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Salmon Arm, gem of the Shuswap, I salute you…

Charming town has outgrown its infamous Pierre Trudeau visit

For years, Salmon Arm, B.C. was infamous for a rude gesture. It was in Salmon Arm where then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau defiantly stuck out his middle finger at a group of stunned protesters. This was during the recession-hit summer of 1982, and the gesture became known as the “Salmon Arm Salute.”

Our current prime minister was with his father on that fateful day, and Justin still occasionally gets asked about it: “Why did your dad give everyone in Western Canada the middle finger?”

JT often stammers through his answer and mentions how much he loves Salmon Arm.

Back in ’82, Salmon Arm was primarily a logging town with a 30 per cent unemployment rate. These days, times have changed for Salmon Arm. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but tourism has played a huge role.

Every couple of years I’m lucky enough to wrap myself in Salmon Arm courtesy of the Word on the Lake Writers Festival. Upon each return, I’m reminded of just how spectacular this area of B.C. truly is.

Salmon Arm is nestled in the heart of the Shuswap Lake region in south-central B.C. As you drive past the arid, dusty hoodoos of Kamloops, rolling east on the Trans-Canada Highway, a gorgeous, temperate playground of forested mountains and sparkling lakes opens up before you like the pages of a travel magazine.

You’ll pass picture-perfect lakeside towns such as Chase and Sorrento before arriving in Salmon Arm, the biggest and busiest burgh in the Shuswap region, surrounded by towering mountains.

When I visited a few weeks ago, the weather was unseasonably hot, sunny and gorgeous, but nerves in town were on edge as several areas of the B.C. interior were either flooded or on flood watch. Sure enough, the first thing I noticed crossing the bridge just south of town was muddy brown water practically level with the bridge decking.

Word on the Lake’s home base is at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort, on the edge of Salmon Arm’s crown jewel — a massive estuary and a birder’s paradise. If you’re fortunate enough to be there during hatching season, the estuary is filled with cute ducklings and goslings, dutifully following their parents through the reeds.

Salmon Arm’s crown jewel is a massive estuary and a birder’s paradise in the middle of downtown. Pho
Salmon Arm’s crown jewel is a massive estuary and a birder’s paradise in the middle of downtown. Photo Grant Lawrence

You can stroll or bike along a raised pathway through the estuary, which gives you a bird’s eye view of all the wildlife action below — waterfowl, turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, beavers and muskrats. Look up and you’re likely to spot a dive-bombing osprey or a blue heron in full flight.

The estuary trail winds several kilometres northeast of town, which I enjoyed on a bike I borrowed from the hotel. I was hoping to reach the much-talked-about Canoe Beach for a swim. What I didn’t realize was that the estuary and the beach are separated by a large subdivision, which forced me to leave the lakeside trail and tackle some major hills before descending down to the secluded and sandy Canoe Beach.

After the long bike ride, I was ready for a swim, and in for a shock. Despite the near 30-degree air temperature, the water was George Constanza-like frigid, and my swim was more of a yelping leap.

Grant Lawrence spent some quality, shirtless time in Salmon Arm recently. Photo Grant Lawrence
Grant Lawrence spent some quality, shirtless time in Salmon Arm recently. Photo Grant Lawrence

Despite the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway cutting directly through the city, downtown Salmon Arm is nestled comfortably between both. There’s a good mix of modern and quaint, with plenty of bookstores, shops, restaurants and cafes to explore.

Some highlights include the Salmar Classic single-screen movie theatre in the heart of downtown, the historic Shuswap Art Gallery a two-minute walk away and Bookingham Palace, a great independent bookstore.

Some of the can’t-miss Salmon Arm dining includes the excellent creperie Café Tasse for a delicious breakfast or lunch (located conveniently in the Prestige), Cantina Vallarta for tasty Latin cuisine, Table 24 for the high-end diner and the Shuswap Pie Company for a yummy dessert.

One of the biggest summer draws to Salmon Arm is the houseboat scene with big lazy boats meandering up and down Shuswap Lake, which is oddly shaped like a giant H.

The other event is the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival, which has been holding steady at the base of Mount Ida since 1992. The festival’s origins can be traced back to the counter-culture bohemian Shuswap Coffee House movement that took shape in the 1970s and ’80s. This year’s festival is from Aug. 16 to 19 and features Colin James, the Boom Booms, Michael Franti and more.

An alternative to the 20,000-plus crowd of the blues fest is the yearly Nimblefingers Bluegrass Festival, down the road in Sorrento, this year on Aug. 25.

If you go, the drive is a five-hour straight shot from Vancouver. And remember, when you arrive, you’re in Shuswap Country. Whatever you do, don’t refer to this part of B.C. as the Okanagan. Otherwise, you might just receive your very own “Salmon Arm Salute.”