I feel like the prairies are constantly electrical. On Vancouver Island, it’s a rare day when we get a thunderstorm (maybe once a year? Less? ) Even in the East, in Ontario and PEI, storms are an event: one will roll in every few weeks, all majestic in its sound and fury, and then will roll on by. By contrast, the prairies seem to be fairly permanently crackling with zappiness. At night, as you sit around your campfire, dry as toast, the skies in the distance are constantly flickering and flaring with lightning. Thunder grumbles to itself almost out of earshot, or else crackles more urgently nearby. As I was driving along in brilliant sunshine from Cypress Hills to the Wood Mountain Wagon Train in Canopus, I could see, miles off in the distance, a wide gun-metal grey cylinder of rain under a purple-bottomed cloud, with lightning forking down. There were a bunch of these squalls scattered across the flat flat land, and the highway took me right into a storm pelting with hail.
Lightning in the distance.
The other constant thing about the prairies is that folks are enthusiastically carnivorous. On previous trips to Alberta and Saskatchewan, my “vegetarianism” (I’m not sure I can even squeak through as a vegetarian – I’ve got a shady ovo-lacto-pescatarian thing going on) has seemed to simply come across as a bit of an oddity: I’m not waving any flags or commenting about what people put in their faces (what I eat is my business, what you eat is yours) and, aside from a little good-natured teasing from the beef farmers, there’s been no overt judgy-ness from the meat-eaters I hang with. So it was disconcerting , on this year’s trip, to feel like my dietary choices were being interpreted as a sort of a thrown-down gauntlet. The steady stream of input towards my choice to eat a veggie burger rather than a steak got old right some quick.
I blame the recent popularity of Beyond Meat. I think the name comes across as a big fat slap to hard-working beef farmers whose livelihood is about putting out a product of which they are proud. Calling something “meat” when it clearly is not is an affront. And I can see why the idea of something with “meat” in its name when it has a long ingredient list (if you read it, the list is pretty much comprised of plant products, vitamins and minerals) leads folks to assume that it must be full of “chemicals”.
At any rate. Back to the weather.
Three generations of Cursons on a chilly afternoon.
You just never know what you’ll get out on the prairies. You might saddle up and head off feeling like you’re crisping in a frying pan, but by noon, you might be hunkered down shivering under the trees with hail pelting down, feeling grateful you did bring your slicker along. My new friend Melissa, Doug Cursons’ daughter-in-law, texted me a few days after I left Canopus: as the wagon train was winding down on the Friday, a tornado touched down in the field next to camp.
I spent three days with the 5-day wagon train this year. While some faces were absent – Denise and Cathy, Blair and Marjorie, Marv and Kathy, Carmen, Mark from Minnesota, the Mennonite family with the beautiful singers, Danny Petersen and his team – arriving at camp was still like coming home to a bunch of uncles and aunts and cousins. Rob and Doug were there of course, along with Doug’s son Tom and his wife Melissa, and his grandsons Ian and Quinn; Jim and Lonnie Scott with their team of Belgians; Nelson and Margaret and their granddaughter Emma; Celeste and her daughters Josie and Sasha; Les and Clint and Brad and Brian Anderson and their entourage; Glen from Yorkton, and his friend Bob with his team; organizer Theresa; Alaine and Stacey; Chris and his son; Dave.
Bob and his team.
Margaret takes the reins of Jim’s team.
Our rides, with a handful of wagons and around forty outriders, rolled out over undulating hills that offered endless views across the prairies, under skies that varied from clear and sunny to threatening rain. I would slather my sleeveless shoulders with sunscreen one day, and be shivering in four layers with numb fingertips the next.
First day out.
First day out.
As at Cypress, the days at the wagon train found a rhythm of morning horse chores, a walk with the dog, socializing over coffee, a slow-paced ride with time for a leisurely lunch, post-ride bevvies, supper, and more socializing. While the riding is fantastic, I come as much for hanging out with friends as I do for the trail riding.
I skipped the chili and pig roast nights, though
Ace in the sunset.
Camp Notes for Horsey Folk:
I’ve posted about the Wagon Train in 2015, 2016, and 2018. Info can be found in this 2015 post, and this post from 2018.
“Hey Siri, play some country music.” I was driving along a country road in Washington State last month, just having ridden my horse on some sweet Pacific North West trails, and I don’t know what possessed me, but those words just tumbled forth from my lips. Gotta understand: I am an alt-rock, folk, hip-hop kinda girl, and if you’d asked me, I’d have said the only kind of music I don’t like is country. After I’d uttered my directive, I kinda expected Siri to shrivel into the fetal position because she would find nothing on my phone to satisfy my request, but lo and behold, she found enough songs in my repertoire to fill about a half hour of my driving time. Who knew.
A few short weeks later I was cruising down Hwy 3 between Calgary and Lethbridge, and I saw a sign for a local radio station that read (I may not have this verbatim) “95.5 Country Lethbridge”. Why not? I tuned in, and spent the next hour getting my country on. There were lots of mentions of trucks, girls in sundresses (note to females looking for a fella: apparently, if country music lyrics are to be believed, you in your sundress – especially if it’s red – will make a strong man fall to his knees. That right there is my country music hot tip of the day), farmer’s fields, creeks, and beer. I kept that station on the next day until I lost reception somewhere east of Taber. I’m not sure I can continue to claim that I don’t like country music.
So I guess it’s fitting that on the second-last of my dozen or so days at Cypress Hills, I found myself at the back of a 160-head cow-calf herd, hee-yawing and yip-yipping from the back of my Lipizzan cross in my dressage saddle and endurance tack.
4:30 a.m. view.
I’d been invited on the cattle drive by Rick, a camp neighbour and friend of my favourite cowboys, brothers Rob and Doug Cursons. He is cow boss for the annual transfer of the Jans families Charolais herd the 22 km from their ranch to the park for summer grazing. My enthusiastic acceptance was dampened not a whit by the fact that we would be saddling up in the dark at 2:30 a.m., loading my pony onto a stock trailer, and driving 45 minutes to the ranch for a 4:30 a.m. start to the drive. I scarfed down some coffee in the dark, and we were on our way.
We hit fog about halfway there, and the fog stayed with us the rest of the way and for the entirety of the cattle drive. I was riding with Rick and his girlfriend Jane, both of whom were up at the front of the herd, and their friends from Calgary Dave and Melissa (who was also in English gear), another Dave who was the owner of the cattle, yet another Dave (the drywaller I’d met last year at Cypress), and his friend Crystal. Of all of us at the back pushing cows, the only one with any significant experience Dave the drywaller.
Top of the world.
From what I hear, Kevin, the Conservation Officer who meets the herd at the end of the drive up at the park gate every year, loves to listen to Wilf’s summary of how the drive went. This year’s account went like this: “We have six hundred extra black cows, three bulls that don’t belong, and three riders lost in the fog.” It was almost true. In one pasture usually devoid of cattle, a bunch of Angus cows and calves were roaming, and those cattle were determined to join our herd. By that point in the drive, we had lost four riders – three who had gone off chasing calves who had decided to gallop home without their mothers, and one with a broken stirrup he needed to repair – and Melissa and I were the last riders standing when it came to pushing the herd along from the back. It bears knowing that our herd was strung out in a ribbon about a mile long, and in the fog, the riders at the front had no idea what was happening at the back. I had a walkie-talkie, and when Jane radioed a calm directive to keep pushing them hard, I radioed back, “So hey-ey, just so you know, we are four riders down, and it’s just me and Melissa back here.” The reply, “Are you fucking kidding me?” “Nope, not fucking kidding. And oh yeah, um, just so you know, a bull has joined the herd.”
In the beginning, we were six…
It all worked out in the end, with some slick cattle sorting at a gate by Rick and Jane to ditch the black cows and the bull, an eventual trailer pick-up of the lost riders, and an ATV round-up of the errant calves. When I’d been invited, I’d been led to believe that my job would entail not much more than walking along behind the herd pretending to be useful, but what with the attrition in the drover numbers, and the fact that for some reason known only to them, the cows who usually march business-like to the park were more inclined to scatter and graze than to walk, we actually worked hard. At one point one cow decided she was done with this 22 km hill-climb bullshit and decided to get out of Dodge. Pai and I eventually ran her down, but I was initially worried we’d have to live with the ignominy of having been outrun by a cattlebeast. Those suckers can move.
Almost there! Last hill.
Despite the glitches and the view-hampering fog, it was a lovely morning. The cattle were bawling, the air was fragrant with the scent of the wild mint and sage crushed under the horses’ feet, and I was on my horsie doing something centuries old: moving cows.
Sylvia provided lunch at the end and the horses took a well-deserved break before the 8-ish km walk home.
By the time we rode from our destination back to camp, we’d put in about 30-33 km – all before noon.
I’d come to Cypress, as usual, to ride with Rob and Doug, who are my favourite riding partners of all time.
This is as close as it gets when it comes to princess and other horses. Rob on Frankie and Doug on Ace.
The boys have gotten a little more laid-back over the years, and their previous in-the-saddle-by-9:00 routine has mellowed considerably. There’s coffee and breakfast and socializing and more coffee and socializing – this year in camp were Marjorie and Blair, their friends Fay and Larry, Rick and Jane, and Warren (leader of the famous 8-hour lost-in-space trail ride back in 2015) – with everyone in the saddle by the crack of 11:00 am. Or maybe 11:30. But definitely before noon. (Except that one day…) Regardless of departure time, we were always back in time for Happy Hour at 4:00.
Taking a break on the trail.
Waiting out the storm.
Lunch on the trail.
In my memories of Cypress, our rides together all just meld into one general impression: riders fanning out over grass, long hill climbs, single track trails winding through air redolent of warm pine needles, vast vistas of hills and coolies swathed with dark trees, clouds of blue or orange or yellow butterflies, the honeyed fragrance of wolf willow in the air, skies darkening with thunder clouds, the sharp smell of sage, horses turned loose to graze at lunch, wind moving tall grass like waves on the ocean, the gravelly sound of my friends’ voices, the carpet of wildflowers underfoot.
This year’s Back Country Horsemen of BC’s annual provincial get-together, Rendezvous, was held – for the first time in its 30-year history – on Vancouver Island.
Williams Beach, near Courtenay, Vacouveri Island.
Salmon-Brewster Trail out of Memekay Horse Camp north of Campbell River, Vancouver Island.
Crossing the Salmon River out of Memekay Horse Camp.
When I heard Rendezvous would be basically in my back yard, there was no question in my mind that I’d attend – and if I attend something, baby, I attend. I participated the crap out of Rendezvous, from registering for multiple clinics to volunteering to exploring the trails to engaging in a silent auction bidding war to pot-lucking to joining the line-dancing lesson at the Saturday night dinner dance. One facet of my whole-hog Let’s Do This attitude was my (arguably ill-begotten) decision to enter the Cowboy Poetry contest, for which my first-time-at-this offering was an audience-participation rap (it’s a thing, trust me) entitled “Pretty Little Grey”. Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes knows how much I loathe being cold and wet. The not-a-word-of-a-lie poem describes an episode from last fall’s journey from PEI to BC, and one of the early lines is, “It was early in September, Injun summer missed its cue, ‘cause everywhere we went the local high was minus two.”
As I pulled in to my site at Hidden Valley Rustic Horse Camp, not far from Merritt, I was having PTSD flashbacks to that relentlessly rainy and frigid and poem-worthy trip home, when having numb extremities came to seem normal. “Oh hey, no, this is fine. It’s OK that I can’t feel my toes. Or my fingertips. Or my nose. Fine. Seriously. It’s fiiiiiine.” (No. Not fine. So not fine.) When I left home for Merritt, Vancouver Island was enjoying temperatures in the mid to high twenties, and had been for so long that everything was parched and brittle. When I arrived in Merrit, it was 6 degrees and pissing down with rain.
(Cue ugly crying. “Is THIS how it’s going to beeeee?”)
Donning my excellent Arctic Horse riding skirt (I love it so much that I’ve ditched my oilskin for riding in the rain or doing chores in the rain or really, just doing pretty much anything in the rain. I love it so much I should marry it), I set up camp in the miserable weather and took The Worst Dog in the World for a walk. I put on mittens. I put handwarmers in my mittens. And then I still froze as I was cooking dinner wearing my mittens. (Oh, hey, it’s fine! This is fiiiiiine.)
Spy is unimpressed.
Pai is in her winter blanket.
My actual plan had been not to camp at Hidden Valley, a place I’d explored briefly in 2015, but to check out the camp at Tunka/Leighton Lakes, which had received online reports of excellent trails and under-use by equestrians. Shortly before leaving, I got some intel from my 2015 camping buddy, Nichole, who had reconned the Leighton Lake site and whose report on the camp layout made me reconsider my plan: it’s one thing to hit an unfamiliar place in beautiful weather, when you don’t give a good goddam if you have to hike a mile to the water or the outhouses. It’s quite another to hit suboptimal camping conditions in miserable weather. Since the forecast was dire, Hidden Valley, with its known conveniences and its for me as yet unexplored trails, won the day.
The morning after my wintry arrival dawned clear, and the day stayed sunny and hot. It was like we were on a whole ‘nother planet. Our ride took us up a sandy ridge with pine scattered over grassland and a view over the valley, on to the creek at the valley floor and then upards again. We missed a turn and ended up on a different trail than intended, but that brought us to a sweet lunch spot on Marmit Lake, where we met fellow campers Kathy, Barbara, and Leslie. Invitations for post-dinner campfire beers ensued, and we became friends enough that when, the next day, I was still out on the trail after five hours, they discussed at what point they ought to send out a search party.
View from the ridge.
A sweet lunch spot for a sunny day – Mamit Lake.
Another sweet lunch spot – Cougar Lake.
As I’ve said many times, the horse world is minute. As I sat around the campfire with my new friends, a more recent arrival, Deanna, suddenly said, “Have you ridden at Hideaway in Oliver?” I thought she was simply soliciting info on horse camps, and so I was all, “Oh yeah, it’s great, I love that place…” when she said, “I think we were there at the same time as you. Are you a vet? Were you on some giant trip somewhere?” Turns out we’d been at Hideaway together last spring, on my outbound trip to PEI.
The rainy weather socked in the next morning when I was packing up to go, but the valley was no less beautiful for the lack of sunshine. Pai and Spy and I hit the highway, leaving our new friends to explore the trails in the moody weather. But hey: any day on horseback is a pretty good day.
I’ve been asked a couple of times lately about how I’d rate some trails I’d recently ridden, and my answer usually involves the caveat, “Well, it depends what type of riding you like to do.” Some people like to go out and never break the walk, while some people like to mix it up with a little bit of trot here and there, and others enjoy having ample opportunity to get a move on at a sustained trot with some cantering too. Some people need the trails to be almost rock-free, others aren’t choosy about rough footing. Some people want to go out for one or two short rides in a day, others want to go out for hours and hours at a time, with a lunch break out on the trail. Some people are happy to ride the same loops over and over, while others don’t want to ride the same trail twice.
My own perfect* trails have an ever-changing view, a “destination” (a lookout, a lake, a waterfall, a historic landmark…), are loops rather than out-and-back, have varying terrain and trail type (winding single track and grass/sandy lanes, hill climbs and water crossings, open land and woods), offer rides anywhere from 3 to 6 hours, have enough different trail options to keep me entertained for days on end, offer the option to take your dog out off-leash on the trail, and are remote enough that you don’t hear a car or see a power line or ride on pavement. Having no gates to open is an added bonus.
The 7 Half Diamond Ranch, where I rode after Wells Gray, crossed off a whole buncha items on my checklist.
When I made plans for a Wednesday morning departure from Wells Gray, I was intending to revisit Lundbom Lake in Merritt, where I’d stayed in 2015, and where I’d barely scratched the surface of the available riding. The campground at Wells Gray has Wifi access near the camp office, outdoors under the little gazebo, the use of which, during my chilly 4-night stay, involved some scarf-and-toque-and-fingerless-glove internetting at near-zero temperatures in the dark. The online weather report for Merritt was calling for sunshine and temperatures, and Lundbom winked at me and drawled, “I’m your huckleberry.” We were a go. But then, on the last of these glacial internet sessions, I saw a posting on Facebook about a place that I had not previously heard of, the Seven Halfdiamond Ranch, between Merritt and Princeton, including photos that showcased some gorgeous rangeland riding. I screeched my mental wheels and decided to make a sharp turn to this new, unfamiliar destination.
My couple of last-minute calls to the Ranch, which is a busy fly-fishing destination, remained unanswered, and so I crossed my fingers and decided to just throw myself on their doorstep – if the gates were padlocked and everyone was in Florida, I could always head a half-hour back down the road to Lundbom. When I pulled into the first of the two corral areas, I found only one other party there, and since their take on my unvetted arrival was that I should be fine and that the owners would roll around sooner or later to confirm I was OK to stay, I unloaded my steed and set up my camp.
While Von’s horse Inferno casually looked on, Jacquie’s gelding Legacy alternately flirted with and slapped down Pai over the fence, which was an entirely new state of affairs for Queen of the World, who is usually the one in the role of shit-disturber playing the touch-me-don’t-touch me game. Jackie very graciously inconvenienced herself by moving her boy to a more distant paddock (“Who wants to listen to that all night?” she laughed).
In short order, Jacquie and Von and I discovered that we had a friend in common, the lovely Anna-Maria from Hideaway Horse Camp in Oliver. Jacquie and Von’s English Shepherd Reno shares a family tree with Anna-Maria’s dog Finn. Spy, always pleased when he meets another dog who speaks the same herding dog language, became fast friends with Reno.
Von is from Nova Scotia, so he was the perfect person with whom to share the last few of my PEI oysters.
When I had stopped for gas on the way past Merritt, the contrast between the 19C sunny weather and the barely-above-zero temps I’d left behind at Wells Gray had me feeling like I’d just stepped off the plane in Barbados. I wanted to collapse on the grass in my T-shirt and sunbathe. With more sunny days in the forecast, I was a happy girl; unfortunately, the climactic theme of this east-west trip stayed the course, and the weather did a bait-and-switch. Our first day’s ride was under overcast skies with a definite autumnal bite to the air. No matter – our route over undulating hills, winding through groves of aspens and skirting tiny lakes, with a sweet lunch spot overlooking the valley below, was a fine way to spend a fall day.
Cattle on Picnic Ridge
Deadman Lake, I think. There were a lotta lakes.
The next day, which dawned clear but frosty, I decided to tackle the unmapped five-hour ride that the Ranch owner, Jim, had outlined for me, a ride that fellow rider (and trainer) Stefanie had explored the previous day, out onto Crown Land and up into the power line. The views from the power line were panoramic.
I didn’t quite get down to my T-shirt, but I did take my jacket off at lunch…
Lunch time view and plenty o’ grass for a hungry horse.
Aspens on the grasslands.
It was a very gold and blue kinda day.
With my patented ability to find off-piste trails that take me well off my intended route and force me to retrace my steps, I managed, through a couple of wrong turns, to extend our five-hour ride into almost six hours in the saddle, plus a 40-minute lunch break. At about the three quarter mark, when we were headed in the right direction for camp but were thwarted by a sketchy swampy area, forcing me, after several foiled attempts to find a safe crossing, to turn around, Pai shared her thoughts – most emphatically so – about my decision turn away from home. She testily suggested an alternate route, grumpily kicked out at my leg, and crankily bounded like a deer over logs that required a mere step-over.
Day’s done, gone the sun.
That night, the property’s Saloon was open for business, and we strolled down and joined Jim and his wife Heather, their son Justin, and other friends and riders including Stefanie, as well as a brilliant group of riders from the Vintage Riders Equestrian Club out of Langley. When Rita mentioned her husband was from New Zealand, I was like, “So is mine!” When she showed me a photo of her black horse painted with white stripes to be a zebra for Halloween, I whipped out my camera and found my pic of my white horse painted with black stripes to be a zebra for Halloween. She told me her friend’s horse was a giraffe. I was all, “So was my friend’s horse!” In addition to riding at Seven Halfdiamond a couple of times a year, Rita and Karen and Susan and their friends organize horseback riding tours further afield, like Québec, Ireland, and Spain. These gals totally made me want to be in their club.
The Saloon couldn’t be more ranch-y, with a shelf spilling over with deer and elk and moose shed, a massive live-edge bar top milled and made by Jim, and family brands (Bar KC, T Lazy T, Horsesshoe T, and 7 Half Diamond) burnt into the seats of the bar stools.
Just as PEI is a magnet for tourists from Japan, British Columbia is a sort of Valhalla for visitors from Germany. I discovered this fact a couple of decades ago, when our German ballroom dancing friends, Mikki and Norbert, who were operating an eco-tour business on Vancouver Island, told us they catered mainly to their compatriots, since their fellow Germans could be relied upon to completely lose their minds over the BC wilderness.
So it’s no shocker that the maps for and signs in Wells Gray are delivered not in the typical English + French, but in English + German. Hilariously, the German translations of how to deal in the Park – you know, how to cope with bears and fires and all that jazz – are all followed by an exclamation mark. Which is maybe kinda how you might imagine people delivering helpful information, but with a German accent? English: “Do not feed wildlife.” German: “Feed no wildlife!”. English: “Leave nothing but footprints.” German: “Leave behind nothing other than your footprints!” Achtung!
At the Wells Gray Golf and RV Resort, and on the trails I hiked with Spy, 95% of the fellow visitors I spoke to were German. Having spent a few weeks in Germany, where one town melded into the next and where true wilderness seemed sparse, I can only imagine how magical it must be for the Deutschlanders to be here, if what they hoped for was space and solitude and pure natural beauty and proximity to wildlife (hey, it’s magical for me, even though it’s right in my backyard). I think we Canadians – even “city” Canadians – kind of take all this limitless landscape and the sense of being in the wild and with the wild for granted, and we sometimes don’t even realize the heaven we live in.
I’d entertained thoughts of riding at Wells Gray on my 2016 road trip, but in the end I gave it a miss: I had places to go, people to see. On this trip home from PEI, I was looking for somewhere to ride handy Kamloops, somewhere that would give me a reprieve from the unremittingly crap September weather. Wells Gray fit the bill.
Just like you know it by the landscape when you cross the Manitoba-Ontario border because of the instant change from prairie to rock and water, you know it by the dress code that you have left Alberta and have hit BC. On the prairies, if I were to conjure a mental image of a man who spends his time outdoors on the land, that guy would be wearing a Carhart jacket and a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and that man would know how to ride a horse. (PS same deal for a chick). In BC, the equivalent stereotypic-but-oh-so-true man or woman of the outdoors is going to be wearing a toque, a lumberjack shirt, and rubber boots, and while they might not know how to ride a horse, they definitely know how to use a chainsaw, and could happily spend a month in the bush by themselves. When I pulled into Clearwater to shop for groceries, I parked my oversize truck and horse trailer on the sparsely-parked outskirts of the lot, well away from the entrance of the supermarket. Two rows away from me, dude in a beanie and checkered jacket shirt parked his truck and ATV trailer. And at the gas station, a few days later, seriously every guy I passed was dressed essentially like I was: work boots or rubber boots, jeans or work pants, a checkered lumberjack shirt or a grey woolen Stanfields, and a toque or beanie. Yeaaaaah, baby. You’re back in BC.
The night I pulled in to the Wells Gray Golf and RV Resort, they were hosting their annual Customer Appreciation Pig Roast. Pam, one half of the couple that own the campground, invited me to join them up at the gazebo, and so I did, despite my pigless dietary preferences. Pam also expressed extreme concern about my intention to ride alone out on the trails, a concern fueled by the fact that a German guest had recently gotten himself lost hiking on Green Mountain, and had had to spend a cold night in the forest. My assurances that I would be careful and that I carried a lot of emergency equipment did nothing to allay her certainty that I was probably going to (a) die out there or (b) not die but just cause a lot of people a lot of hassle, and so she urged me to talk to Ursi and Matt, who run the trail riding operation out of the Helmcken Falls Lodge next door and who know the trails well. As it so happened, Dana, a Facebook member in a trail riding group I’d recently joined, had also suggested I talk to Ursula and Matt. They were easy to track down, given that Matt was providing the entertainment at the pig roast.
Matt and company bringing the house down.
I can’t remember the names of the two guitarists who accompanied Matt, nor do I know the names of the two young people who joined in on percussion, but I do remember the effervescent Gerti, who dropped in for a few numbers. Gerti runs the small, eclectic annual local music festival, which, thanks to a banner on a busload of music fans from the Coast, has become known as “Gertifest”. (The bus broke down on its way, and arrived at three in the morning. Its banner proclaimed, “Gertifest or Bust!!”).
Ursi gave me some guidance about the trails that night, and the next day, when I dropped by the Lodge, she and Matt gave me some of their maps, both of which proved to be invaluable when I was sorting my way through the various routes over the next few days.
I also met Heinz, who is a long-time patron of the Resort, and who had come again this year despite having recently lost his wife, who was his hiking partner on their many, many previous trips to Wells Gray. When I asked him for a recommendation on a scenic place to walk my dog, he told me I must hike to the Helmcken Falls.
Pai and Spy and I had the entirety of the tenting/equestrian camping area to ourselves, and so Pai had a roomy e-paddock on the grass as well as a corral, and Spy was free to run around chasing Frisbees as much as he liked.
The weather forecast didn’t exactly deliver in terms of sunshine, and on our first ride, I stuck with my now-ho-hum uniform of long underwear under five layers of clothing including a wool shirt and a waterproof jacket, and my fleece-lined riding skirt, which I wear as much for warmth as for rain protection. We had a gorgeous ride on a trail that skirted Hemp Canyon, along to the “Bee Ranch” (the site of a century-old bee farming operation), and then up to Smith Lake and looping back home.
Along Hemp Creek Canyon.
The next day, we headed up to the highly-recommended Green Mountain trails. The first part of the trail involved about 40-45 minutes of steep single-track switchbacks, after which there was a wide grassy route to the Whitehorse Bluffs, where we had lunch.
View of the Clearwater River from the Whitehorse Bluffs.
We deked back to the main trail and carried on along to the viewpoint on Green Mountain, from which we could look down on the bluffs where we’d dined.
Looking down on the Whitehorse Bluffs (white cliffs to the right).
A very lovely single-track trail through open forest led us the 8-ish km back to the switchbacks down home.
Our third ride was on the Flatiron Trail, which was a haul-to route. I’d been given an online heads-up by the aforementioned Dana that there might be some issues with deadfall on the trail, and that the route marking was sketchy. I decided to risk it anyway. We did have a mostly-clear ride to the Flatiron Lookout, but the trail from there to the creek below was marginal at best. Bless my fuck-all-y’all-and-your-bullshit-fubar-trails horsie: she ploughed through and over obstacles like a moose. At one point, having shown decidedly poor judgment about her own ability to negotiate a high downed tree, she found herself stuck with one leg over and one leg back, and thought about throwing a small equine fit about her predicament. Thankfully, my girl has an astonishing responsiveness to voice commands like, “Wait. Stand. Trust me,” and so, roger that, she stood like a horse statue while I untangled her leg situation.
Pai assessing the windfall situation (“Just LOOK at all this bullshit!”). There’s a trail in there somewhere.
Despite the challenges of the windfall, the trail was very pretty, and offered a spectacular view from the lookout.
And in Dogland, Spy and I did hit the Heinz-endorsed Helmcken Falls Rim Trail, an 8 km route that runs along the X river and then overlooks the falls.
I have perhaps mentioned that I allergic to camping in the rain. And that my hives are even worse when camping in the rain involves camping in serious cold.
Back in June, when I aimed my ship eastward from Vancouver Island, where it had been sunny and in the 30s for weeks, I packed my winter clothes, for the sole anticipated purpose of camping in the Rockies in September. Riding at Kananaskis and Ya Ha Tinda and Hummingbird had taught me that no matter the season, when camping in the mountains, I needed to buy firewood, bring long underwear, and prepare for really cold rain. So I had my oilskin slicker, my fleece-lined waterproof riding skirt, a couple of toques, my long underwear tops and bottoms, my woollen Stanfields, my insulated rubber boots, my hand warmers and my toe warmers, my extra wool blanket, and my fire starters. I was ready, mama, for riding and camping in the mountains.
What I was emphatically not ready for, mentally at least, was the weather to turn to absolute shite become a little suboptimal the day after I pulled up stakes from PEI on Labour Day weekend. The sky turned dark somewhere around the Quebec border, making 3 pm seem like dusk, and the rain bucketed down all the way to Bécancour. Though there was a brief reprieve in Ontario, with temps in the 30s at my Dad’s place in Cornwall and at VMUTS in Mattawa, it turned freezing fucking cold unseasonably chilly thereafter, and drizzle followed me everywhere. Thunder Bay proffered a sad little beacon of hope in its wavering hand, a beacon which fizzled out and died by the time I hit Manitoba.
It would appear that September got a brain tumour, and forgot that its persona is that of a sweet month of crisp sunny mornings and warm honeyed Indian summer afternoons. THIS September, mornings have seen me grinding my coffee and brewing my cup of Joe with fingers numb inside my mittens, wearing a toque and scarf, while the temperatures remain stubbornly subarctic at -2C to +2C. THIS September, under relentlessly gunmetal grey skies, I’ve gamely hauled my ass into my frost-covered saddle each day wearing more layers than I put on to go skiing, the sharp wind making my eyes stream tears as though my best friend or my cat just died. THIS September, I can see my breath in my “living quarters” at night as I peruse maps or surf the interwebz.
(The East has no idea what I’m talking about. The East has been sweltering in the 30s. As I shiver in my scarf and toque, I have been torturing myself by looking at Facebook posts from PEI friends, featuring rides to the beach and to freaking ice cream shacks, for the love of god).
On my inaugural 2012 Road-Trip-With-Horse, I stopped in Kananaskis in late September, and rode out from the Sandy McNabb equestrian campground. That’s where I met Ann Molina and her riding friends Vicki and Daniella. On every subsequent horsey road trip I’ve taken Ann and I have managed to meet up for riding, and this year, we made a plan to camp out at Sandy McNabb. Date made, the idea of riding at Kananaskis again became an anticipated highlight of the east-west trip.
And then weather happened.
When I was in Pilot Butte, Ann set me a screen cap of the forecast for Kananaskis on our intended camping weekend.
Despite my rain allergy, I am not, technically speaking, a pussy when it comes to riding in crap weather: if you won’t ride in the rain on Vancouver Island, you’re not going to do much riding in the winter. So, while I don’t love it, I do ride in the winter rain, in my waterproof riding skirt, long underwear on, hand warmers and toe warmers in place.
Riding on my home turf in Vancouver Island fall.
And I’m not precisely a fair-weather camper, either. I’ve camped in a tent on a mountain in snow, and I’ve camped in the rain on Vancouver Island enough times to confirm that I haaaaaate camping in the rain. But if the destination and/or activity is worth it, I’ll camp in the rain.c
But here’s the thing: did you see that forecast? The snowy, rainy, high of 5C, low of -1C forecast? When it comes to my enthusiasm for camping with horses, after a week of grey drizzly unseasonably cold weather, that right there was a whole lotta Fuck No.
When the abysmal forecast stood and stood and stood, Ann and I elected to abort mission. We decided, however, not to let the crap weather get in the way of a reunion, and so I made a plan to go from the Reesor Ranch to Ann’s place in Calgary, where she had a neighbouring field available for me to park Pai for the night.
Why you make my September same as Vancouver Island winter? You bite. Photo: Ann Molina
Wine was drunk and laughs were had, and I got to meet her delightful hubs Steve and her awesome kids Ava and Matthew, as well as rescue doglets Zeus and Zuri. Spy managed to make himself popular despite smelling like dead cow (thanks to rolling in something at Reesor) and offering to eat everything left on the kitchen counter. It’s the cuteness: it’s his super-power.
Spy with friends Zuri and Zeus. – Photo: Ann Molina
After a leisurely Friday morning at Ann’s and a brunchy breakfast prepared by Steve which featured the most perfectly cooked fried eggs I have ever eaten, I hit the road at midday with no firm plans about where to go or where to stay. Famished for sun, ravenous for temperatures above 10C, I had been glued to the weather forecasts for days. I decided to set my sails for the BC Interior, which was looking like a reliable bet for sun and warmer temperatures early in the week. Merritt, Kamloops and the surrounding hills and mountains started singing siren songs of sunshine to me.
Looking for an overnight layover from Calgary, I thought the rodeo grounds at Golden, just under 3 hours away and where I’d overnighted on a previous trip, would be a good option, but when I hit town in the damp grey mid-afternoon, the idea of parking and throwing my horse in a corral in the rain and huddling in my tiny living space for hours until bedtime made me entertain thoughts of quaffing some lye, and so I decided to carry on to Salmon Arm, another 3 hours down the road. At least, if it were raining there, the cold dark day would seem shorter.
Larch Hills, a Nordic ski centre just east of Salmon Arm which boasts an extensive trail system and has corrals for horses, was my intended stopping point. Since they have a couple of shared cabins available, I figured that even in dismal weather I could stay two or three nights and explore what are reputed to be some pretty sweet trails. My hopes were dashed by a call to the site manager: the cabins were under construction, and the corrals were all booked and would be full until Monday. I switched to my back-up plan, which was to lay over at Topline Stables, and then carry on to Wells Gray Provincial Park near Clearwater.
Topline is the very first place I stayed at on my very first horsey road trip. It felt good to hit the place again, at the tail end of this east-west trip. On that first stay, my plan to pop out for an evening jaunt on the nearby trails was foiled by the fact that I had forgotten my girth at home, and so the ride never happened. On this trip, since the Worst Dog in the World needed to burn off some serious Cattle Dog steam before we hit the road in the morning, I made an effort to find those trails. Turns out the multi-use South Canoe trails just down the road hook in to the Larch Hills trail system I’d been intending to explore on horseback.
The dawg, on the South Canoe trails.
It was tempting to just dwell for another night at Topline and explore the trail system further from their end, but, after cooking dinner between rain showers and cooking breakfast in likewise drizzly weather, the gloom chased me away.
Optimistic for impending sunshine, I decided to head north to Wells Gray, a Provincial Park I’d long considered exploring.
Earlier in the morning, I had texted my friend Deb, who had mentioned that she would be giving a gastroscopy lecture in Kamloops that weekend, and I suggested we get together for coffee or lunch depending on how the timing panned out when I hit town. As I drove into Kamloops a few hours later, I got a call from my girl, who was also driving, and we started making plans for lunch. And then I heard, “Wait a minute, is that you in front of us?” Yes, yes indeed it was. We made a pit stop at a local tack shop, and then chilled for a while over lunch at a nearby diner, together with a couple of other OVC grads and Natasha, who is Pai’s host when we stay over in Langley.
The sky lightened a little as I made a pit stop in Clearwater, and the sun even popped out for a minute or two, promising good things as I carried on to Wells Gray…
Camp Notes for Horsey Folk:
I wrote about Topline Stables in my first post back in 2012. It is an absolutely beautiful eventing facility. The price for a layover in a roomy paddock with run-in and some grass is now $35. There is potable water, and an outhouse. From chatting with King, one of the owners, I don’t think they would have any problem with someone camping out for a couple of nights and riding the local trails, the South Canoe multi-user trail system, which is about 1 km away from Topline (you don’t have to do much riding on road to get there). The trails, mainly single-track through trees, and which connect into the Larch Hills trail system (about 10 km away by trail), are well-signed and well-mapped. It is clear by the signage and on the map which trails are suitable for horses.
I stayed at the Golden rodeo grounds in 2016. Information here.
Grey is not my favourite colour in a horse, not because snowy white horses aren’t beautiful – they are – but because every roll in the grass results in a Rorschach pattern of green stains, every roll on the PEI dirt produces a semi-permanent pink tint that would rival any blue rinse, and every bad decision to lie down in manure becomes a grooming vexation of disproportionate dimensions. I spend much of my pre-ride prep with a bottle of Cowboy Magic Greenspot Remover in one hand, furiously scrubbing away with the other, so that my pony doesn’t look like the filthy animal that she is. Dirt shows up really well on a white horse.
Know what else shows up really well on a white horse? Blood.
After waving goodbye to Dawn and her family in Pilot Butte, I headed off for Saskatchewan Landing, intending to camp and ride there for a few days before moving on to Kananaskis. The weather forecast was discouraging beyond words. It occurred to me that instead of camping in the rain (I haaaaaate camping in the rain) I did have the option of sleeping indoors, if I changed my destination from Sask Landing to the Historic Reesor Ranch. I’d seen the highway sign for the Historic Reesor Ranch many time on various road trips along that stretch of the Trans Canada, and a couple of people I’d talked to – including Ellen from Pilot Butte – had stayed there and had ridden there. It sounded like it might be a cool place to visit. A quick phone call from the road confirmed that there was a bed for me there, and a grassy paddock for Pai by the creek. Sold!
It crossed my mind, after I hung up, that I should have asked what type of fencing the paddock had, just in case it was barbed wire. Naaaah, I thought – surely guests’ horses wouldn’t be thrown out into barbed wire. Surely it would be a pipe or pole corral.
When I rolled in five hours later, and was greeted by the irrepressible Scotty Reesor, turned out the grassy paddock by the creek was indeed enclosed by barbed wire: prairie horses are savvy about wire. My Vancouver Island girl, on the other hand, was unlikely, in an unfamiliar paddock in the impending darkness, to have enough street smarts to keep herself and wire on appropriately frosty terms, so I elected to throw her in the grassless roundpen instead.
The following afternoon, when we got home from a 4 ½ hour ride that featured a long, fairly steep hill climb, I decided that Pai, who was showing uncharacteristically bad manners in pulling my arm off to dive for grass, was tired enough and hungry enough to do nothing more than put her head down and eat, and so I threw her out in the barbed wire grassy paddock by the creek to graze for an hour or so while I had my dinner.
Just look at that tired hungry horse and all that nice grass.
You can see where this is going, right?
I came out from my dinner to find my horse, naturally, on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Of course she was. As she strolled casually past me, the contrast between the white of her foreleg and the red of the blood that stained it from elbow to fetlock was sharp. When I approached her with a halter to tally the damage, she gave me the horsey equivalent of putting a middle finger on each hand up, and cantered off, kicking out at the ranch dog as she bucked her way past.
At least she wasn’t lame.
When I eventually captured my recalcitrant beastie, the actual damage was not at all impressive – the leg with the drama-queen hemorrhaging had the most innocuous of all the wounds, which consisted of a few scratches here and there, and a couple of very small full-thickness lacerations that were not in any way begging for this doc to sew them up. It seemed Pai had not gotten herself caught up in the wire so much as pushed it over and stepped through it like a grumpy princess. Either that or she’s a terrible jumper.
Happily, the balance of our stay was bloodless.
The day after we arrived, I rode out on my own, through a few gates and southward towards where I thought the High Vista trail in Cypress Hills might be. Bingo – we hit the ridge a few hundred metres from the spot Spy and I had stopped for lunch on our out-and-back hike from the equestrian campsite back in June. Pai and I carried on down the trail towards the Symonds cabin, stopping there for lunch during a brief interlude of sunshine.
The Symons-Noble cabin.
View from the High Vista trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail.
After our second night, which was the day I was pulling out, I tagged along on a guided ride with a couple from the Ottawa Valley who had a arrived the evening before (just in time to see me wrangling my red-and-white pony). We stayed on ranch property, which offered an endless vista northward over the prairie, and spectacular views south across the valley.
It was 4C when we headed out. Love my warm riding skirt!!
Up on the ridge, at the site of the old rangers’ fire watch cabin.
Chris, our young wrangler Joel, and Frank.
Joel, Chris and Frank.
Spy was allowed to stay despite the No Pet Policy (I hadn’t read the webite’s rules, which is good, because the pet policy as written sounds strict AF), but he was not permitted in the room. He was, however, allowed to run off leash on our walks, and would have been allowed to ride with me had a chosen to take him. With a cattle drive in progress, I opted to leave him behind (if we’d run across cows, he would have made himself a little too helpful), instead taking him for long morning and afternoon walks. At least one and usually two of the ranch dogs, Dolly and Dove and Justice, would join us on our jaunts. Our first morning, we came across a total of six coyotes, all of whom had the run put on them by Dolly and Dove.
Dove is on the alert for more coyotes.
The Reesor Ranch was established by WD and Alice Reesor in 1904, and has been in the Reesor family ever since. Theresa and Scott have been gradually handing the reins over to their youngest daughter, who represents the fifth generation of family running the ranch. Theresa and Scotty’s passion for the history of their century-old ranch is palpable. The walls of the guest rooms and common areas are covered in black and white photographs of cattle drives and brandings and cowboys on horseback, newspaper articles, and ranch artifacts.
“GET IN THE CAR! You have to come see the golden prairie sun!”
With those words, my friend Dawn alerted me to a tree-mergency: the urgent necessity to go admire the stunning beauty of the late afternoon sunlight hitting the yellow leaves of the aspens.
Aspens in the prairie sun.
And I got it: I have dragged Mr Andrews out to behold spectacular sunsets; I have exhorted him to get out of bed to see the moon spilling a river of white across the bay; I have knocked on cottage neighbours’ doors to make them come down and see the bioluminescence in the water.
I met Dawn in Cypress Hills a couple of years back, along with her good friends Ellen, Linda and Jeannie, when my ever-popular escape artist, the Worst Dog in the World, foisted himself upon their girl posse, thereby forcing me to introduce myself. I rode with them and wine tasted with them and ate with them. When I pulled out at the end of the week, they issued an invitation to come ride in Pilot Butte someday. And so, on my way back to BC, when it looked like I would have a couple of nights free, I tossed out a text to Dawn. And she said Come on down! And so I did.
Our soul-sister desire to share fleeting beauty was not the only quirk Dawn and I discovered we had in common. Three days into my visit (my “couple of days” ultimately stretched to four nights, because Dawn is like a crack dealer when it comes to enticing you to stay longer than you might have intended: how could a person say no? Staying with her and her family is like sliding into a cozy pair of fleece slippers, you feel so welcome and so comfortable) the two of us realized that neither of us knew the other’s last name. She was “Dawn from Cypress”, and I was “Sylvia”, and that was just fine.
When I arrived in the just-east-of-Regina town on a Friday afternoon, fall had definitely hit the prairies, and the trees were aflame, way beyond anywhere I’d passed through in the east. In fact, if the trees’ party outfits hadn’t been a dead giveaway for the time of year, the temperatures and threat of imminent moisture would have suggested Vancouver Island winter. (Yes, I am fully cognizant of the fact that we are pussies when it comes to winter). When we went out on a reunion ride with the Cypress girls the day after I arrived, under grey skies and a peskily enthusiastic wind, I was wearing the subarctic-survival-skills type layers I wear skiing, with hand warmers and toe warmers in place.
Ready to hit the trail.
Ellen was away elk hunting, but Linda and Jeannie joined us for our three-ish hour ride through the White Butte Trails.
Jeannie and Linda.
While the riding was exceptionally pretty, much of the fun of my stay involved hanging out with Dawn’s family – husband Ken, and delightful kids Myles and Falynn – and visiting with the other Cypress horse gals. After our ride, Dawn and Linda and her lovely daughter Grace popped in to Regina for dinner at a local brew pub, which made for a delightful evening. Over my four-day stay, Dawn’s daughter Falynn was in the midst of try-outs for ringette (the local A team, nonetheless), and so I got to learn a bit about the sport (I’m a hockey girl, and know next to nothing about ringette), as well as watch the tiny dervish skate and stick handle like a pro. Ten-year-old Falynn also cooked us a pancake breakfast, made lunch, sautéed some prawns to perfection for pasta sauce, and, in between times, whipped me up a bean-bag warmer on the sewing machine.
Particularly fun for me was opening oysters for the prairie folk. I still had around a dozen oysters left from my 100-count box, and they were on offer. One of the excellent things on these X-Canada trips is having my eyes opened to things that I have never known or experienced; it’s not often I myself get to be the purveyor of newness, but oyster shucking let me play that role. Even though my shucking skills are barely serviceable at best – compare my 45-ish seconds (I’m totally guessing, and am probably overly optimistic: it could be longer) to open an oyster to the 3-second shuck of Tyne Valley’s reigning champion, Mister Eamon Clarke – the fam was enthralled, and totally game to try the raw oysters even though their prairie upbringing was, apparently, making voices scream in their heads that they were all going to get sick and die of shellfish poisoning.
One of Dawn’s crack-dealer enticements to stay and stay and stay was a trip in to Moose Jaw, a town I’d previously only blasted past on the Trans Canada (well okay, I did once stop for lunch under the giant moose statue). I’d had zero idea that Moose Jaw had been a first-rate Sin City North back in the 20’s, full of casinos and brothels and speakeasies, and serving as a bootleg distribution hub during Prohibition. To my delight, Ellen, back from her cabin up north, joined us for the outing. We visited the Tunnels of Moose Jaw, which was a sort of audience-participation play in the underground tunnels, giving a taste of what it might have been like when Mr Capone was in town. After we got our bit of history under our belts, we chilled (heated?) for a while in the geothermal mineral spa pools – exactly right for a winter’s day.
Dawn and I got in a second ride at White Butte before I skipped town. If it is possible, the trees were even more gaudy in their finery. Maybe it was the droughty summer, but the typically staid yellow aspens lost their minds and turned up to the party in all manner of wild golds and oranges and near-reds.
Dawn and Harley
Everything’s on fire.
Spy also enjoyed the White Butte trails on a daily basis. While we were at Dawn’s, he chummed around with Yankee the Heeler cross, Taco the Boston, and Aero, the very distinguished narcotics-sniffing Lab that Dawn trained herself from the ground up.
Yankee, Aero, Taco and Spy on our last morning walk.
All good things must come to an end. After staying twice as long as I’d intended, and with tomato seeds from Ellen and a lunch packed by Falynn in hand, I loaded up my horse, and hit the road west.
Driving through small-town Canada, particularly in the north, will present you with all manner of visual delights.
Somewhere on lonely Hwy 17 in Northern Ontario, there is a motel with quasi-religious murals painted on its walls, and a giant statue of a very sparkly horse out front. There is a “For Sale” sign on the horse. Also on Hwy 17, there is a little roadside hut whose signage proclaims wares that include the fascinating combination of cinnamon buns and live minnows. And there’s another business – can’t recall whether it was a hotel or a restaurant or a gas station – which had a fabulous art installation on the lawn featuring Spiderman, Flash, a bunch of dwarves, and an airplane. (The only other roadside art I’ve seen that gives it a run for its money in terms of incongruity was the display I drove past on my west-east drive, featuring a T-Rex statue alongside a tipi…)
When you get to Glenboro, Manitoba, there is a giant statue of a camel next door to the gas station. It all begins to make sense when you discover that the camel (Sara) is a nod to the Spirit Sands, Manitoba’s only desert, in nearby Spruce Woods Provincial Park.
Sara the camel in Glenboro.
On our way to Spruce Woods from Thunder Bay, we overnighted at Wabigoon, where, where “our” spot was waiting for us and where yet another dreadful sunset was inflicted upon us.
The loons were calling that night, and again as the sun rose pink in the morning. Lovely 84-year-old Velma wasn’t there that day, but I did get to re-photograph her bike, the one she’d had since she was 15 years old.
Just as the landscape of Cypress Hills is not what you might expect when you think “Saskatchewan” – because admit it, if you’re not from Saskatchewan, your image of Saskatchewan probably consists of one long flat line drawn horizontally across a chalkboard – the geography of Spruce Woods is not what one would typically envision when you think “Manitoba”. Or at least not what I envision.
The park, up on a prairie plateau, features an undulating landscape of sand dunes covered in prairie grass, with copses of aspen, oak, and spruce. Down below, the Assiniboine River snakes its way along the northern boundary of the park.
We arrived at Spruce Woods in the late afternoon, on what would be the only hot sunny day. There were two other camping groups there, a local lady named Janie, and a group of vet technicians from the Winnipeg area. The solitude didn’t even begin to hint at how busy the place had been on the weekend – Janie told me she’d arrived at 4 pm on the Sunday afternoon, and had to stand her rig in the laneway until 7 pm before she could pull into a vacant site.
Our three nights’ stay at Spruce Woods allowed us two riding days. On our first day, we rode out to the Hogsback, a water-cut sandy ridge that juts out towards the river.
View over the Hogsback.
After a lunch with a gorgeous view over the Assiniboine, we wound our way home on a challenging single-track trail across the top of grass-topped dunes.
It’s a desert!
Riding the dunes.
Our second day’s ride took us past gorgeous viewpoints and down to the river.
The Assiniboine at the second equestrian camp, “Canoe Camp”.
Although not in full change, the yellow and red and orange of the leaves against the white trunks of the aspens and the green of the spruce made for some very pretty riding, despite the grey, chilly weather.
As a native Ontarian, I thought we had a pretty good claim on thunderstorm wows, but prairie storms make eastern storms look tame. The one that hit on my second night at Spruce Woods didn’t so much blow in as gradually take charge over the night. For a couple of hours, while the air was still and the only sound was the chirping of frogs, the distant sky flickered like a faulty fluorescent light, more light than dark. Finally, the thunder began to roll and giant raindrops began to splash down, and then it was truly storming.
Although misadventures make for the best stories, sometimes it’s nice when nothing goes awry. My stay at Spruce Woods was altogether peaceful, and it would be lovely to come back some day.
Camping Notes for Horsey Folk:
I described the luxurious equestrian camp at Spruce Woods in this post (scroll down to Spruce Woods, and to Camping Notes for Horsey Folk).
On this trip, I stayed once again at the Barn Campground at Kiche Manitou, but I also rode through the second campground, the Canoe Campground. This campground is considerably more rustic. There are pens, picnic tables, and firepits; there is no potable water, but there is a hand pump for horse water. There are pit toilets, and some very thoughtfully implemented shower stalls from which you can hang your solar shower.
The main trails are double-wide, mown trails, either sandy or grassy – it’s hard to find a rock in that place. Trails are moderately well-marked, although not all trails you come across appear on the map, and some signs feature trail names that do not appear on the map. There are a few un-mapped single-track trails that wind across the dunes. There are outhouses here and there in the park at some of the major sights/intersections.
Sometimes, if you’re (a) a daydreamer like I am and (b) you’ve got way too much time for idle thought, it is fun to trace backward the twisting and turning path of chance and happenstance that lead you to something wonderful.
If, when I was traveling in New Zealand back in 1988, any of the people on my long list of people I could petition for accommodation had actually answered their phone when I called, I would not have met Mr Andrews, who, for very good reasons that shall remain undisclosed, was at the very bottom of said list and who did offer a place to stay. If, when prepping for X-Canada Road Trip 2012 and searching for equine accommodation in Canmore, I had not randomly found the contact number for a dressage lady who put me in contact with someone who put me in contact with John Third, who put me up in his paddock, I would not have met the marvelous Wendy Bush and I would not have heard her exhort me to ride at Cypress Hills, and I would never have chosen on the spur of the moment to turn right when I saw the sign on the Trans Canada, and I would never have fallen in love with the place and decided that on Road Trip 2015 I must return, and then I would never have met my favourite people in the world to ride with, Doug and Rob Cursons.
Likewise, if, as a teenager, I hadn’t been walking along a particular beach at a particular moment and heard hoofbeats on the bank above and hadn’t gone up and met Charles MacKay, I never would have jogged for him and never would have gotten Fred the Standardbred, nor needed a place for the horse to stay when I lived in wop-wops outside Guelph, and my landlords wouldn’t have pointed me in the direction of Brenda and Geoff Pantling just around the (country) corner, and I wouldn’t have joined their riding club, Onatrio Trail Riders, and so then, when I was looking for a place to bunk down in Northern Ontario with access to trails, I wouldn’t have thought to join the OTRA Facebook group, and wouldn’t have been pointed in the direction of Marg and Tom Loghrin.
Even though discovering new camps and new trails is a large part of the fun of road-tripping, returning to familiar places and familiar faces is a wonderful thing.
I’d stayed with Marg and Tom in July, on my west-east journey. They are the sort of people you immediately feel at home with, and right away I felt like a visiting family member. And after getting a taste of their trails on a beautiful morning ride I took with them in July (just before my phone met its watery death in the subsequent thunderstorm), I was keen to ride with Marg and Tom again.
Pai settled in at Marg and Tom’s, with Casey and J coming up for a social.
The weekend I arrived, they were in the full swing of Rural Heritage Days, which Tom has been running for years. When they explained to me that the activities involved not just a tractor pull, but a tractor rodeo, I was fascinated. When they said there was also tractor square dancing, I was gobsmacked. Who knew such a thing existed? Sadly, by the time I pulled in, the festivities were largely over, so I missed my opportunity to give an eyewitness account.
Retired teachers, Marg and Tom have a vast knowledge of local geology, and a great love of history. One of the most cursed things about the tragic death of my rained-on cellphone was the loss of all the photos between home and Thunder Bay, and so I was pleased to be able to re-take a couple of the photos of the antique sleighs Tom has restored, and which are still used with their own team of horses. One of the sleigh belonged to Marg’s great-grandfather, and the other, the “school sleigh” is also a family heirloom.
Tom with the cutter, and the red school sleigh.
An afternoon dog walk led to many edible fungi finds, including coral mushrooms, lobster mushrooms, and the jackpot: a small patch of chanterelles, just enough to cook up in the next morning’s omelette.
After a Sunday Legion breakfast – a biweekly tradition for Marg and Tom – Marg and I set out on the trails that lead out from their backyard. Thirty years ago, Tom cut and mapped the bulk of the 100km of trail that loop through criss-cross Fort William First Nation land, and has maintained them for the past thirty years.
Tom’s map of the trail network he and Marg have worked on for decades.
The leaves were just starting to turn, with the moose maples and red maples hinting at their upcoming fiery glory. We rode up to the Dyke lookout on Lost Mountain, which offered panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
With Marg on Casey, at the Dyke’s Lookout viewpoint on Lost Mountain.
View of Fox Mountain from Dyke’s Lookout.
Beaver pond on Lost Mountain.
It was tempting to stay and stay, and ride and ride, but I had a couple of upcoming riding dates I wanted to keep, and so, after another night’s stay, we said our goodbyes and I was on my way towards Manitoba.