In almost every place I’ve ridden so far, I’ve said to myself, “This place is THE BEST PLACE EVER!” And then I’d say the same thing at the next place. Still, I don’t think there will be anything on this trip that will be able to top my experience at the Wood Mountain Trail Ride, in Grasslands National Park (East Block).
Back when I was at Cypress Hills, I’d mentioned to the cowboys that my next destination was Grasslands, and they said they’d be heading there too, to meet up for a trail ride, and they told me I might enjoy joining the ride. I wasn’t paying strict attention to what they described, because I was picturing a one-day trail ride that included wagons. Since the East Block is a cell phone dead zone, I phoned Mr Andrews ahead of time, on Saturday, and told him that I’d be giving the horse a day off on Sunday, would ride the trail ride Monday, and would be talking to him again on Tuesday.
That wasn’t how it panned out. When I arrived late Saturday afternoon, in sweltering above-30 heat, the equestrian campground had a few rigs parked, with most horses set up in roomy electric pens. I scored a choice spot across from the water cistern and pipe corrals, and set up an electric pen for daytime grazing, and claimed a corral for night time.
Shortly thereafter, I found that Doug and his brother Rob were already in camp, with their friends Blair and Marjorie (She Who Rides With the Exclusive Men’s Club). And I soon got filled in on what this thing was all about.
The Wood Mountain Trail Ride has been going on for something like 40 consecutive years. Originally, the wagon train and horseback riders would start at Val Marie in the West Block, and drive/ride over to the prairie to what is now the East Block. Nowadays, the ride establishes a base camp, from which riders and wagons depart for daily rides out, over a 5-day span, culminating in the Wood Mountain Rodeo on the weekend.
How fantastic is that?
I quickly found me some WiFi, and messaged Mr Andrews I’d be in Grasslands for the entire week.
The ride officially started on Monday, but on Sunday, Doug and Rob invited me to ride out with them. We ran into Miles, brother of the spectacularly hospitable Park Warden, Brenda. Grasslands National Park is made up of land purchased from area ranchers over time, and Brenda and Miles’ family owned a good chunk of that land. When we ran across Miles, he had some cows that were in the wrong place, and so Doug offered our services in moving them to where they belonged. Ride ‘em, cowgirl!
The fellas sat their horses and jawed for a while with Miles, and Miles warned us about the harshness of the storms that could come up. He told a story about getting caught in a hail storm, with hail stones coming down this big (picture a closed fist), and him taking off his horse’s saddle to put over his head for protection. He didn’t have a good hold on the horse, and the horse ran off. A few minutes later, he felt a nudge on his shoulder: the horse was back, trying to get his own head under the saddle for shelter.
Doug and Rob and I rode that day to the Red Buttes. We stopped for lunch and a snooze on a hill top that had tipi rings, something I’d never heard of: circles of rocks that the native people used to hold down the edges of their tipis.
Riding with Rob and Doug was perfect for me. They are quiet, safe riders who are very careful with their horses, but who ride at a good pace and love to explore new places and find new trails. They are the sort of horsemen I admire.
Rigs came pulling in throughout the afternoon and evening, and I began to get visitors. It’s kinda funny, but really, there is nothing like being a woman on your own, a long way from home, with a horse, to make you an instant celebrity. On one of my last couple of days in camp, I heard one of my neighbours informing a visitor: “She came all the way from BC, on her own. Us old fellas try to help her out where we can…” which was super sweet.
My neighbours on one side were chain-smoking Bob from Saskatchewan, and his cousin Mark from Minnesota, with Bob’s team of Morgan-Perch crosses. Mark has a deep baritone voice, ideally suited to the cowboy poetry he loves to recite. I was the happy audience to more than a few of his orations. And I got to accompany him on guitar to a pretty darn excellent rendition of “Unchained Melody.”
Oh, and also, after knowing me for five minutes, Mark gave me about 2 pounds of chocolate – a sample of the massive extravaganza of chocolate he’d brought up from Amish country with him.
And I got to drive that team by the end of the week.
My neighbours on the other side were Loni and Jim from Manitoba, who had a gorgeous team of Percherons.
On Monday, the trail ride began – kicked off by two horses from a Manitoba group with a bunch of Morgans making a break for it and getting out of Dodge at a gallop. By the time the trail boss, Ed, caught them, they were almost at the US border. Once the ride got underway, seven or eight wagons and about forty or fifty riders headed out across the prairie, picking our way through sage that was ever so fragrant as the horses brushed past, with clouds of dragonflies circling about.
Pai showed her Ay-rab side on the first ride, and every ride in a large group thereafter, prancing and jigging like a parade horse, and sparking comments like, “That sure is a hot horse.” Hilarious, since when we ride out alone, I often carry a dressage whip to remind her that her job is to maintain a brisk pace. Here, she was keen to be queen of the pack and ride at the front. I may have to change her career plans and make her an endurance horse.
The routine for the week followed the same pattern: get up, feed the horses, have breakfast, be in the saddle by 9:00-9:30, and head out onto the prairie. We’d be back in camp by 3 or so in the afternoon, in time for happy hour, and then dinner, and then campfire.
Brenda’s dad, who is approximately one million years old, plays the accordion, and her mom plays the fiddle. Cora, one of the other Park rangers, plays guitar. I brought my guitar along on this trip, and was game to fumble along with the real musicians. At one campfire, we had four guitars, the accordion, the fiddle, a banjo, a banjo guitar, two harmonicas, and a family of Mennonite gospel singers.
(Best. campfire. ever.)
I broke a guitar string on the first night, and Les, a member of the absolutely wonderful (and very musical) Anderson family, somehow managed to scrape me up a new set. This family has been riding here for a couple of decades, now with their kids and grandkids. Clint was riding with his five-year-old grandson Derson, who was on top of a very talented little black team roping horse. I would have given my eye teeth to be riding the prairie with my granddad at that age…
I’m still chuffed that the cowboys let me ride with them. Doug and Rob have been riding the area for decades, and I guess they sometimes have a plan that suits them better than what the trail boss has in mind. Sweet for me, they always made sure I was there to tag along. On day two, the ride stayed up on a ridge looking over the badlands.
We all rode out to the USA border (keeping an eye out for imminent attack by drones), and then Rob and Doug led me down into the badlands, and rode home down below, in among the clay formations and steep draws, picking our way across sketchy footing in the gullies.
On day three, the train rode northwest onto the prairie, and then, while the wagons took the flatter ride home, Doug led the saddle horses back through the moguls and badlands.
On day four, we once again rode out to the Red Buttes.
Because I’d intended to stay for only a couple of nights, I’d failed to adequately stock my bar for the week. Happily, Grasslands East Block has beer delivery. Sadly, Grasslands East Block only delivers tragic beer. The best I could do was Keith’s IPA, which just barely scrapes into the category of Actual Beer. People far and wide heard of my no-I’m-not-an-alcoholic-OK-maybe-just-a-little desperation for beer, and beer (“beer”) was just about falling from the sky, only it was Coors Light and Bud Light and… Yeah. I was sooooo grateful for the generosity. And soooooo desperate for beer I wanted to drink.
For the first day or two, I kept Spy tethered, but when it became apparent that it was a fairly dog-friendly camp, I turned him loose. He became known around camp variably as “Dingo” or as “Klepto”, this latter because he loved to bring me All the Thingz – lead ropes, brushes, someone’s cell phone case… One night, he brought me a deer antler. Since you’re not supposed to take things like that out of the Park, I figured I’d run it down to Brenda the warden once I finished my beer. A few minutes later, he came up with another antler, this one inscribed in felt tip with “Property of Parks Canada: $500 fine or 2 years imprisonment” inscribed on it. I toted my antlers down to the campfire right some quick, where I was met by fellow riders Darryl and Marie, who were laughing their heads off because they’d totally set me up: the antlers were ones they had kicking around in the back of their truck, and they’d inscribed the one, and given them to Klepto, knowing he’d present them to me.
I met Matt, a young Anderson who plays a mean banjo guitar, and who wants to be a vet.
I met Celeste, and her two very game daughters.
I met Glen, and his friend Len, from the same town from which Doug hails. Any time I moved my electric corral, Glen would instantly appear out of nowhere to give me a hand.
I met Alma, who rides with Doug and Rob and Blair and Marjorie and who has a handle on medicinal herbs.
I met Mandy and her sister, two of the Mennonite crew from Swift Current.
I met Laura, who, like me, was riding on her own for the week, and Dave, who was also on his own.
I met so many lovely people that I can’t remember all their names.
On the Thursday evening, there were games – mostly for kids, but also for kids at heart. They played musical chairs on horseback, egg-and-spoon races on horseback, and a bunch of other races that may or may not have involved some serious cheating – I’ll never tell. I met Arliss, whose tiny cute-as-a-bug daughter was being well-looked-after by a big grey horse who plodded along at a placid pace no matter what his mistress had in mind.
On Friday, a bunch of folks packed up early and headed directly to the Wood Mountain Rodeo. I packed my gear, with the plan to turn back west, and spend a night or two at Saskatchewan Landing. After I said goodbye to Rob and Doug, I watched Doug lead his horse away (he never looked back), and Rob ride his away (he did look back), and I just about wept.
Camp and trail notes for horsey folk:
The East Block set-up at Grasslands is very much like that at the West Block, with six pipe corrals in the sun, and a water cistern. Unlike the West Block, however, there’s “people” water down at the warden’s office, and the “people” campground (very lightly used) is right there. You are free to set up electric pens or tether your horse out. There are pit toilets, garbage and drink bottle recycling, and a manure pit (no fork or wheelbarrow). Camping costs $15.70 a night.
For the Wood Mountain Trail Ride, your camping is included in the cost for the 5 days, which is $40. You read that right: $40 for 5 nights’ camping, your riding, a pancake breakfast on the first morning, and campfire with music every night.
Brenda the warden, and all the rangers, are some of the friendliest, most enthusiastic people you will ever meet. All of them grew up in the area, and they are passionate about showing it off to newcomers. On the first day, one of the rangers, a summer student, came by asking if anyone needed picnic tables, and dropped them off to whoever wanted one. They would come through camp every day or so, asking if anyone needed ice or beer or anything else.
The Park has a couple of marked trials, but for the most part, you just ride out over the countryside, figuring out how to cross draws as you come to them. There are a couple of gates as you ride west/northwest, but other than that, it’s wide open country with not a thing in sight. It looks as it would have looked a hundred years ago, and five hundred before that.
It is an amazing place.