Plucking Daisies in Ontario: Spruce Woods, Manitoba to Cornwall, Ontario – July 5-19, 2018

 

 

She loves me, she loves me not.

She loves me, she loves me not.

Or maybe, “I love her, I love her not” would have been a more accurate mantra for my 2-week trip through Ontario.

When, after a brief overnight at the delightful Spruce Woods Provincial Park in Manitoba, I hit Ontario, I was in love. Cross the border, and Presto Magico, the terrain instantly changes. Suddenly, from flat(ish) country with very docile-looking deciduous trees, you find yourself in a world of tiny black lakes and reedy bogs spattered across a landscape of pink rock and short scrubby hardscrabble evergreens. It’s like a act change in a theatre play, where someone whips the scenery away while the curtains are closed.

From one morning on the prairies to the next morning in lake country, the sound of cattle bawling was traded for the sound of loons calling, and the cheerful chortling of magpies was replaced with the lonesome cawing of crows. Ontario, my old stomping ground, speaks to me every time I come back, with its sounds of water lapping rock, and its views of wee lakes surrounded by tough little conifers, and its fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles. And oh, the loons.

Ontario - Wabigoon

Sweet dinner time view from the rocks at Merkel’s Camp in Wabigoon.

 

From an overnight at Merkel’s Camp in Dryden, I carried on to Thunder Bay, where I stayed steadfastly in love with my home province. Even though they didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, I was welcomed as if I were family by Marg and Tom Loghrin, whom I’d “met” on Facebook through the equestrian club of my (relative) youth, the Ontario Trail Riders Association. I instantly felt right at home, as Pai settled in to a roomy round pen lush with grass, and I set up my little camp alongside. A lovely evening was had, and plans were made to ride at 8:30 the next morning before I pulled out.

Which we did. And then it all went to pot.

After a glorious ride up Mt Rose, which is basically in Marg and Tom’s back yard, on steep trails past ripening blueberries and saskatoons, under red pine and white pine and poplars and the odd maple, my phone got rained on in a shockingly sudden and admirably vigorous thunderstorm.

Which is why this post will be extremely light on the photographs.

Hey, that’s OK. Who wants to keep their photos of the Betty and Cheryl, the two lovely ladies who showed me the trails at Spruce Wood? Who needs to save a photo of 80-something-year-old Velma at Merkel’s Camp, alongside the bicycle she’s had since she was 14 year old? Or views over Lake Superior or Chain of Ponds or Loch Lomond from the top of a rocky outcrop on Marg and Tom’s trails? Who needs to take pics of gorgeous rock surrounding tiny lakes on the drive down Hwy 17? Who needs to take photos while riding their horse through airy sugarbush on the outskirts of Orillia? Who needs to take shots of golden wheat fields rolling away in the honeyed afternoon on a ride outside Guelph? I sure don’t.

And hey, fun fact: there are very few pay phones left in the world.

It’s annoyingly difficult to find some way to phone your husband from the road in Northern Ontario and tell him you won’t be calling or texting him at all for the foreseeable future since your cell is in a coma and not expected to live, and you are in BF Nowhere where there is no store in which to buy a cell phone lightning-to-C cord, nevermind an actual phone (I know: I asked, in the relative metropolis of Wawa. It was exactly like enquiring about an English girth at Cowtown or tofu products in Maple Creek). In fact, I didn’t call Mr Andrews, but had to wait to find horrendously disappointing WiFi at my next camp (by which I mean that even though I was sitting cross-legged on a countertop in the laundry room approximately four feet from the router, the service was so slow that I just about went to sleep).

But that’s OK. Via FB and the above-mentioned glacially slow WiFi, I managed to let the folks with whom I was meeting up in Southern Ontario that I was on track, and a few days later, I was happily settled into a lakeside cabin with the Pantlings, who used to board my Fred horse back when I was a student at U of G. They were at their cottage rather than their farm outside Guelph, and they just happen to have a corral in the back yard. And so a sweet, wine-drenched evening was had.

And then, when I was pulling out in the morning, I found my truck had a flat.

Changing a tire on the trailer is a piece of cake. The spares are mounted on the tongue, and, with my drive-on ramp, there is no need to use a jack. It takes 10 minutes (ask me how I know – two blowouts in 24 hours back on Road Trip 2012 made me an expert tire changer). Changing a tire on the Tundra while it is hitched to the trailer… not so much. The jack is under the seat behind a bunch of crap that is also under the seat, and the seat itself is under a sling and under a bunch of boxes. The tire is underneath the truck, cranial to the back bumper. Figuring out which type of slot is in there for attaching the winder-downer thingy requires a flashlight (which I do have, somewhere, underneath another bunch of crap.  I would usually use my cell phone light, but… yeah. About that rain. Thankfully, Geoff and Brenda were in attendance for the fun of the tire change, and had the requisite phone flashlight). Winding the spare down with the designated tool is impossible with the trailer hitched, so an alternate device is required, which would be vise grips, which I carry, in my toolbox, back in the depths of the pickup bed… And then the spare was under-inflated (thank you, Geoff, for having the presence of mind to check), which meant digging out the compressor to remedy that particular situation… Let’s just say that Operation Tundra Tire Change took vastly more than 10 minutes.

 

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Driving on the rim. Nice. – Photo: Geoff Pantling

 

Ontario - tire 1

Finally got that baby on. – Photo: Geoff Pantling

 

Back on the road, driving a sad 80 km/h on the spare, I made the usually quick trip down to the Orillia lakeside home of my old U of G friend Mark in record slow time. Therapeutic gin and tonic was on offer, and, after a swim in the lake and a hefty dose of medicine, my good humour was restored.

rosati

G&Ts on the dock is kinda A-OK.   – Photo: Mark Rosati

A trip in to the mechanic’s in Orillia gradually revealed that not only was there no plugging the tire (sidewalls were shredded), nor was there the mere matter of ordering and installing a new (obscenely expensive Toyo) tire, but the wheel itself was flattened and cracked. When it came to welding the rim, no one in town would touch it, so the folks at Meineke offered to perform a gangster epoxy repair on the thing to get me back on the road. Sold! Hell, I had places to go, people to see.

Excellent Ontario Issue #3: when I went to pay for the made-of-gold Toyo tire, my credit card was declined. Which event was ostensibly not possible, given our boundless credit limit (we can buy a house on that card). An eventual return to WiFi and access to Mr Andrews revealed that fraudulent charges had been placed on the card, and AmEx had decided to cancel it. Exxxxcelllent.

The flat tire warning light came on minutes after I pulled out onto the highway out of Orillia, but a stop at the Toyota dealer in Barrie 25 km down the road saw some Doogie Howser mechanic come out and tell this Little Lady (seriously, that was me: I actually saw him assign a label over my head) that everything would be just fine.  I carried on to Guelph and had it seen at the dealer there the next day, where a similarly glib mechanic punched the tire and told me that it seemed fine, and offered the stellar advice that if I felt a wobble on the truck, it would be an indication to get it checked out for losing pressure. Um, no. I stopped expecting mechanics to be mind readers (clearly they thought that I was just ambling around town in my BC plates in a heavily laden truck with a big rack on top and horse trailer behind), and explained that I was hauling from there to PEI, and from PEI back to Vancouver Island, and did he think it would be a good idea to carry on with the ghetto epoxy-ed rim, or would he suggest I get the wheel looked at more closely?

Exactly, dude. Appointment made.

Meanwhile, in Cell Phone Recovery Land, there began a very long and boring story about my technological ignorance, and about interprovincial business restrictions, and about the pitfalls of making assumptions (Mr Andrews assuming I know anything whatsoever about buying a cell phone, telus retail people assuming that I would want the cheapest option possible, corporate telus people assuming a bunch of things). It would take two days and bottomless angst to purchase a thousand dollars’ worth of phone in order to return to the land of the connected.

In Guelph, on the eve prior to the phone finally being procured and a new wheel finally being ordered, when the logistics of life were still dreadful, I was sitting by the pool with my beloved friend Derek late in the evening, slamming down a medicinal 500mL of 9% beer, and just starting to reclaim my chill. We peered through the dusk and wondered aloud what Spy the Dog was chasing. Hahahahaaa. The answer to THAT became clear once the suffocating stench rolled over us.

We don’t have skunks on Vancouver Island. Dealing with a skunked dog is something I have never had to embrace in my 25-year veterinary career. (We don’t have porcupines either, though, bizarrely, I did once have to remove quills from a dog who had chomped down on a porcupine souvenir). Some speedy texting to a skunked-dog-savvy friend on Derek’s part had us zipping out to Walmart (still open!) and purchasing skunk wash supplies so that, dressed Hazmat style and stationed at the end of the driveway, we could de-skunk the sad, frothy-mouthed Spy. A more than faint Eau-de-Skunk fragrance persisted, so I set up his collapsible kennel in the back yard and abandoned him to his stench for the rest of the night.

Stink-dog in tow, I eased my way east to my Dad’s place in Cornwall with a delightful side-trip to visit my classmate Susie on her acreage north of Oshawa. While I have to say that I wasn’t sorry when Ontario saw the ass end of me, I did have a fantastic time there, visiting old friends and meeting new ones.

 

The Manitoba-Ontario recap:

Spruce Woods

When I left the Wood Mountain Wagon Train, I was headed for Spruce Woods Provincial Park in Manitoba, on a sort of reconnaissance mission. I’d originally intended to spend a few days there riding, but there were logistical issues with meeting up with friends in Ontario, and so I decided to just go, check out the campsite and trails, and decide whether it was worth coming back to in September on my return trip. When I pulled in, and popped out of the truck to get the lay of the land, I was immediately hailed by a couple of ladies, who then let me know what was where and how it all worked.

Spruce Woods is absolutely luxurious, as a non-commercial campsite goes. The campsites are well-spaced around a small meadow, surrounded by trees. Each site has a picnic table, a big fire pit with a grill, and a hitching rail. There is a central potable water hydrant with hose, as well as a hand pump and a couple of other non-potable horsey options. There are flush toilets, and showers, and a building where you can get out of the rain to cook/hang out/eat should you so desire. There are five or six very roomy grassy paddocks, and around a dozen pens (12 x 12-ish), and another half dozen or so larger round pens. Firewood is provided. There are sites with power.

The camp was very lightly populated, with only three other sites occupied. The gals I’d met upon my arrival were Betty and Cheryl, two relatively local ladies who’d been riding together for years, and who knew the trails well. We got to gabbing, and that sociability tumbled into dinner together and then wine-drinking and then a campfire pyjama party.

The horse world is a small one. When Betty heard I’d just been at Cypress Hills, she asked if I’d met her uncle Dave. Why yes, yes indeed I had – the Dave in question was the guitarist I’d hung with for three nights in a row. And then she mentioned Jim Scott, and I was like, “Jim? Jim with the team of Percherons?” Yes, the very same Jim, the one who’d captured my errant horsie a couple of days before at Wood Mountain when, protected by her sheet and indifferent to the e-fence, she skipped town and turned up at his camp in the morning, eating his horses’ cubes.

The ladies generously offered to take me out on an early-morning ride and show me some of the trails before I hit the road at 10:00, and their tour sealed the deal when it came to my intentions to ride there again in the fall.

 

Wabigoon

After leaving Spruce Woods, I camped at Merkel’s Camp in Wabigoon, just east of Dryden. I had camped there on my 2012 east-to-west X-Canada trip, and so, once again, arriving felt like a homecoming. Terry, the camp owner and cousin of my barn owner in Nanaimo, greeted me and sent me off to “my” spot, where he’d left the grass unmown in anticipation of Pai’s arrival.

Merkel’s Camp was quiet this trip, and so there were, sadly, no raucous hunting stories around a campfire. I did, however, meet Velma, who has a seasonal site at the camp. Her place is strewn with all kinds of flowers and garden plants. She feeds the friendly chipmunks who hang out nearby.

 

Thunder Bay

After I settled Pai into her cush roundpen, and before I made a quick foray into town to update my grocery supply, Tom showed me their inventory of sleighs and wagons. One sleigh used to belong to Marg’s great-grandfather, and it, as well as another old family sleigh called the “School Sleigh” since it was used to take kids to school, have been lovingly restored by Tom.

We went out to dinner together at their local (best portabella mushroom burger ever!) and Tom gave me a short tour of some of the local sights, including the ski hill where Crazy Canuck Steve Irwin got his start. Marg and Tom have done long-distance road-trip camping with their horses for years, and listening to their stories and hearing about their favourite places to ride made for a topnotch evening.

Since I had only a cruise-y 3 ½  hour drive the following day, we all agreed that an early morning ride would be just the ticket. We hit the trail at 8:30, and Tom let Queen of the World stride out in front for much of the ride. As thunder rumbled around us, we climbed Mt Rose, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding hills and lakes and the Sleeping Giant and the city itself. The rain never hit until we dismounted back at home.

Neys

 

Finding accommodation tailored to equines anywhere between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie is a non-starter. It’s all rocks and trees up there, with nary a fairgrounds nor stockyard nor trail riding stable, nor any farm at all, really, nevermind horse farms. The Provincial Park at Neys had declined to take us (citing provincial regulations, which is odd, since I’d camped at the Provincial Park at Rossport down the highway with no issue), as did the nearby town of Marathon’s civic campground. The commercial campground across from the Provincial Park was game, however, and the host of Neys Adventures gave us the entire group camping field behind the regular sites. Sweet!

 

pai at neys 1

Takin’ pics with my laptop in the absence of adequate iPhone-age… Just LOOK at my unimpressed, pissed-off face.

 

As I was about to prep my dinner, the family arrived back in our field on an ATV, three two-year-old triplets on board. They’d never seen a horse before (“Puppy! Puppy!” screeched one, pointing at Pai), and much petting ensued. Queen of the World enjoyed her entourage.

There were ATV trails adjacent to the campground, which apparently offer a fantastic view if you climb to the top of the hill, but since it was foggy when we were preparing to depart, I didn’t take the opportunity to ride/dog walk on the trails.

 

Thessalon

On the way down to Thessalon, I pulled in at the Provincial Park at Agawa Bay and enquired about camping possibilities for my return trip, and was assured that we would be welcome and that there were no provincial regulations against it. Take that, Neys.

Just north of Thessalon, outside Wharncliffe, Cedar Rail Ranch caters to people with horses. When I pulled in, cheery country music was blaring, and the owner’s brother-and-law and his wife greeted me warmly. There are three cabins at the Ranch, all of which were occupied by guests, but none were accompanied by horses and so Pai had her choice of the two large, grassy roundpens.

 

pai cedar rail am

Another laptop photo: morning at Cedar Rail Ranch.

 

Before heading off in the morning, I set out for an hour’s ride on the wooded trails, stopping to get off and pick blueberries along the way.

 

Huntsville

Brenda and Geoff, who boarded my horse for me when I lived on a sheep farm outside Guelph, were my introduction to horse care and to trail riding. They were very active in Ontario Trail Riders, and everything I learned about camping with horses and about trail etiquette and safety was thanks to them.

They have a beautiful cottage in the trees on Clear Lake near Huntsville, a lovely little lake whose shoreline is crenelated with small bays. We took a pre-dinner tour of the lake in the late afternoon sun, followed by an evening of good wine and good food and good conversation in their covered porch, which is set high on the bank and feels like a treehouse up there in the pines.

Pai spent the night in their horse corral in the back yard, well-shaded from the crazy heat by the trees.

pai at pantlings

Photo: Geoff Pantling.

 

Orillia

In my first year at Guelph, I lived in a small residence called International House, which housed 25 Canadian students and 25 foreign students. One of my good friends was Mark Rosati, a fellow President’s Scholarship recipient. In second year, I shared a house with four other former International House residents, including Mark, and Mark went on to be one of the groomsmen when Wayde and I were married.

Mark and his wife Margaret and kids Esmee and Owen live in a lakeside house just south of Orillia, and when they heard I was road-tripping through, found a neighbour who would put Pai up for the night, and invited me to stay. So I did.

While Pai bunked down with two very smitten Paint geldings and a very cute donkey, I hung out by the lake, swimming and feasting and enjoying time with my friends. We took a short ride through the very pretty sugarbush on the property where Pai stayed, surprising the same doe three times (no one said deer were smart).

 

Guelph

Back in high school in Cornwall, Ontario, one of my very best friends was Derek Haley, a fellow track team member who was a couple of years younger than I was. We have remained dear friends for more than three decades, reconnecting in person every couple of years.

From Orillia, it is a mere 2 ½ – 3 hr drive to Guelph. I parked the horse at Brenda and Geoff’s place, where I used to board my Fred horse when I was at U of G, and carried on into town to stay with Derek and his wife Ruth and their two adorable little boys Ben and Evan, and tiny daughter Clara. My visit was chopped up into vignettes of frustration (above-mentioned tire and cellphone issues), which made my stay somewhat less than relaxing for me and, I’m sure, somewhat scatty for my hosts. Nevertheless, we had some awesome dog walks and conversations, and Pai even consented to providing pony rides for the two boys on a farm visit that included visiting the resident pigs and ducks, and collecting a dozen eggs they could take home with them (thanks, Brenda and Geoff!)

I took Pai out for a spin one afternoon, riding across farms where I used to ride Fred. Nothing seemed even vaguely familiar, but that’s OK, because there were so many more trails to ride than when this was my stomping ground back in the 90’s. My stretch-your-legs ride turned into a several hours’ trip, with canters across mown hayfields dotted with round bales, along the edge of rolling fields of golden wheat, and through mixed forest.  Sweet!

 

Oshawa

From a lunch spot along Agawa Bay, one with decent WiFi at its picnic tables, I emailed my vet school classmate Susie Dorland, and mentioned that I would be in her neck of the woods and did she want to get together to ride?

She did.

I was invited to stay at their farm just outside Oshawa, adjacent to the Long Sault conservation area. The farm she shares with her partner Ian is pretty much like a resort, and Pai and I were both pampered for the couple of nights we stayed there. After a Saturday night free flowing with wine, and a slow, cruise-y start to our Sunday morning, we spent a couple of hours riding trail in the blessed shade (it was 34 degrees out), followed by lounging by the pool.

Ontario - riding with Susie

Riding the trails with Susie and Ian.

You can’t beat good company, good food, and good riding, all in a beautiful setting.

 

 

Cornwall

On my X-Canada Road Trip of 2012, I spent a few days visiting my Dad in Cornwall, and parked the horse at the farm of Peter Tropea, the vet I worked for in high school. Peter once again offered to put up my horse, and so Pai reclaimed her cushy grass paddock shaded by pine trees at one end. While she cooled her jets there – we didn’t ride at all – I hung out with my Dad for a couple of days, and also paid a visit to Mr Chan, my high school art teacher, who lives in the ‘hood.

From Cornwall, we hit the road at a leisurely 11:00 a.m., headed for a farm in Quebec just south of Trois Rivieres.

Sorry/not sorry to say goodbye…

 

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Grace: the Wood Mountain Wagon Train – June 30-July 5, 2018

If arriving at Cypress Hills is like coming home, arriving at the Wood Mountain Wagon Train camp is like coming home when a family reunion is in full swing.

After many extended goodbyes leaving Cypress Saturday morning, we ground up the hill out of camp and headed to Maple Creek. On Monday, I had asked Denise and Kathy, who live in Maple Creek, whether there was an internet café in town, and they pshawed that idea, offering me instead the use of their WiFi (and laundry, and shower). So I took them up on their offer. Not only did they kindly allow me to clean my grubby gear and grubby self and get my internet tasks done, they made me lunch.  I spent three hours there on the patio, chatting and eating and looking at photos, and admiring all Denise’s carpentry work around their home.

By the time Maple Creek saw the ass end of me, it was nearly three o’clock. Thinking I’d make some adjustments to my tack situation to better deal with some of Queen of the World’s evasions, I made a stop in Swift Current to check out the big tack shop on Highway One, Cowtown. I’m not sure what I business I thought I had looking for English gear in a place called Cowtown, but there I was, all eager and hopeful, scouring the racks for a new girth and a martingale. A tour of the store set me straight. The clerk apologetically confirmed that there were no English girths, nor martingales in stock, and, when I asked if anyone else in Speedy Creek might be a good bet, she was more than a little skeptical about my chances. (The whole scenario was kind of akin to me trying to find veggie bacon in Maple Creek, also a non-starter. Which reminds me to mention that there’s nothing that makes you feel more like a Vancouver Islander than wandering around a supermarket in a small prairie town with your re-usable grocery bags in one hand, phosphate-free dish soap in the other, looking for fake meat products. Yup, I tooootally fit in).

My delays saw me arrive at the WMWT camp site just south of Rockglen much later than I’d planned, close to 8 pm. I spotted Doug and Rob’s rig parked on the hillside, and pulled in just ahead of them. I’d no sooner hopped out of my cab than Doug’s grandson Ian was greeting me and introducing me to his little brother Quinn, and Rob was telling me to throw the horse on the HiTie and come join them for dinner. Inside were Doug and also Jim, the driver of a beautiful team of Percherons. Jim and his wife Lonnie were the first people I had met on my virgin Wood Mountain ride, back in 2015. Theresa, the ride organizer, and her daughter Jasmine appeared, setting up Port-a-potties and organizing garbage disposal and water.

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– Pai in camp with her Saskatchewan buddies.

 

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– My morning view.

More folks started to trickle in the following afternoon. Denise popped up to my site when she arrived, and then I ran across Nelson and Margaret and their granddaughter Emma, who was delighted to tell me that she now has her own horse. Bob Adanack arrived with his team of pretty black horses, and came over to say hello. The Friesen family rolled in with a herd of 10 horses, including a Norwegian, a mule, and a couple of POAs, and chatted for a while when I went to find Spy’s ball in the grass where he’d dropped it when he lost his mind barking at their mule.

On Sunday, Pai and I rode out with Rob and Doug on a little break-in ride for the grandsons. Riding out as well was Doug’s son Tom, who, despite claiming to be rusty, turned out to be a topnotch horseman – like father, like son.

wmwt - quinn

– Warm-up ride.

Day 1 of the ride always starts with a pancake breakfast at registration. After two years, I’d wised up, and this time I’d brought my own veggie sausages to go with the flapjacks. I ran into Lionel Story, who had been camping at Cypress and had mentioned that he was planning to come to the wagon train. As I was standing and chatting, one of the Friesen girls came up to me with a bowl of Saskatoon berries she’d picked, and said she’d heard I really liked them (true), and piled a bunch onto my pancakes.

Behaviour is dependent upon environment, and in a large group of horses, my steady-Eddie trail horse forgets that I’m aboard, and wants to run the show on her own. Day One of the ride is always a bit of a circus anyway, with fresh horses losing their cool when asked to ride with 40 to 50 other beasts they don’t know, alongside wagons that creak and groan and make all manner of alarming noises.  Pai and I spent pretty much the entire 4-ish hour ride with Queen of the World prancing like a parade horse and lifting her front end off the ground and kicking at my leg every time I put it on, as well as trying to nail any horse that invaded her extremely large personal space bubble: good times.

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– Lionel and his team of Percherons.

 

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– I am pleased, even if she is not.

 

By the time we arrived back at camp, Rob and Doug’s friends Marjorie and Blair, and Marv and his wife Cathy, had arrived in camp. I’d ridden with them in 2015 and 2016, and so it was a delight to see them again. Moving e-fence was on the agenda for the evening, but that had to wait as we progressed through a camp-style pub crawl, stretching the 100-foot trip from Marv’s camper to mine into a very long, very beery journey.

On Day Two, I took Pai out for a pre-ride warm-up, doing some very calm serpentines and shoulder-in and leg-yield and turn on the quarters and turn on the forehand, just to remind her that we were in fact a partnership, not a one-man show. We avoided spending much time with Ace and Frankie, since they were likewise uncharacteristically revved-up and wanting to charge to the front.  We had a very civilized ride.

wmwt - stacy

wmwt - lionel in gully

– Lionel and his team negotiating a very steep gulley.

As I was cooking my dinner, little Emma came running up the hill to me and handed me a note from Denise, which began “You are cordially invited…” On offer were pics of rides from over a decade ago, and, also: POPCORN. In days gone by, the wagon train used to move camp every day as they progressed across the prairie. I’d heard tales from Doug and Rob and Blair and Marjorie, so it was excellent to see pics of the ride in those times.

Day Three was pretty much a perfect day of riding. Warren Spagrud, who owns much of the land upon which we were camping and riding, was trail boss, and he took us on a sweet route through the hills. Earlier in the morning, he’d pulled up his rig next to mine, and, after we’d good-morninged and chatted a bit, pulled out his phone to show me photos he’d taken of flowers along the trail – including a bunch of yucca (in Canada! Who knew? Cactus on the prairie is now old hat, but not yucca?).

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– Les and granddaughter Kalia

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– Denise

When you ride (or walk the dog) across prairie pasture land, you stride over a blanket of wildflowers, and low-growing juniper, and, on the higher hills, cactus, and in some places, weave through silvery wolf willow. In the shallow gullies, Saskatoons grow, and we could stop our horses and pull berries off by the handful – delicious, delicious handfuls. The air hangs sweet and spicy with the aroma of sage.

With the Cursons horses having some alone time to sort out their trail naughtiness, I took the opportunity to socialize with Denise, and Nelson and Margaret, and the Anderson brothers Les and Clint. That night there was a campfire, and Les brought his guitar down, as did I (my most compelling reason to keep plugging away at the guitar is to be able to play along at Wood Mountain campfires), and as did Blaine Friesen. Young Matt Anderson brought along his banjo guitar. When the Friesen women sing, it’s like a professional choir rolled in to town – just angelic.

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– Ian, Emma, Quinn and friends around the campfire.

My canopy took a beating pretty much every day, but stayed intact. I should send Mr Shady Boy a photo of my gangster tweaks to his design – without the tethers and the central downdraft pole, that thing would have been toast in the gale-force “breezes” of the prairies.

 

The ride goes on for a full five days, but, having to work around a deadline for meeting up with friends in Ontario, I had to forego the last two rides, and the Thursday night games, and pulled out on Thursday morning. Saying goodbye took the better part of an hour. Maybe more. Leaving the cowboys Rob and Doug just about kills me, I adore them so.

Let’s hope I get to do this again. And again.

wmwt - riders on hill

Chillin’ in the Hills with the Cowboys – Cypress Hills, June 22-30, 2018

l can clearly remember how the first time I got into a sea kayak: I pretty much felt like I had become a mermaid. The spray skirt seemed to make the boat become part of me, and I was so close to the water that I felt like I was one with the sea.  It. was. aMAZing.

That magical feeling of joyful surprise that hits you when you discover something stupendous for the first time can never be replicated. I’ve kayaked a bazillion times since that first time on the water, and it is always a treat, but nothing matches that first sense of astonished delight.

My first ride at Cypress Hills was exactly like my first kayaking experience (minus the water and the boat, but you know, otherwise completely identical): a sense of Oh My God, I Never Knew. The hills, the sky, the way you could ride anywhere you wanted across the grass – it was a riding revelation.

I have three favourite memories of Cypress Hills:

The first one is, of course, my very first ride there, with Daphne and Kelly from Swift Current, Kelly in the early evening sun looking exactly what you think of when you imagine a cowboy riding across the prairie. The terrain was unlike any place I’d ever ridden, all open land and endless vistas.

The second and third are riding out with Doug and Rob Cursons and their two friends Marv and Warren, in 2015. The fellas had scooped me up as a solo rider who might appreciate some guidance, and they made me theirs for the rest of the week I was there. On our first ride, I remember stopping for lunch on that first ride, and the boys all laying back in the grass with their hats over their faces, taking a snooze as the horses grazed, and remember feeling totally at peace with this bunch of men I didn’t know from Adam. On our second ride, Doug led us to all the best places: the Fort and the outpost where the massacre happened; the Mystery Rocks, and the Cougar Caves. Butterflies flew up in clouds out of the grass, and brilliant blue dragonflies darted about, and for five or six hours, in this particular place with these particular people doing this particular thing, life was as perfect as life can get.

So in April this year, I came in to work at the clinic after a week away on holiday, and found a message waiting for me: “Doug Cursons called and would like you to call him back,” with a phone number. Turns out the Christmas card I’d sent him had just been opened, since he and his wife Brenda had spent the winter, as they always do, down in Texas. When I called Doug back, he asked after Pai, whose health woes I’d alluded to in my card, and then, nearly making me cry at his generosity, offered me his horse Tennessee to ride at Cypress, and to take home to BC if I wanted, since the horse could use a few miles on him.

Because Pai would not, by the end of May, be up to riding in the mountains, I planned the X-Canada trip to depart mid-June and beeline to Cypress Hills, rather than leave in May and include a week or two in the interior and in the Rockies. Rob had emailed me the dates the brothers were planning to be there, and so I knew that if I arrived around the 20th-22nd, I’d have about a week to ride with my favourite cowboys.  I rolled in mid-afternoon on a Friday, full of trepidation about whether there would be a pen available for my girl, as I didn’t want her on grass all day straightaway. I was delighted to see that there was one corral free. I recognized the horses in the pens immediately alongside: Doug’s very handsome black horse Ace, and Rob’s paint horse Frankie. I threw her in a pen and set up an e-corral for daytime grass-eating. Camp was quiet enough that I could set up my rig alongside the boys.

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– Pai at dawn.

Meeting up with Doug and Rob is like meeting up with my PEI uncles and cousins, and I felt at home as soon as I arrived. Plans were made to head out on the trail around ten the next day.

And that became the pattern of my days there with them: up around six to feed the horse (and find Doug already cleaning my paddock for me – I only beat him to it once); make a coffee to take along on a brisk 6:30 walk with Doug and Spy; throw Pai out into her e-fence corral to eat grass; breakfast and dishes; tacking up; riding out for a couple of hours, stopping for lunch, and looping back home over another two hours or so to end up in camp around 3:30; happy hour with the boys; dinner; another walk with Spy, sometimes up the heartrate-raisingly steep hill just northeast of camp to catch cell service and text or phone Mr Andrews. In the late evening there was guitar-playing with fellow camper (and just as unaccomplished a guitarist as I am, which made us a great pair) Dave, or a campfire around the central fire pit.

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– Spy on the cell-reception hill.

The Cursons brothers have been riding these hills for over thirty years, starting back when they would have the camp all to themselves, and you could clean off at the end of a ride by skinny-dipping in the creek with a bar of soap. They know the lay of the land like the back of their hand, and they are not afraid of exploring new routes, even if it requires a little bushwhacking or backtracking. Mindful of my horse’s status with respect to her tendon injury, they kept our rides to trails with good footing. (On the other hand, for my part, I’d forgotten just how challenging even the gentlest of hills in Cypress are – so much for not riding in the mountains. Hopefully that extra two-and-a-half weeks of rehab riding made a difference…)

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We did have a couple of deviations from the theme. The Maple Creek Rodeo was on over the weekend, and Rob and Doug intended to go on Sunday afternoon. I took Pai for a quick spin in the morning, and hopped in with them for the trip to Maple Creek. Even though camp was hot and sunny, just as we rolled in to Maple Creek, the rain began pelting down. It did clear, and looked like it was going to be a fine afternoon, but nay, nay. After the bareback bucking horse competition, the skies opened once again, and it pretty much rained the rest of the afternoon, which made the arena …moist.

 

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(Announcer: “Good thing you had your mouth open, or you would have had that mud all over your face instead of eating it.”)

Another day, we loaded up the steeds and hauled 15 minutes up the road to a meeting point with Rob and Doug’s friend Denise and her wife Kathy. (Yes, Queen of the World consented to load into an open stock trailer with the two boys. I wish I’d taken a picture of my pony standing tacked up in a trailer like a cow horse. I have to say her facial expression was a little shocked). The ladies took us on a guided tour of trails they’d carved out on the north side of the park, through wooded coolies fragrant with wild mint, and meadows that gave off the scent of sagebrush as the horses brushed past. I’d met both these gals in 2016 at the Wood Mountain Ride, and the ladies rock. Kathy learned to ride at the age of 61, and has been riding trail with Denise ever since. Denise rides around with her chainsaw in her backpack, getting trail cleared like a boss. They both scrutinize Google Earth and their GPS waypoints and figure out where a trail should be, and then they make it happen.

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Kathy, Denise, Rob and Doug.

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– Shootin’ the breeze post-ride.

 

On the Cursons brothers’ last day at Cypress, we went on the loveliest of rides, up a razorback ridge that began as mostly meadows, spangled with pink roses and geranium, and bright yellow potentilla and Gaillardia, and blue/purple bluebells vetch and lupine and gentian, and any number of wildflowers whose names I can’t recall. It then ended up as a winding route through an open forest of lodgepole pine – the terrain is so not at all what you think of when you conjure up images of Saskatchewan. We lunched in a small grassy bowl overlooking the valley.

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cypress - lunch in the bowl

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You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day in the saddle.

In camp, there are always friendly horse people to meet, and old acquaintances to renew. My camp neighbours on the other side were Greg and his wife Brenda, whom I’d met on at least one of my previous stays at Cypress. They were joined by their son Scott and his wife Jess, and their four-year-old, Clayton, and a gaggle of herding dogs. In fact, there were so many herding dogs in camp by my third day there that I started collecting photos of the gorgeous beasts.

 

 

(Diesel, Rio, Callie, Sadie, Ringo and Spy – absent is Trigger the Border Collie)

 

I ran into Cathy Peterson, who’d been a most excellent tour guide for a ride to Fort Walsh on Canada Day in 2015.  When I brought Pai down for a post-ride drink of water one day, Cathy and her friends were lounging in the creek: exactly the right thing to be doing on a hot day, and I joined them to cool my toes while quaffing a cold one.

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Also in camp again were brothers Lionel and Rob, and their families, who not only ride, but also drive wagons across the prairies, and Gordon who I had also originally met driving a team, but who was camping with his family with saddle horses.

I met some new folks as well, including Lorraine and her husband and their very charming mules, two critters who gave Spy pause. You might think that to a dog, a mule would pretty much be the same as a horse, but no. Definitely, absolutely no. I was told by the dog on no uncertain terms that THOSE ARE NOT HORSES. I DON’T KNOW WHAT THOSE ARE, BUT THEY ARE NOT RIGHT. MUST BARK! MUST BARK LOTS!

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The day after Doug and Rob pulled out, I gave Pai a break on the mountain climbing, and took Spy for a four-hour hike (on top of his hour-long a.m. and p.m. walks), which, by evening, rendered him something actually approaching relaxed (but not quite). The following morning, Pai and I headed out on our own under restless skies that were threatening rain. We tooled around at Fort Walsh, and then headed up across Battle Creek to the plateau, where the rain found us, hand in hand with cracking thunder. I was a little nervous about being in the open at all, and so we had a pretty sweet canter across the open grassland into some trees. My Arctic Horse riding skirt came in handy, keeping not just me but my saddle, pad, and bags dry. At exactly the right moment, when I was about to pull out my compass and figure out which way I should be headed, Greg and Brenda and their crew of eight or nine riders and a couple of dogs appeared over a rise, and pointed me in the right direction.

In no time at all, my eight nights at Cypress were over, and Spy and I were having our last morning walk as the doves cooed and the dew flashed like diamonds, ready to hit the road for the Wood Mountain Wagon Train. Leaving those hills is a bit like leaving PEI on the ferry, where you want to crane your neck for one last look at a view etched on your heart.

 

 

 

Homecomings – Langley, Oliver, Cranbrook and Taber, June 18th-21st 2018

On every trip I make East, and on most of my weekends riding to hounds in the Fraser Valley, I overnight with my friend and fellow veterinarian Deb in Langley. Pai bunks down at Deb’s friend Natasha’s place just down the road. This fabulously convenient arrangement allows me to take a mid-afternoon ferry over to the mainland, park Pai at Natasha’s (and, somehow not infrequently, drink copious quantities of wine on Natasha’s patio), and then hang with Deb for the evening. On this particular trip, Spy and I got to join in on an agility lesson with Deb and her dog Kona, which Spy thought was most excellent.

Hauling through the Rockies is a little tough, no matter which way you go – Crowsnest, Rogers, or Yellowhead. Of all of them, I think the Yellowhead is probably the least taxing, but traveling via Edmonton rather than Calgary does add a little tine to a trip east. Rogers Pass on the Trans Canada is hairy compared to the Crowsnest, but the Hope-Princeton Highway part of Hwy 3, despite being a fun road to drive in Mr Andrews’ little BMW sports car, is much less fun whilst dragging a horse trailer behind you. So the two southern routes are a bit of a toss-up. A friend who had recently driven the TC-1 advised me that there was a frustrating amount of construction on that route, and so I chose to take Hwy 3.

Which, admittedly, was the way I had wanted to go anyway, since it would allow me to make Hideaway Horse Camp my first stop on the route. I adore Hideaway, not least because the host, Anna-Maria, is such a delight as a person. The first time we met, we got on like a house on fire, and this visit was like coming home to family. When Anna-Maria dropped by my campsite for a chat, we ended up gabbing for hours, bonding over our mutual (and, clearly, adorable) control freak highly organizational tendencies.

After a flying stop at Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen to do a rapid-fire tasting and pick up a half crate of their delicious wine, it was a short drive to Oliver and Hideaway.

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Stopping off at Vanessa Vineyard.

 

Even though it felt like I’d just camped at Hideaway last week, it had been two years since my last stay. The puppy-wuppy Finnegan had grown up into a real dog, though you could still see the wee fella I’d met in 2016 within the grown-up dog.

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Finnegan, all grown up.

Horses have long memories, and I am sure Pai felt quite at home in what I have come to think of as “our” corral, #4. Anna-Maria, as always, generously allowed Pai grazing rights in one of her private paddocks, which made my girl very happy and made me very grateful. I took Pai out for a quick stretch-your-legs spin the evening we arrived.

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Evening ride along the reservoir.

 

(Okay, so I’ve mentioned the outhouse at Hideaway in previous posts. It’s not like I’m obsessed with the outhouse (I am obsessed with the outhouse) but I have to say, once again, that it is a seriously nice outhouse: running water, a motion-detector light, actual décor… So anyway, remember that shower? The one that turned me into a streaker? The solar shower has been replaced by an on-demand propane heater, which means you can have a hots shower any ol’ time. In a sweet shower hut with a stone floor and roomy dressing area. So awesome!)

I left Hideaway with some gorgeous speckled brown eggs courtesy of Anna-Maria’s fancy chickens, and parked the horse for the night at Twin Lakes Arena, a layover barn in Cranbrook. Had I known ahead of time that less than a km away there was a trailhead for a very horse-friendly Crown Land trail system, I would have organized my time to allow riding Pai there in the morning before we left. As it was, I took Spy for a walk and then spent close to an hour trying to sort a trailer issue: part of the cam latch on my rear doors had failed, leaving me to secure the latch with Zip ties, an obviously suboptimal option. Alas, the very nice dealer I went to was unable to solve my problem, but, hooray hooray, the biz recommended by my Taber friend Vanessa, Vantage Trailers in Lethbridge, fixed me up right some quick.

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Hanging out at Vantage Trailers while they fix me up.

Arriving at Vanessa’s is another homecoming. I have stayed at Vanessa’s on every one of my previous horsey road trips. On every one of my visits, we stay up way too late talking and drinking wine, and I come away with gifts from the farm (honey! eggs! corn!), and I learn a ton of details about day-to-day farming, like how pivots (those giant quarter-mile long irrigators on wheels that turn in a circle and create those cool patterns you see when you look out your airplane window while flying over the prairies) are controlled by an app on your smartphone.

On this trip, I met some new additions to Vanessa’s herd, which now numbers seven, and Spy and I had some good walks down the irrigation canal – perfect for my heat-intolerant little dud of an Australian.

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Walking the pooch.

Youngest daughter Nova was very pleased to show me her NEW bedroom, only a month lived-in as part of a recent house reno, which she was giving up to me for the night, and eldest daughter Ruby read aloud to me from a book about a veterinarian who adopts an unwanted dog. I visited the honey farm and learned honey is extracted extracted from the combs (the boxes get heated up and the honey liquefies – who knew?).

And then in the morning, we were off on the short three-hour haul to Cypress Hills, which would be yet another homecoming.

 

Camp Notes for Horsey Folk:

Hideaway Horse Camp: I have described Hideaway Horse Camp, just out of Oliver, BC, here and here.

Twin Cedars Arena:  This facility is located on the western outskirts of Cranbrook, right on Highway 3, and provides layover service to travelers. You have the choice of a stall in the barn, or a roomy outdoor pipe fencing corral. There is a bathroom with a shower in the arena/barn.  Despite the property being right on the highway, the traffic noise was not bothersome. There are trails on Crown Land across the highway and 0.7 km up a residential road, and from what I saw of them, they are lovely.

 

 

 

 

Of Mice and Men, as Pertains to Riding Horses.

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

So, yeah. What Robbie Burns said.

When I got back to Vancouver Island at the end of Road Trip 2016, no sooner had my feet hit home turf than I began planning an adventure for 2017. All I could think about was where I would go and what I would do and who I would see on Road Trip 2017. I decided that taking the horse all the way to PEI again would be just the ticket, and, in the fall, I began mad online research re places to camp and places to ride. I planned yet more upgrades to my tiny little horse trailer camper palace. I contacted Ontario Trail Riders for intel on places to ride and camp in Northern Ontario. I touched bases with old friends-with-horses in Southern Ontario, and gave them a heads-up that I was planning to swing by on my route. I asked my cousins about pasturing Pai out on their unused lot at the shore on PEI.

Two thousand seventeen was going to rock.

And then life got in the way, the way life does. Scheduling glitches and the demands of owning a veterinary practice dictated that in the summer of 2017, I would need to be in BC at times when I had intended to be in Cypress Hills and on PEI, nixing any possibility of an extended road trip. And so the happy autumn planning took a screaming nosedive, and everything went pear-shaped.

But that was OK. I am, if nothing else, an optimist (okay, sure: there are not-infrequent forays into the Land of Unbelievably Cranky, but generally, you know… pretty positive). I revised my blueprint for the season, and my road-tripping ambitions morphed into (almost) equally fun ideas about competitive riding.  Two thousand seventeen was going to be our year of endurance:  I began forging a plan for riding one or two 25-milers, graduating to some relatively local 50-milers over the summer, with a view to a long-term goal of maybe riding a 100-mile in 2018.

(You do by now grasp that I just really like to plan, right?)

In the winter and spring of 2016/2017, we had ridden a shit-ton of trail, in consistently craptastic weather, most of it up at the Spruston trails I’d had the privilege of working on with my amazing local chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of BC. As spring rolled around, we gradually increased our speed and distance.  I invested in [strike through] [demanded for Christmas] a Polar heart monitor, with built-in GPS, and let me tell you, THAT toy is a pretty fun thing to play with.  By May, Pai was fit as f**k. (< — asterisks inserted for the faint of heart). We rode a little intro 25-mile Limited Distance in Courtenay, and Pai was awarded Best Conditioned. I was chuffed, absolutely delighted with my horsie. (No, seriously, like, inordinately pleased. Like, hockey mom pleased.)

The riding season was just trucking along tickety-boo.

And then, abruptly, it wasn’t.

In June, after a fun but hard and fast ride over 30 km of varied terrain on our local Spruston trails, Pai was not right the next day when we rolled in to a lesson with (the patient, and very skilled) Trish Hyatt, where we’d been working on Pai’s Queen of the World Attitude and gaping holes in my horsemanship. Pai was off on the right hind.

Screeeeech! (< — sound of life once again putting on the brakes to plans and ambition. See quote from Bob, above).

My surgeon friend Colin Scruton of Equerry Sports Medicine diagnosed her with a proximal suspensory injury, and she and I subsequently embarked on a seven-hour, not-as-fun-as-usual road trip down to Washington State University in Pullman, where we had some fancy MRI pics taken. It was kind of heartbreaking to pack up as usual for camping, without needing any of the riding gear.

I’d been to WSU a couple of times before with my dog Zed, and had been floored by not just their thoroughness, but their kindness and compassion. When it came time to choose a place for imaging, WSU was a no-brainer, even though it was a much longer haul there than it was to more local options.  Emily [Forette], the student who had been handed Pai’s case, gave her the best of care and made me feel welcome to come along anytime to hand graze my girl.

There’s a community campground across the road from campus, and so for the few days Pai was malingering in the Large Animal Clinic, that’s where I parked my trailer with its Lilliputian “living quarters.” The best part of staying there was the fellow camper who walked past me every day, and gave me a thumbs up every time. “Coolest camper ever, man!” I don’t think he had a clue it was a horse trailer, and, granted, if you don’t know that a horse trailer is a horse trailer, my dull grey aluminum beast does look like some kind of Mad Max Vehicle of Doom. I think he pictured me bad-assing my way through life in an industrial-looking post-apocalyptic home on wheels. (I’ll take it, dude. I’ll take it.)

Pai had tendon surgery back home with Dr Colin shortly thereafter, after which she was jailed first in a stall, then in a 30 ft x 30 ft paddock. Number one: hand-walking is not only insanely boring for the handwalker, but feels like way too little a reprieve for a creature of motion who is locked up in jail all day. Number two:  having her confined for months on end made me so appreciate what her usual life had been, out in a big-ass field eating grass 24/7, able to run when and if she chose.

Rehab bites. Hard.

In an ideal world, after surgery in August, we would have been back to normal work in February of 2018. As things panned out, when February rolled around, we were in a holding pattern at late October’s level of activity, thanks to a second injury on the same limb: a collateral coffin bone ligament desmitis.  Over the subsequent months, things got kinda sorta better, but never entirely better.

In April, I threw in the by-the-book towel, and decided to bust my horse outta jail. I figured what we had was all we were going to have. I decided I would carry on with the slow progressive activity schedule, with the addition of some analgesics, and see how it panned out over the following weeks.  There arose the question of what to about my usual summer plans to be on Prince Edward Island for a month or so – if I were to leave Pai behind, I would have to abandon her rehab to someone else.  And I’m a control freak. So by the end of May, I had made the decision that she was happy enough and sound enough (on meds) to do some low-level trail riding by mid-June, and figured that I may as well drive out to the Island, and take her with me.

And so it begins: a very low-key, minimally adventurous drive East, with the Queen of the World in tow… Not quite the trip I’d envisioned in 2016, but it’s not like I’m not going to complain: any day on my horse is a good day indeed.

 

Trail Riding at the Gallop: Riding to Hounds with the Fraser Valley Hunt – November 13, 2016

Somewhere back in the mid 2000’s, my good friend Kerri-Lynne suggested that she and I take a trip over to the mainland to ride with the Fraser Valley Hunt, a club she’d ridden with back when she was a teenager. And so we did, she on Lyrique, her phlegmatic Canadian, and me on Phabulous, my very game one-eyed warmblood. I couldn’t have told you where we actually rode, but, this past weekend,  as I drove to the FVH meet Pai and I were attending, things started to look familiar. As we pulled in the driveway at the Kirkhovens’ Nicomen Farm on Nicomen Island, the flashbacks became solid memories: yup, this was the very same site at which I’d ridden my very first hunt, about a decade ago.

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Phab showing his sexy sunken eye socket. Riding with the Hunt back in 2000-and-?

In the intervening years, Phab, my flamboyant, willing, spectacularly athletic jumping/dressage/eventing horse passed away, and Pai was meant to be his Horse Trials replacement. Except, that never panned out. Despite the piles of time and buckets of moulah invested in dressage lessons and jumping lessons and cross-country lessons, life and injuries and COPD variously got in the way, and we have competed in pretty much… nothing at all. (OK, yeah: one CTR and one LD, both in the past year).

In that three or four year interim, Pai and I did, however, find opportunities to ride with the FVH a couple of times, and we had a blast. And so, when my work schedule gave me a weekend off this month, my first thought was: HUNT.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Foxhunting (the FVH is a drag hunt: there is no live quarry) is unquestionably the biggest rush you can ever have on horseback. It is trail riding. Group trail riding. Group trail riding, at a gallop. Group trail riding at a gallop, with hounds. Group trail riding at a gallop with hounds, over jumps.

(What could possibly go wrong? Is it pure coincidence that Jägermeister and Irish whisky get passed around at pauses?)

It is also a beautiful way to ride, with the baying of the hounds echoing through the woods, and riders all impeccably attired (well, they’re impeccable before they get covered in the mud flung up from the hooves of the horses in front of them).

This is how it works:

The day starts off with a gang of mounted riders, all looking supremely elegant in coats and tall boots – scarlet (“pink”) for the men with seniority, black with green lapels for the ladies, and navy or black for the rest of us – gathering together to partake of the “stirrup cup”, which is the entirely well-advised tradition of knocking back a glass of sherry before heading off en masse at a gallop to jump jumps. The purported “fox” is actually a couple of riders who drip scent from a flask as they charge ahead over the designated terrain. They set off ahead of everyone else with a 5-ish minute lead time, and lay the course, which the hounds are trained to follow. The hounds are managed by the Huntsman, and one or two Whips who assist in controlling the hounds (and they do indeed carry hunting whips with long lashes). Two to three fields (groups of riders) follow the hounds, each led by a Field Master. The first field is fast, right up with the hounds. If there are jumps, they will generally take them. The second field is a little slower, and may or may not take the jumps (there’s always an option for going around rather than over jumps). If there’s a third field, it is slowest, and will often forego jumps entirely. Every 10 or 15 minutes, there’s a “check”, where there’s a break in the scent and the riders pause to knock back liquor in relief at still being alive rest the horses, while the hounds cast about, waiting for a new trail to be laid. The Field Masters take the opportunity to warn the field about potential known hazards up ahead. And then: the horn sounds, and we’re off again!

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Hanging out at a check. The hounds with the Hunstman, Alysha.

As the riders were all marshaling at the start of the day’s ride, Pai began to demonstrate her Lipizzan genetics, getting alarmingly light in the front end. She iced that particular cake by shooting forward (with, you know, a cute little buck for good measure) if I applied the slightest bit of leg.  I began to think I ought to have put on my eventing back protector, since an involuntary dismount seemed extremely likely to be looming in my future.

In hunting, there is a bit of etiquette one needs to be aware of, most of it pertinent to keeping riders, horses, and hounds safe on what could otherwise be an utter gong show, and the FVH does a very good job at making sure everyone dies some way other than foxhunting.  Deciding upon the most sensible place, safety-wise, to position Queen of the World (who was wearing a bright ribbon in her tail as the prescribed notice to others of her personal space issues) when the hounds would set off was tricky, and I ultimately opted to ride at the back of First Field with my friend Carol, since I knew Pai would want to be fast.

Mistake.

The horn sounded, the hounds raced off all gorgeously baying, and Queen of the World lost any remaining vestiges of her cool. She blew off my aids, and I didn’t have enough hardware in her face to manhandle her into keeping the pace I wanted. She instantly figured out that Those Dogs were in the front, and she also instantly decided (seriously, I could see the thought bubbles coming out of her head) that if she could get ahead of Those Dogs, she would be the one running this entire show. And that’s what she tried to do.

So, yeah. That was fun.

We circled around to the back of the field a couple of times during the run in order to maintain a safe distance from the hounds, but, as the Field Master – a veterinary colleague of mine – pointed out, circling could potentially foul the scent line for the hounds depending on where it was laid. Oops.

(As an aside: I was wearing long underwear, because I always get cold, riding in the fall, and the forecast was for a cold, rainy, miserable day. I’m sure I have a mental Note to Self filed somewhere in my brain from previous hunts about how much work it is, but yeah, no. I had forgotten everything useful I had ever known. So when we pulled up at the first check, I was un-freaking-believably hot. WHAT WAS I THINKING?? Long underwear???)

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Hounds casting for scent at a check.

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Steaming hot horses at a check.

At the first check, Pai and I sheepishly (I sheepishly, she churlishly) dropped back to Second Field to avoid becoming personae non gratae through committing a giant breach of etiquette, namely, busting past the Field Master in a spectacular display of crap horsemanship.  Carol, my friend of twenty-five years and current Master of Foxhounds at the FVH, very gallantly offered to ride along with us, which was very helpful to my keeping my horse to a reasonable pace. Having a steady horse (Max) to canter along with neck and neck rendered Pai at least marginally civilized.

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Pai (“WHO SHALL I DOMINATE NOW?”) and Max (“Chill the f**k out. What is wrong with you? Jaysus. Relax.”)

The hounds followed a path that had us crossing small forks of the Fraser River two or three times over the course of the hunt. At one point, the route involved a steep muddy drop into a deep (surpri-ise!), water-filled ditch, and up the other side. Horses were flinging themselves into the ditch like it was cross-country water jump, horses were (unsuccessfully) trying to jump that mofo like a regular ditch, horses were plunging around like there was a sea monster down there. I was inordinately pleased with my girl when she met that question with a blasé “Sure, yeah, whatevs,” and navigated the whole obstacle at a sedate walk: my good little trail horsie got her brain back when it counted.

The hounds charged along a route that crossed some narrow branches of the Fraser River. After having braved the chest-deep Red Deer River at Ya Ha Tinda more than a couple of times, with its round rock footing and a current that knocked the horses sideways, fording a deep but comparatively inviting fork of the Fraser was a meh. Because she wanted to be in front, Pai fairly pulled my arms out in order to march into the river where others hesitated. (I. WILL. BE. YOUR. QUEEN.)

It was a meh for Pai, but for others, not so much. The river was running quite high, and at least one pony had to actually swim to get across. And more than one rider ended up toppling off for an unintended Bathing Beauty award.

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Pretty spot for a check.

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Just hangin’ out, wondering where that First Field has gotten to…

It’s been two or three years since Pai has done any jumping, so I was delighted when she negotiated the jumps (well, all but one) nicely. I, on the other hand, likewise having not jumped for a couple of years, was supremely inelegant and, also, unhelpful. I dropped a stirrup over a log as we were galloping through a winding track in the woods, and was the polar opposite of deft in getting it back. (But got it before the next jump. Phew.)

One of the other people I  met up with on this hunt was Nichole-from-Squamish, whom I’d hit it off with camping in Merritt this past summer. Nichole and her Canadian mare Cricket had ridden with the FVH a couple of times earlier in the fall. On this hunt, which was a little less newcomer-oriented than her previous rides, Nichole shared my struggles with managing a green horse who gets over-excited in a group, but enjoyed her day nonetheless.

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Nichole and Cricket at the pre-hunt marshaling. Photo: William Donnellan.

(Another aside: Nichole has one of these Arctic Horse all-weather riding skirts, which fill me with envy as winter trail riding apparel, and are now on my first-ever Christmas wish list. As she was walking down the laneway post-ride, someone told her she looked like the Empress Sissi returning from a hunt. And she did.)

At the end of the hunt, riders gather for a mock kill, where the hounds get their reward, and have excellent dog fun tearing it apart (“it” varies, but whatever it used to be, this veg-head can assure you that it is already as dead as whatever you eat for dinner) and gobbling it down.

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The hounds arguing over ownership.

The ride is followed by the Hunt Breakfast (in fact a late lunch), served with or without “Irish” (whisky for your coffee). This day’s Breakfast was put on by the Mission Hills Pony Club, some of whom had ridden at the meet. They very shrewdly offered a fund-raising tack cleaning service post-ride, of which I would totally have partaken had I not already spent all my cash.

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Missed my opportunity to have someone else deal with this mess.

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The steed got a little dirty, too. Photo: William Donnellan.

Woo baby, what a ride!

Tally ho!

Notes for horsey folk:

The Fraser Valley Hunt holds its meets on Saturdays, mainly in farmlands around Abbotsford, with some special hunts being held at other venues: Washington State, Pemberton, and the Sunshine Coast, and occasionally elsewhere. The hunting season runs from September through April.

The Hunt members are a very friendly, welcoming group, and are happy to see new people show interest in the sport. They are also a wealth of helpful information for newbs, and are always concerned about safety.  At this meet, there were Pony Clubbers riding along in Second and Third Field, as well as a new-ish rider on an Appy, in a Western saddle.  Non-members are welcome to ride with the Hunt as guests, paying a “capping fee” to do so – see the website for tips, etiquette, fixtures list, and contact info. There is no formal dress code for guests as long as they are neat and tidy.

The terrain covered varies from flat farmland to rolling hills to winding lanes through woods, and hunts last anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. Footing can be muddy, and there may be water crossings.  Jumping is not mandatory.

Riding Out the Typhoon: Cowichan Valley Rail Trail Ride – October 15, 2016

It must have been a slow news week, because, Thanksgiving weekend, the CBC outdid itself in alerting listeners to the fact that Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland would in for a big storm within the next few days. Going by the frequency and urgency of the warnings, you’d think they were prophesying End Times. On the following Saturday afternoon – the day of the purported peak – as the third front approached the coast, the CBC was interrupting its regular programming to issue solemn “Updates” every 15 minutes.

Given the zeal with which news outlets reported the impending storm, people could be forgiven for thinking Armageddon was approaching.

A little backtracking:

Every fall, for the past five years, I have planned to attend some special weekend event or other with Pai. I don’t work much, but I do work Saturdays, and so attending something horsey on a weekend involves finding a fellow doc willing to take my shift, and taking my call if I’m scheduled on. If I’m going to the States, it involves getting a Coggins test and Health Papers organized. If it’s a competition, it involves months of training beforehand. And for every one of these events I’d planned for and trained for and hoped to attend, each fall for the past five years, it’s all gone to custard. Whether it’s been attending a super-fun hunt, competing in a horse trials, or riding a CTR, every single year we’ve been foiled by injury, illness, or weather.

The best one was the year we planned to go down to Lyndon, WA, with the Fraser Valley Hunt. We managed to overcome (1) a pulled shoe a day before I was supposed to leave (my wonderful farrier gave me an emergency shoeing), (2) Health Papers that went AWOL and only turned up on the day of my departure, and (3) a crazy day at work on that Friday.  We made our scheduled ferry the night before the hunt…only to have pretty little flakes of snow start to fall a couple of km from my stabling. And the pretty, pretty snow fell and fell and fell overnight…. And the ground froze… And the hunt was canceled. All in, between papers and ferry and gas and a bottle of wine for the stable owner, our nice little sleepover in Langley set us back $500 or so.

Yeah, and that’s how it’s gone every fall for what seems like forever. So, this year, the year I had arranged a weekend off to ride Pai in the Limited Distance (25 mi) event at the Cowichan Valley Rail Trail Endurance & CTR… This year, when the weather reports turned ominous, I was gloomily positive that the ride would be canceled, and my plans would once again go pear-shaped. It just effing figured.

On Thursday morning, I got a call saying that half the competitors had pulled out because of weather concerns, and asking was I still game?  You bet I was. Even though I hate being wet and cold, and even though the idea of horse camping in a field in the face of a monsoon was not making me turn cartwheels of joy, I was still game. I had arranged the weekend off. I was already packed. The show must go on, dammit.

The first and only other time I’ve ridden in an Endurance event was about ten years ago, at the Ride Over the Rainbow event just south of Merritt, on my 23-year-old Standardbred, Fred (The Rainbow trails are absolutely gorgeous, by the way – if you get the opportunity to ride there, do. There is camping as well.). Although I had competed in Competitive Trail with Fred for many years,  riding the Rainbow ride, I felt like Endurance perhaps better suited my temperament. Now, after a decade away from trail riding competitively, I have been keen to try an Endurance ride with Pai. A starter-level Endurance ride in mid-October seemed like a good way to dip our not-quite-peak-of-fitness toes into Endurance. Pai and I had the spring Spruston CTR under our belts as a bit of get-your-feet-wet intro to competitive riding, and five weeks of riding on the prairies and in the mountains to start the summer off; on the downside, my 3-to-4 weeks in PEI in August had morphed into a 6-week stay that didn’t get me back on Vancouver Island until the middle of September. The horse had been parked in a field, getting fat. (Pai has insulin resistance, and gains pounds eating air.  With 6 weeks off work (other than some longing done by a very nice friend), she’d gotten a little chubby, and had lost a little fitness.)

When I got home from PEI, we spent a month working our way back to cardiovascular fitness, riding out on local trails 5 days a week.  Aside from riding the relatively short loops in Hemer Provincial Park, which is adjacent to Pai’s farm, we rode at Spruston, which has trails ranging from hilly single track through forest to mossy decommissioned logging roads – fantastic footing! – to active gravel roads. The trails pass a couple of lakes as well as the Nanaimo River, and offer some gorgeous views.

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Carol and Sharon on Spruston’s “Friend of the Bride” ridge trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

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Spy looking out over Crystal Lake

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The trails skirt the Nanaimo River

We also rode at Cable Bay, a mossy, ferny forest which is practically in my back yard – an easy ride from Pai’s barn.

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Riding with Christina and Michelle on the main Cable Bay Trail (photo: Christina Young)

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The road home from Cable Bay (photo: Christina Young)

And, on the recommendation of a friend, we popped down to Paldi just north of Duncan, to ride the Cowichan Valley Trail, which is a multi-use rails-to-trails route that is part of the Trans Canada Trail, and to explore some of its offshoots.

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A beautiful fall day in the Cowichan Valley.

The photo above, taken five days before the Limited Distance Ride, is pretty much how I’d originally imagined an October CTR/Endurance ride might pan out – blue sky, crisp air… Ah, fall.  But nay, nay. On Friday morning, as I finished up at work, the rain was bucketing down outside the windows.

The weather did clear a little as I did my final packing up, and it was actually briefly sunny as I headed out on the road with Pai in tow, but when I arrived at the ride base camp, the gorgeous Hi-Point Guest Ranch, two days of sluicing rain had taken their toll, and the field designated for camping was too wet to use. (Doug, the guest ranch owner, later told me that the pond had risen by about three feet over those two days). We were offered an indoor stall or an outdoor paddock, and, with most people having chosen to house their horses indoors, we scored what was the perfect housing for Pai: a big, lightly grassed paddock with an enclosed shelter that would keep her happy nibbling grass all night, and cozy should the promised tempest manifest itself. I joined the other campers in the gravel parking lot outside the indoor arena, and set up my little camp there.

While the night turned out to be clear, with a big bright moon, and no wind, the rain did start again the following morning as we were tacking up, and built up steam throughout the day until it became a relentless downpour. I had donned my full-on Man from Snowy River garb, and had hand warmers in my gloves and toe warmers for my feet, and had a saddle cover for the times when I walked the horse, so we maintained some vague semblance of dryness over the course of our 25 miles.

 

 

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Rain? What rain? Pai is keen to hit the trail. (Photo: Claire Viti)

The ride route for both the CTR riders and the Endurance riders was an out-and-back south along the Cowichan Valley Trail, and then, after a hold back at camp, an out-and-back north along the same trail. Being an old rail bed, the trail holds up beautifully to days and days of soggy weather, and the surface does not get torn up by a dozen horses trotting up and down it. The flat route makes for a very inviting ride, over excellent footing.

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See? It’s not that much different in the pouring rain…

The route took all but the Level I riders over the Kinsol Trestle, which spans the Koksilah river at a height of 44m (nearly 150 feet) – that’s like, way, way, way high up. It’s 187m (614 ft) long (about a block), and, in the slippery conditions, we were advised not to risk riding across the wooden surface, but to dismount and walk. My phone was so wet that I couldn’t get much of a pic (my wet fingers on the wet screen cover were useless), but the Victoria Air Photos video has some great footage.

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Best pic I could get of the Kinsol Trestle in a downpour.

In the end, despite the dire forecast, we had nothing more exciting, weather-wise, than what amounted to a long, pretty ride on a very rainy day. No one got trapped by falling trees and no one got blown off the trestle. Christine and Miki, who had organized the Spruston ride Pai and I attended in the spring, once again put on an event that was well-planned and well-run. Having the indoor arena at Hi-Point available for the vetting, and having its kitchen and lounge available for meeting, made a massive impact on rider – and vet (Andrea Plaxton from Epona Equine) – cheerfulness. I didn’t speak to a soul who hadn’t enjoyed their day.

Everyone else in the LD division had canceled, so Pai and I had no fellow competitors on our ride, but that was just fine. My goal was to ride a particular pace and have her come home in good shape. And so she did – we rode at a relaxed 6 mph, and my girl finished her final vetting with A’s in every category. Good girl!

And the “Storm of the Century” never really manifested itself. By the next day, the interwebz abounded with online comments like, ” ‘Storm of the Century’ downgraded after the fact to ‘Storm of the Weekend’ “, and “Storm of the Century: 2 stars, would not recommend.” Basically, fall arrived on the coast again this year. There was wind. Trees came down. There was heavy rain. Some ferries were canceled.

Yup, it’s October again this year.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

Spruston notes on camping can be found in this previous post.

Hi-Point Guest Ranch and the Cowichan Valley Trail

The Hi-Point Guest Ranch is in Glenora, just southwest of Duncan. It offers camping, horse camping, and a B&B. Horse accommodations range from an indoor stall to an outdoor paddock to an outdoor paddock with shelter to setting up your own e-corral. There is an indoor arena, flush toilet, potable water, and electric hook-up should you need it. A short trail takes you up to the Cowichan Valley Trail, which is a multi-use rails-to-trails path that is part of the Trans Canada Trail. Footing is excellent and you can’t get lost. Cost for camping with a horse was something around $30.

There quite a few access points to the CVT, including a pull-out with ample room for trailer parking at Paldi. I haven’t checked it out, but the Glenora Trails Head Park is a staging area with horse corrals and camping available (note – you will be gated in when the park closes). Camping is free.

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