There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather – Just Bad Clothing. – Hummingbird, June 23-26 2016

“There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing.” Somebody said that. Somebody from Sweden or Finland or some other place where people regularly contend with Weather, and win. Except they don’t see it as winning. It’s just what they do. Because it’s that kind of country.

Camping in late spring/early summer means that you may find yourself sweltering in a tank top or, alternatively, wearing your winter coat and huddling around a campfire. (As I type this line, I am inside my “living quarters”, wearing a toque and my Icebreaker long undies and my Stanfields wool top (layered over an Icebreaker wool top over a T shirt), and I can see my breath.)

Weather-wise, there’s nothing that gets worse than being wet and cold. Being really, really hot is exhausting, and being in unrelenting wind sets your nerves on edge, and being cold sucks. But being cold and wet at the same time is the worst. The absolute worst. Cold, wet fingers. Sodden socks. Wet jeans clinging to your thighs. Cold and wet sucks the big wazoo.

Last summer, despite the fact that pretty much everywhere else in Western Canada in June and July was expiring under 35+ degree weather, I encountered a couple of days of rain at Ya Ha Tinda, and I was miserable. My awning was kaput after a wind mishap, my tarp situation was suboptimal, and I’d neglected to bring my oilskin. And I had no firewood. At 6 degrees Celsius and raining, with about 6 square feet of indoor floor space, that bit.

Which brings me to my stay at Hummingbird, one of Alberta’s Public Recreation Areas along the Forestry Trunk Road (Hwy 734). The weather on this year’s road trip has, thus far, been hit and miss. I think I’ve only once ridden in a T-shirt, and only once worn shorts post-ride. Mornings have been crisp, and there have been showers and/or chilly winds ever since I left Merritt. But this year, I have been prepared. My other half fixed my broken Shady Boy awning (the manufacturer was utterly unhelpful re my issues. Thank you, Mister Wayde Andrews, for being The Man Who Fixes Everything), which made all the difference in the world to my quality of life in the rain. Camping in the rain generally makes me want to slit my wrists. Camping in the rain when you have a roomy outdoor dry place to cook is… just… magical. “Hey! I can cook! Outside! With space to put stuff! And I can also sit in my chair and drink my wine outside and watch the rain while my stuff is cooking! Oh. my. god.” I could cry.

I also remembered to bring my oilskin, and my long underwear, and I bought many bundles of firewood in Nordegg, the last outpost before I hit the completely unserviced Forestry Trunk Road. Having a way to dry your soggy socks and riding gloves between showers is an excellent thing.

Hummingbird was recommended to me by my friend Cory last year, but I never made it there because I got (pleasantly) trapped by the wonder of Ya Ha Tinda, and never wanted to leave. This year, I’d left Jasper with the firm plan of heading to Ya Ha Tinda again, but when I was camped on the Kootenay Plains, I idly picked up my binder with notes from last year’s trip (I am an obsessive note maker and taker, and while you may laugh, the notes have come in very handy more than a few times), and found my info for Ram Falls, which is more or less adjacent to Hummingbird. Hummingbird was close. Very close. And so I changed my mind, and decided Ya Ha Tinda could wait until later in the trip, when I’d have more time anyway. The morning I was packing up from Kootenay Plains, I spoke with a fellow who was out strolling with his morning coffee, and who, though sans horse that day, had ridden that land for 50 years. And his father had. And his grandfather had. He knew Hummingbird, and gave me enough info to solidify my decision.

Hummingbird is an hour and a half’s drive from either Nordegg or Rocky Moutain House, and it is set up for equestrian camping, with high line poles at most of the sites. We arrived on a Thursday around noon, and the campsite was only half full. We scored what seems to me to be the best site in the place, a grassy treed site with an open view down the valley, adjacent to the creek.

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Our campsite at Hummingbird in a rare bit of sunshine.

We arrived around noon, and so had ample time for an afternoon ride. After being assured by a fellow camper, Randy, that you couldn’t really get lost, and equipped with an iPhone photo of his map (which turned out to be the same basic map that I’d picked up at the gas station in Nordegg), we set out on the trail. By sheer luck, the trail we ended up on was one that climbed to the top of what, from a distance, looked like a rock slide, but turned out to be a peak of known alternatively as “The Monument” or “The Pyramid”. Cresting that peak (2250m high) alone made the entire trip to Hummingbird worthwhile: we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It felt like we were at the top of the world. (And PING! Suddenly, at the top, we had cell service, with data nonetheless). I could text Mr Wayde Andrews about the wonder of it all.

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View east from The Monument.

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View south from The Monument. The trail to this point comes up through all that crazy rock.

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View northwest from The Monument.

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View north from The Monument. Camp is at the base of that mountain in the centre of the pic.

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Heading down.

The next morning, when I got up to feed the steed at 6:30 a.m., it was 2 degrees out. Yup. You read that right. Almost freezing. I was so dispirited that I went back to bed for another hour until the sun crested the trees and warmed the joint up a little.

I’d planned my Friday ride to be about twice the distance of the 3-hour ride the day prior, and one that stuck to valley floors for the most part, at least based on the map I had. We set off in decent weather, and had a pleasant albeit somewhat muddy tour along the outside of that giant rock pile of a mountain. Halfway along, after negotiating my favourite kind of trail – the kind that clings to a steep hillside with certain death on one hand – for a very long stretch, we hit what I now know is known as “Windy Creek” (“wind” as in “wind your watch”, not “the wind in the willows”) and/or “Fourteen Trails”, a part of the trail that crossed the creek about forty times, mostly through scrub that is shoulder-high. Your horse has to be cool with blindy bushwhacking through bush, which, thankfully, Pai is. She is a very good girl. (I, on the other hand, was saying out loud: “This is BULLSHIT. What kind of trail is this? This is BULLSHIT.”) We were rewarded by the vista at the top of the subsequent climb, one that looked towards The Monument on one side, with a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains in every other direction.

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The green ridge is the razorback we rode down yesterday.

 

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Friday’s lunch spot.

It began to hail as we finished lunch on the summit, and rained on us the whole way back. It continued to rain all evening, and all night, and all of the following morning. I was very pleased that I had decided to bring an array of blankets for Pai. It was so miserable on Friday night that I suited her up in her winter (read, Vancouver Island winter) blanket, since she was shivering in the lightly insulated turnout she was already wearing. (The saying holds true for horses as well as people).

My last ride was on Saturday, with my rowdy neighbours. Rowdy neighbours are usually people having a good time, which frequently translates to people who are fun to be with. I’d popped over the night before seeking trail advice, and they very kindly invited me to ride with them the following day. We (Jodi, Mick, her sister-in-law Mel, Tenise, and her daughter Morgan) rode to The Chutes, which are a gorgeous set of waterfalls along the Ram River.

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The girls at The Chutes.

 

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At The Chutes.

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Riding to The Chutes.

 

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Waterfall along the Ram River.

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Along the Ram River.

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The girls at The Chutes.

 

After seeming like she might actually be a good citizen for the first 20 minutes or so of the ride with three other horses, Pai, once we picked up Tenise and Morgan, who had rented horses from the trail riding outfit down the road (a lady who has been operating her business there, in the middle of nowhere, for the past 50 years), morphed into her usual Queen of the World persona and insisted on being at the front of the pack, and set a blistering pace, ears pinned and hoof raised against all challengers. (“Gee, I wonder why that girl always rides alone?”)

Hummingbird feels like you really are far away from everything. At the top of The Monument, in the lee of the wind, we looked down over the world and it was utterly silent. There was no sound at all. No birdsong, no insects, no rushing water, no airplanes or traffic, no wind, nothing. Nothing at all. I don’t think I have ever been in a place in nature that is utterly, utterly silent. I never met anyone else on horseback on any of my three rides; we did meet some fishermen on ride to The Chutes. Our first night in camp, Spy was on high alert when he heard wolves barking and crying across the creek.

There are tons of other trails to explore, and so Hummingbird is on the list of places to visit again.

 

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk

There are two campsites at Hummingbird, one just after the hairpin turn just along from the trail riding outfit, and one a few km up the road. The first one has about 15 sites with high line poles along a laneway. The second one as at least as may sites on the perimeter of an open grassy meadow. The first site is along Hummingbird Creek; the second one appears to be dry, although there may be a small creek I didn’t notice. I think my site was the nicest of all.  The one across the laneway (which could be considered three sites, since there are three highline pole set-ups) is also a good one – they are open and grassy and yet still treed. The creek is right there.

There are signs telling you to pick up (your damn) manure, but other than one tiny arrow at the end of one driveway, none of them indicate where you might be able to dispose of said manure. Turns out, you need to drive your horse poop X km down the road to the disposal site. It’s a head-scratcher.

The trails are obvious

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Not to hard to follow this trail…

but not signed or named. The map is reasonably accurate, if you know where you want to go. For instance, The Monument or The Chutes do not appear on the map. But the trails to get there are accurate, if you know that’s where you’re headed. Intersections and points noted on the map (H2, H4, etc) are not signed on the trails. If you have a decent sense of direction, and can note landmarks, and have an ability to note whether a particular creek should be on your left or your right, you’ll be fine.

The trails can be extremely rocky. And some of them are a grind.

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There are no ATVs until July 1st; even when they are allowed in, there are designated non-motorized vehicle trails that are suitable for horses.

Camping is free. Dogs are meant to be on leash, though that regulation appears to be regarded as a “meh” sort of thing. There is no high-lining to trees, and electric paddocks are not allowed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beauty Spot – Kootenay Plains, June 22-23

When I left Jasper on Wednesday morning, my ultimate next destination was Ya Ha Tinda, reached either by a 2-day journey with a stop near Cline River, or else as one long haul. I’m not fond of driving for more than 6 hours with the horse (and I’ve felt a bit sorry for her the few times we’ve gone longer), and since it’s a 7 hr 20 min drive, stopping partway was an attractive idea. I decided to hinge my decision on the weather and how accurate my TomTom was at estimating the driving time to Cline River – if it was pouring rain, I’d likely drive on.

I’d originally intended for my waypoint to be Crescent Falls, but both my friend Ruth and Jim, the Barn Boss at Jasper, had suggested that the Kootenay Plains would be a superior choice. There are no equestrian facilities there, but it is within Alberta’s Public Land Use Zones, which is an area in which you can camp pretty much anywhere you like – and it’s free. Both Ruth and Jim waxed poetic about the spectacular beauty of the area.

We found a spot on the Siffleur River just after noon, and got camp set up. I was a little nervous about how close the highway was (it is CLOSE), and, after my afternoon ride allowed me to discover some more secluded sites further along the laneway, sites that were significantly further from the road, I contemplated tearing down camp and moving everything down there. However, I settled down (my thought process: “Why would she break loose? And if she did break loose, why would she head for the highway? And if she did break loose and head for the totally non-busy highway, what are the chances that there would actually be a car passing? And if she did break loose and head for the quiet hightway and there were a car passing, what are the chances of someone hitting a white horse wearing a reflective silver blanket?) and decided to erect an electric perimeter around the high line. Pai was happy with that, since from the time we finished our ride until bedtime, she was free to graze in temporary paddock.

Camp alone was a pretty scenic spot:

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Camp on the Siffleur River at Preacher’s Point.

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Spy admiring the view from camp.

Our ride was indeed spectacular.  Beauty riding, as Jim said – there are open vistas up the valley both east and west.  Our trail was what variably appeared to be a horse trail, a game trail, and an ATV trail. It is impossible to get lost in that particular location, since there is a river to follow.

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We came across a bunch of these at one point, which I later learned were sweat lodges. It was a little eerie to come across them in the silence of the mountains.

 

I spoke to a fellow camper the following morning as he strolled by with his morning coffee. He was horseless, but he had ridden in the area for 50 years, as had his father and his grandfather. He described trails on the other side of the river that go deep into the backcountry. Jim likewise mentioned that a packing trip could be made from there to Ya Ha Tinda, a 68 km “easy 2 -day  ride”.

I can’t imagine a prettier spot to spend the night, horse or no horse.   For free.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk

There are dozens of places to camp along Highway 11 west of Nordegg (and a little east of Nordegg as well). The campsites are unmaintained, with no facilities – you are boondocking. The are free.

The site I stayed at was Preacher’s Point. There is, from what Ruth and Jim tell me, an area you can camp at the western edge of Abraham lake as well, which would be  an spot to spend some time. Some of the trails appear on the Bighorn Backcountry map, but nothing is marked.

 

National Park Riding – Jasper, June 18-22 2016

A Leatherman tool is a thing of beauty. As usual, a few things that were on my carefully-crafted Horse Camping List somehow never made it out to the rig (aside: how is this possible? I have a list. I print it out. I check things off. And yet…??), among them my tweezers. So this is how I found myself at a campground shower room in Jasper National Park, preparing for dinner out with a friend, and using the pliers on my Leatherman to pluck my eyebrows. And then used the knife to hack out the glob of pine pitch that was stuck in my hair. That’s me: keepin’ it classy.

The friend I was meeting was the wonderful Ruth Remple, who had taken me under her wing at Ya Ha Tinda last summer, and who, after arriving in town at the age of 21 to begin work with Parks Canada, has lived in Jasper for most of her life. Ruth had gone out of her way to make sure Pai and I were well settled, and had given me the lowdown on good riding options, as well as providing intel on where I might best take the ever-rambunctious Spy for walks. We walked Spy and Molly down to the Parks barns, where the patrol horses hang out.

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Ruth and Molly at the Maligne Ranch barns

Ruth invited me out to dinner on my last night in Jasper, and so I took my campfire-scented self for a bit of a (Leatherman-assisted) clean-up before our date. (And as an FYI, I can highly recommend the Fiddle River Restaurant, which has been a fixture in Jasper for a couple of decades).

One of the big reasons I headed to Jasper was that Jim Chesser, the Parks barn boss, whom I’d met around the campfire at Ya Ha Tinda, had told me last summer that I should. I didn’t have time then, but I did now. I ran into Jim by chance as he was heading out to pick up some horses, and talking to him about the trails and local riding options made me wish I had more time in Jasper, and could get into the back country. (Next time!)

Though I had three full days in the Park, I only spent the first two riding. The thing that bites somewhat frustrating thing about National Parks is that dogs must be leashed (for the protection of both wildlife and the protection of the dogs themselves*). Given the limited opportunities for off-leash exercise, The Dog was getting antsy, and he very strongly suggested that Day 3 be spent hiking with The Dog.

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Spy at Maligne Lake.

 

* There is a lot of wildlife at Jasper. A LOT. I saw three bears from the car just driving around the local roads. The local elk (wapiti) are ubiquitous, and they are honey badgers. They don’t give a damn. And in calving season (now) they are fierce. Parks staff warned me. Ruth told me about being trapped in various places by rampaging elk intent on trampling her. And a fellow horsewoman at Cottonwood told me how she and her horse had been chased through the forest a few days prior by a mama elk.

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Bull elk just chillin’ t the Cottonwood Corrals

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Road block on my way out of camp.

The two areas Pai and I did explore were the trails adjacent to her digs at the Cottonwood Corrals visitor’s paddocks, on the Pyramid Bench. These trails are a spiderweb of connected loops, some of which are used by the commercial trail riding operations that work out of the same stable area. The trails wind through forest, and climb to overlooks that offer spectacular views over the valleys.

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Riding the Pyramid Bench, looking over the Athabasca River.

 

 

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View over Patricia Lake from Pyramid Bench trails.

 

On our second day, I broke down my “camp” and loaded Pai into the trailer for a short haul to Sixth Bridge, just shy of where the Parks barns are, for a ride along the Overlander trail. It’s a trail that follows the Athabasca River, initially on the flat.

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Athabasca River from Overlander trail.

The trail was awash with wildflowers – Gallardia, columbine, vetch, forget-me-nots, wood lilies, and countless others.

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Field of forget-me-nots at the old Moseby homestead.

 

The trail eventually climbs some steeper terrain to some overlooks that offer amazing vistas. We stopped for lunch on one of the high spots before turning around and heading for home.

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My fave. Trails that cling to the edge of a steep drop-off.

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Pai admiring her view at lunch.

 

My taste of Jasper left me wanting to come back for more.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

There is no real designated front-country equestrian camping in Jasper , so you have to park your horse elsewhere and camp at a people campground. Cottonwood Corrals, the local saddle horse association, is located about 3 km from Jasper town at the local Pyramid Lake trail riding outfit, and offers roomy visitor’s paddocks for $10/night. The nearest campsites are Whistlers and Wapiti. I stayed at Wapiti, which was about a 12-15 minute drive from the corrals. Wabasso is another option, but it is quite a bit further down the Icefields Parkway and would not be as convenient to the corrals.

Dogs must be on leash, so taking them trail riding is not an option.

The couple of trails I rode offered varied terrain and footing, from sandy valley bottom to rockier trails at elevation. They are all single-track and multi-use, so you will meet mountain bikers and hikers.

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Setting Out – Hidden Valley Rustic Horse Camp, June 16-18 2016 (and Spruston CTR June 11)

Despite having had aspirations over the past many years to ride Pai in either Endurance or Competitive Trail, it’s never panned out, thanks to injuries and bad timing and bouts of COPD. When I heard that there was a CTR scheduled in my backyard this month, I sent in an just-under-the-wire entry. It seemed like a good way to (1) re-introduce myself to Competitive Trail after a decade hiatus, and (2) take my newly pimped-up trailer for a dry-run.

Re the trailer: I decided, after last summer, to fix all the things that were making me bat-shit crazy about camping with inadequate power and Rubbermaid bin storage in a tiny space. To wit:

(1) The power sitchashun. The tiny, tiny solar panel on the roof of my trailer combined with a car battery were fine when it came to keeping my trailer jack charged. The system had no hope in hell of keeping me in power when boondocking for 5 to 7 days. After a day or two, my fridge was in its death throes. To address the Tragic Power Situation, the very clever and very handy Mr Wayde Andrews got me a couple of 6V deep cycle batteries, and we bought two 75W solar panels, and a charge controller. And hooked that mofo up to a reasonable fridge. Which brings me to…

(2) The fridge sitchashun. Before, I had a 1 cubic foot, chest-style fridge, supplemented by a cooler. Now, I have a decent RV fridge that has over 3 cu ft capacity. And it has a freezer. That means ice cubes for my G&Ts, and also the ability to store frozen fish. (I’m pretty sure I’m having a case of the vapours right now, just writing about it). I have a lot of stuff in that fridge, and it’s still not full.

(3) The storage sitchashun. What I had was bins that I had to drag out from some awkward, irritating space every time I wanted to get something – the cooking pans, the dry goods, the booze. Stuff was piled on top of other stuff. It bit. I now have shelves. And baskets. And hooks.

(4) The water sitchashun. I’d thought, last year, that upgrading to a 30L rolling water tank would be adequate. But nay nay. The rolling 30L tank barely made the cut, especially in areas where there was no potable water for hu-mans. Mr Andrews had our local plastics guys make me a 100-L water tank with a peaked roof that doubles as a saddle rack.

On top of these desperately-needed improvements, I replaced the massively oversized queen duvet with a smaller twin, laid down laminate flooring over the incredibly impractical carpet, and replaced my moderately functional, home-made doorway fly mesh with a proper magnetic bug screen. There’s a built-in dog crate under the bed. Between the practical upgrades and the aesthetic ones, the “living quarters” are now making me feel pretty darn princessy. I’ve gone from this shit show reasonably functional but ultimately gangster scenario –

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– to this bit of elegance:

 

I am in love with my trailer. I should marry it.

Camping at thhe CTR was a great way to test out the new rig and plan some tweaks. Plus: it was a CTR! They are always good fun. At Spruston, there was a modest rider turnout for what was a multi-day, dual discipline event. The small numbers made for a very cozy, friendly do. It was lovely to chat with other riders at length. I learned two excellent things: (1) the existence of the Mongol Derby, a 1000 km race that one of the gals present had  completed, and which one of the 50-mile endurance riders is planning to ride, and (2) the existence of the Garden City Horsemen’s Club, who are pretty much in my back yard and who have been putting on organized rides for something like 50 years (who knew??).

Organizers Miki Dekel and Christine Pacukiewicz did a great job of setting and marking trail (even I, trail-loser extraordinaire, could not get lost), finding competent P&R crew, and making everything very laid-back and welcoming. The docs at Epona Equine Veterinary Services, from up-Island in Courtenay, who provided the veterinary judging, were great. (And Pai did a good job on her first CTR, garnering a second-place ribbon in our wee field).

Our ride was 15 miles through forest, with a little up and down but nothing too challenging. On my travels, I’ve sometimes been asked what the riding is like on Vancouver Island. The pics below aren’t from the CTR, but they are from Spruston (south of Nanaimo), taken last fall, and show a little of our local beauty:

The trails vary from winding single-track to wider quad trails to in-use or decommissioned logging roads, largely through ferny Douglas fir forest.

So after sorting out a few minor trailer bugs over the subsequent few days (read: asking the beleaguered but ever-game Mr Wayde Andrews to work like a dog to make me happy), I was off on this year’s adventure. First stop, after a wine-sodden evening in Langley with my good friend Deb, was Hidden Valley Rustic Horse Camp, just out of Merritt on Highway 97.

I first heard of Hidden Valley last year, when I was camping at Lundbom Lake. Some fellow campers waxed euphoric about the riding there, and over the past year, I’ve heard many other rave reviews.

The place lives up to its reputation. Spy and Pai and I arrived at around 4 in the afternoon, and were greated by the very friendly and enthusiastic owner, who sent me to a nice little corner campsite, and gave me the run-down on the set-up and the trails. I took Pai out for a short (1-hr) stretch-your-legs ride after settling her in, on trails that had gorgeous views and fabulous footing.

When we got back, I met my newly-arrived camp neighbour, Nichole, who was on her very first horse camping trip ever, with her horse Cricket. (This is what we all do, right?  “That’s my horse! I’m in my tent and that’s my horse!!” And snap some pics of our horse. Who we are camping with. Which is awesome.) The riding world is a small place, and it turns out that I once examined Cricket when she was a Vancouver Island horse, back in 2003.

It’s not often I meet another chick camping on her own. Nichole is a very experienced camper and very can-do rider, and she and I hit it off well, and we ended up riding together the next day. We did two rides, one a nice 3-hour loop mainly up along the ridge with great views over the valley, and another late-afternoon ride to the Left Field Cider Company, which adjoins the trails. It is a most excellent thing to be able to ride to a cider house, hitch up your hoss, have a tasting, sit in the evening sun and look out over the hills, and then ride home again with cider in your saddle bag.

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Riding the Big Loop

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Girl and her horse.

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Hidden Valley vista.

I could have stayed longer at Hidden Valley – I only brushed the surface of the trails in my 3 rides there – but, because Merritt is close and I can very easily ride there in the future, I decided to carry on with my plan to head out to Jasper.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

Spruston

The campground at Spruston has been developed over the past few years by the Central Vancouver Island chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of BC. At this point, after a lot of hard work by my local fellow members and like-minded volunteers, there are a couple of corrals in place on the verge of a large, level clearing, with trees for high-lining, a central fire pit, and a long drop toilet. It’s about a 20-minute drive southeast of Nanaimo, and borders the Trans Canada Trail.

Trails are reasonably well-marked, but it pays to have a look at the maps on the Central Vancouver Island Trail Riders website.

Camping is free. There is no water.

Hidden Valley Rustic Horse Camp

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Hidden Valley has something like 18 campsites. There are 3 or 4 cabins as well (basically, sleeping shacks with an overhang for cooking) that would be an awesome way to go if the  weather looked iffy – with a group of friends, you could always camp in your rig and use the cabin as a dry space for barbecuing or whatevs. There is potable water, and there are nice clean bivvies. And there’s a very nice shower (a loonie buys you 2 1/2 minutes of hot water).

The hosts are most excellent. Kids come around at night to sell firewood for $5 a bundle. Or, if you’re not lazy, just walk up the hill to the pile and help yourself.

Corrals are roomy. Setting up an e-fence corral on grass for extra space is A-OK. There is potable water, firewood for $5, and a hot shower house (!).

The maps are very, very good, and the trails are pretty hard to get lost on. We tried, but failed.

Trails have nice, sandy footing. Barefoot would be OK for most trails, though some are rocky enough that boots might not go astray.

Camping was $25.

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