The one single place I visited on my 2012 trip to which I have had a longing to return has been Cypress Hills, in southern Saskatchewan. The riding in Cypress Hills has no equal, so far as I have yet experienced, and when I was there 3 years ago, I was scooped up by ranchers Daphne and Kelly from Swift Current, who took me under their wing and took me out on the trails. When I pulled in to the equestrian campsite on this trip, after driving through Maple Creek with the truck thermometer registering a cooking 38 degrees Celsius, I was dismayed to find all five horse corrals occupied and the catch pen dotted with horses, and the only alternative being the tie stalls standing out in the baking hot sun (note to self: procure yourself a tarp).
So this is my standard MO in places with where I’m a little out of my depth: pick the most gnarled, leather-skinned cowboy in sight (bonus points for handlebar moustache), and ask that fella for advice. Chances are, he’ll have been riding whatever hills I happen to be at for the past 20 or 30 years, and will know what’s what.
In my indecision over where to park my horse, I eyed up a group of four older fellas (older than me, maybe grizzled if you used your imagination, and a handlebar moustache evident: perfect) and briefly bent their ear about my stabling options; setting up my girl in an e-fence corral looked like the best choice. After I got her settled in and cooled myself off with a BC cider (I’ve been rationing them: half my stash is still intact), I asked the gentlemen for advice on a short stretch-your-legs evening ride, and they very kindly gave me the lay of the land.
Well. That was it – I was in the club. After my ride, Doug, the cowboy with the stash, came over and introduced himself properly, and shortly thereafter, his brother Rob came over and invited me to dinner (I had to decline, as I had fresh pickerel waiting to be fried up). The following morning, while I was still cradling my coffee at 7:30 a.m., they were saddled up and ready to go. “Where’s that pony? Get her saddled up!” hollered one of them, and though I protested that I’d take a good 20 minutes to get ready, they assured me they’d wait.
They took me on a ride over the open grassland and through creeks, up a steep ridge and back down again, with views over the rolling, pine-dotted hills all the way along, four cowboy hats ahead of me on the prairie.
Rounding out the foursome were Marv, a farrier and ex-RCMP officer who know one of my also ex-Mountie friends back in Nanaimo, and another friend, Warren.
After a post-ride beer in the shade, I was invited to dinner once again, with chili on the menu, and once again made to decline, since my Picky Eater (ovo-lacto-pescatarian) status made it a no-go, but the boys cooked me up my very own pot of vegetarian chili. I was given notice that I’d been given admittance to a Very Exclusive Men’s Club, since they don’t ride with women (not strictly true, in actual fact – they have a Marjorie from time to time).
The next day, the boys took me out on what has to have been one of the best rides of my life. Once again, we headed out in the cool of the day, and rode over to Fort Walsh, birthplace of the RCMP, and then on to the old trading post, site of the Cypress Hills Massacre.
From there we rode out onto federal land, where we saw two herds of horses, one of them with a half dozen foals at foot. Watching them gallop off over the hills was a gorgeous sight.
We carried on to the Mystery Rocks, which look like someone tossed a big bunch of boulders onto the bald hillside, like a giant dropping a handful of dice.
We rode onward, still uphill, to the highest point in the area, from which we had a 360 degree view of the prairie. The forest fires in Northern Saskatchewan had sent down a pall of smoke over the land, so the views weren’t as crystal clear as they usually are, but they were still spectacular. At the top of the plateau, in a good cooling wind, we had lunch and a nap in the sunshine.
We rode home over hill tops and down into draws, through high open pine forest and brushier spruce trails riddled with deadfall, passing by an old log homestead, and past the Cougar Caves, where you could see the bones of some small critters that had had a Very Bad Day after encountering a cougar.
Between the excellent company, the sights I never would have found on my own, the spectacular landscapes, and the gorgeous weather, I don’t think I have ever had a more perfect ride.
I said goodbye to the boys on Wednesday, but not until Marvin had made sure Pai got his horse’s corral before it could be snagged by one of the approximately one bazillion other riders who came streaming in the night before. When I’d arrived on Sunday, there were about five groups on site. When I left on Thursday, there were nineteen. One of the groups was bunch of friends whose wagon train had been canceled, and who were looking for alternative fun. It was very cool seeing the wagons out on the prairie.
With so many friendly, happy horse folk in camp, there was a lot of post-ride lounging around, sipping beverages and shooting the breeze. I met Margaret and Nelson, who were staying 10 days with their friend Dave; the wagon crew and their accompanying light horse riders – Lionel, Duffy, Lorna, Rob, Paige the agronomist, Doctor Bob the vet, and several more whose names escape me; Brenda and Greg with their dog Roady; Kathy and her god-daughter Lorna; and others I just can’t recall. Nelson and Dave (and the cowboys too) were replete with local history, and told me all about the Massacre and the days of Sitting Bull residing in this country.
On Wednesday, Canada Day, I took a ride out to Fort Walsh with Kathy and Lorna.
We hitched our horses (with a little pause to unhitch for cannon firing in the middle), and Kathy, as my self-appointed guide, gave me a great tour of the fort.
On my final morning, I took Pai out – and Spy too, since it was cooler – for a pre-trailering ride early in the morning. It was a peaceful, dewy morning, with mourning doves cooing in the pines.
Camp and trail notes for horsey folk
The camp at Cypress Hills is in the East Block, on the Saskatchewan side of the park. There are about 32 tie stalls (uncovered, but with rails for tarps), a large grassy catch pen the borders the creek, where you can graze your horse loose or set up an electric corral, and five roomy corrals. There are about 16 pull-in sites with picnic tables and a fire grill, good drinking water, garbage, manure receptacle, and a pit toilet. Camping costs $18 per night, and firewood is free.
When the camp gets busy, people just park wherever. It’s a pretty relaxed place. Spy could have run free, but it was busy enough that I mostly kept him tied. Dogs can go out on the trail (or rather, if they aren’t allowed, no one cares), but it was too hot for Spy to come along on most of my rides.
There are a few reasonably obvious trails through the grass, and the Trans Canada Trail is well-marked. Otherwise, you can ride wherever you like over the grasslands, following game trails, cow trails, or your heart’s desire. Once you are on high land, it’s fairly easy to orient yourself by Baldy Hill and by the location of the river.