coola River, changing trees, low-hanging clouds, and views of the mountains. I could have stayed in that spot the rest of the week.

I also enjoyed meeting the owner’s adorable dogs. That’s something I noticed about the places we visited: Nearly every lodge had a resident dog or cat. That made each place feel very homey to me.

Rip Rap Camp's overlook
NTA’s Kendall Fletcher at Rip Rap Camp on the Bella Coola River

We had an early start the following morning at the BC Ferries terminal. 2019 is the first year for the Northern Sea Wolf, a new vessel that would connect us from Bella Coola to Port Hardy before our drive to Telegraph Cove. It was about a 10-hour sailing, and we were privileged to go onto the bridge, visit with the captain and crew, and learn a little about how the ferry operates. We saw humpback whales, beautiful fjords, and enjoyed some downtime in the passenger lounge.

It was Beverly’s first time on the ferry, and she likes what it offers travelers.

“It was very calm, and there’s lots to see. It’s didn’t matter if you were up (on top of the ferry) or down below, it was comfortable. I like the water,” she says.

I was completely charmed by Telegraph Cove. It’s an old sawmill and cannery community on Vancouver Island, and our hotel, the Telegraph Cove Resort, had the perfect coastal view. The walk from the hotel that evening was lovely; stringed lights illuminated our pathway down the hillside steps to the boardwalk, which was framed by colorful historical buildings. Each had a plaque giving its past significance, and most have been converted to accommodations or shops.

Our final day together found us on a tour with Prince of Whales Whale Watching aboard the Ocean Magic II. I went into the tour expecting to see a whale or two, but what we encountered became one of the most wondrous experiences I’ve had … ever.

First, we came upon humpbacks, their water spouts spraying upward here and there, mostly at a distance to keep them safe from the boat’s motor. We saw sea lions basking and growling on the nearby coastline. Dolphins and porpoises were blue and silver stripes quick as lightning as they passed beneath us. Bald eagles swooped down into the water, and gulls swarmed over herring balls—also the humpbacks’ favorite meal. 

Orca sighting during a tour  with Prince of Whales Whale Watching
Orca sighting during a tour with Prince of Whales Whale Watching

And as we moved through the islands, we came upon orcas. Dozens of them. They were everywhere, babies and pod leaders alike, near and far. One came very close, and our guide, Andy, a member of the local First Nations tribe, said his people believe when orcas swim close, it is their ancestors coming to say hello. Seeing them all around us was magical, and I was near tears witnessing these majestic creatures in their wild, natural habitat, happy and free.

The Whale Interpretive Center on the boardwalk is incredible. It’s full of real skeletons of sea creatures, including a giant humpback whale that hangs overhead. It’s the place to find all the names of each whale in the area and learn about their travels and behaviors.

After lunch at the Killer Whale Café (they have the BEST sweet potato fries), we headed for Parksville. We later had dinner at the beautiful Cedars Restaurant at Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort & Conference Centre, and I had the most delicious pesto pasta and vegetables. I would be heading off in the morning for the ferry for Vancouver to catch my flight, so I said my goodbyes to my new friends who would return to their corners of the world the next day, too.

I took a few moments during my two-hour ferry ride from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay to reflect. My trip was merely a peek into what this handful of exquisite Pacific Northwest destinations have to offer, but I felt completely immersed. I breathed the cool mountain air. I saw grizzlies walking down the river, stocking up on food for their winter sleep. I went whale-watching and saw so much native wildlife.

Though it’s a little hard for me to disconnect (I sure miss my little one when I’m gone), this journey through BC is the perfect opportunity to do just that: be still, soak up the wilderness, and learn about what came before us—and why it’s vital to preserve it.

For more information on the British Columbia's Cariboo Chilcotin region, contact Beverly Evans or go to landwithoutlimits.com. To learn more on Kamloops, contact Lisa Strachan or go to tourismkamloops.com.

Photos by Kendall Fletcher