Under-dressed in the Best Little Horse Camp in the West: Hideaway Horse Camp – July 19-21, 2016

Not to detract from all its awesomeness, but camping in a teeny tiny rig has one glaring downside: a lack of running water. Specifically, a lack of hot running water that comes in the form of a shower.

I did have a solar shower with me, not the excellent shower that Mark from Minnesota donated to me, the one that would heat water to 50 degrees C within a few hours (because I forgot that one at home, despite my many lists) but a far-inferior substitute shower I picked up in Jasper. My first attempt at showering with that thing found me sorely disappointed as I sampled the water that had been sitting in the sun all day and found it to not be quite even lukewarm. Fail.

I did have use of the campground shower in Hidden Valley (propane-heated, great pressure, a loonie per 5 minutes), and in Jasper (one of those fabulous, deluxe showers that make you push a button every twenty seconds to make the warmish water come out), and of Vanessa’s house shower in Taber (which felt supremely luxurious), and of my lovely camp mate Doug’s RV shower, and of the shower in the Brooks rodeo grounds, and the not-quite-hot RV shower at Running Reins (I was too impatient to let the water fully warm up).  But between the limitations of camp showers, and not wanting to waste people’s water, by the time I hit Fairmont Hot Springs, I hadn’t had a long, decadent hot hot shower in weeks. And, because I’d stayed there last year and sampled their hot spring fed hot hot showers, I was very much looking forward to my stay there.

And then, of course, I was foiled by their new no-horse-trailers-in-our-campground policy, not to mention my own inability to check a map. No shower for you.

I arrived at Hideaway Horse Camp, just east of Oliver, BC, after eight hours on the road (6 and a bit hours driving time, plus stopping time for gas, coffee, checking the brakes that I noticed no longer seemed to be working as we engaged a 11% downhill grade…). This is the sign I found at my campsite:

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Another homecoming! (For the record, I think #4 is the sweetest site in the campground).

 

After settling up camp, Pai and Spy and I headed out for an hour-ish ride, and came back to find another note inviting me to cheese and crackers and homemade jelly and conversation – absolutely yes!! Anna Maria and I shot the breeze for something like  4 1/2 hours as a thunder storm rolled in, pelted down, and rumbled away.

And I met her fantastic little English Shepherd, Finnegan, who is truly an Old Soul. I offered Anna Marie a trade for The Worst Dog in The World, but she was having none of it.

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Ermagawd! Just look at that face!

 

The next day, Pai and Spy and I hit the trail late morning – sadly, sans Anna Marie, who had other commitments – on a ride I hoped would hit most of the trails on the map. Last time I was at Hideaway, the weather was fairly bleak, and the views I knew were hidden behind the low-lying cloud remained stubbornly out of sight. I’d also gotten a little lost that trip, and so I was determined to pay more attention to the trail markings.

We did pretty well up to intersection 16, after which we somehow lost the plot and ended up on some logging road headed up into the wop-wops. No matter – the views were spectacular:

 

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Looking west towards Oliver.

 

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Lunch stop.

 

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Lunch time view is A-Okay.

 

 

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The critters also admire the view.

 

Despite our little off-piste detour, our ride was exactly as long as I’d planned: six hours. And we saw wild horses (!). Pai paid them far more attention than I would have guessed she would, and seemed quite firmly determined to become a sister-wife. “Come back! Come back!” Seriously. Queen of the World turned into someone who wanted to live in a harem.

So back to wardrobe issues. When we got back, Anna Maria and Larry were on their way out, and my newly-arrived camp mates were nowhere to be seen. I was determined to have that longed-for shower, in Anna Maria’s supremely delightful stone-floored solar shower house. I gathered my things, got undressed, and turned on the water. And waited. And waited. And came late to the obvious realization that the day had not been nearly warm enough to heat the tank.

But I was determined. I wrapped a towel around myself, and scooted back to my campsite to heat water I figured I would use to fill my sub-optimal solar shower bag. After one kettle full and one pot full barely made a dent in the volume of the bag, it became apparent that this was not going to be a speedy endeavour, and so I poured myself a gin and tonic and cooled my jets and set up round two of water. Somewhere in there, the clank of the gate alerted me to the fact that my camp mates were back, and so I hurriedly whipped some clothes on. After three rounds of water-heating and two G&Ts, I was ready to roll. I lugged my bag to the shower house, tied it up, and yay! Except I’d overdone it on the heating, and the water was impossible to stand under. It was just barely tolerable if you crouched on the ground, giving the spray enough distance to cool before it hit your skin. (I’m sure this will become a Thing, something like, Primal Shower Position Number 2, Promoting Inner Thigh Strength). So yeah. Relaxing shower accomplished, I stepped out to discover… the towel I’d wrapped around myself was still back at my campsite.

I peered around the shower house to find that my camp mates were just mounting up for an evening ride. Excellent. A minute or two later, with them bobbing out of sight, I was able to streak naked across the lawn to my campsite and grab my towel.

Turns out my camp mates were from my neck of the woods, just up the road in Coombs on Vancouver Island. It’s a small world.

Coming back to Hideaway was like yet another homecoming on this trip of homecomings. It is a place to come back to, and come back to. Maybe with better wardrobe co-ordination.

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

I have trail and camp notes on Hideaway on a post from 2015 , in which I mentioned the incredibly uptown outhouse:

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Seriously. This is the outhouse. It has running water. And wood flooring. And lots of windows.

 

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Campsite #4, my fave.

 

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For a Smart Person, You’re Really Dumb: Golden and Fairmont Hot Springs, July 17-19, 2016

Either with Mr Wayde Andrews or without, either with the horse or without, either with a dog in the car or without, I’ve driven through Golden, BC on epic east-west or west-east road trips something approaching a dozen times. Wayde and I once overnighted at the municipal campground (a nice, cheap little spot on the Kicking Horse River), but never spent any time exploring the area, which appeared, from the road, to be stunningly beautiful. When I left Running Reins Ranch, I had the thought of staying at Bear Corner Bed & Bales for a couple of nights, and spending at least a day riding trails in the area. Sadly, because of the last-minute nature of my planning, Bear Corner was (predictably) booked, but the owner gave me a hot tip about the local rodeo grounds offering overnight accommodation, and so that’s where we headed.

The rodeo grounds, operated by the Golden Light Horse Club, turned out to be a very convenient overnighting spot, and I suspect the grounds are well-used. We rolled in around six-thirty, and I set Pai up in a corner lush with grass, temporarily cordoned off by some e-tape. After dark, around ten-thirty, I figured we had the place to ourselves, and rather than jail her in a corral, I threw her into the aisleway where she could pick away at the sparser grass all night. At something past midnight, when I was still up, I heard her nicker, and popped outside to investigate who she might be greeting. Another rig had pulled in, en route to Quesnel from Calgary, and so I hustled her into her corral.

 

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Sunset from the Golden rodeo grounds.

 

 

Despite not being able to lodge me, Bear Corner was willing to let me tag along on one of their guided rides the next day.

It’s easy to forget that what so many of us take for granted – being able to ride our horse in the wilderness, surrounded on all sides by beauty so spectacular you don’t know which way to look – is what other people only dream of doing. The little group I joined on Monday morning consisted of Julie, our guide; Ing and (crap, I forget her name), who were regulars to the area; myself; and Verrina, a young lady from Germany who was touring around BC and Alberta with her friend. Verrina has a horse of her own, and hacks out regularly, so it’s not like she was a novice to the joys of riding trails on horseback, but her dream was to ride in the mountains here in Canada. She’d contemplated doing a trail ride in Banff, but rejected the whole concept of twenty people riding nose-to-tail, and was prepared to give up her dream. When she found Bear Corner, which offers tours in small groups, she knew it was right. As we rode along in our group of five, I don’t think the grin left her face the entire time we were out.

We rode along river flats on the Blaeberry River, and then, on the way home, stopped off at a waterfall reminiscent of Ya Ha Tinda’s Hidden Falls.

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Blaeberry River.

 

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In tears over her dreadful ride.

 

 

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River crossing.

 

 

Given more time, I’d have investigated local trail options more thoroughly, and have stayed longer. I am sure there must be a ton of  trails to explore – next time!

When I was tucked away in my camper the night I arrived in Golden, back in cell service and able to catch up on online business, I saw a comment from Anna Marie, at Hideaway Horse Camp in Oliver –  place I’d stayed last summer – suggesting we might ride together if I happened to pass her way. I’d intended to next go to Salmon Arm, and then home, but the invitation swayed me, and I checked out driving times on my GPS. And here’s where I just got plumb stupid. Driving time from Golden to Oliver was about  5 ½ hours, more than I felt like driving after a morning of riding finishing up after 1 pm.  Last time I’d ridden in Oliver, I’d gone via Fairmont Hot Springs, where I overnighted, and so I checked driving time to Fairmont. One and a half hours – perfect. That meant my next day’s drive would be a mere 4 hrs, right?  Piece of cake.

I checked with the stables at the Fairmont resort, and they were once again willing to house my hoss. I was pretty excited about the idea of a long, hot shower, and I figured I’d skip cooking that night, and eat out at the resort restaurant. It was going to be great. I wouldn’t even need to unhitch.

Except once I got Pai settled, and drove the 400m up the road to check in, it turned out they’d changed their policies and would not allow horse trailers in the campground.

Seriously.

They would not allow horse trailers or cargo trailers in the campground. I’m still trying to fathom why. Not tony enough? Because if that’s the case, I’ve seen a lot of truck top campers, RV’s. and trailers that are way more wrong-side-of-the-tracks than my little aluminum horse trailer.  Apparently, the above-mentioned crack whore rigs are A-Okay at Fairmont Hot Springs. But my trailer, nope.

Oooo, I was cranky.  Last year, I could walk to my horse. This year, they sent me down the road to their sister site, Spruce Grove, which is about 3 km away. I was cranky enough to not want to give them any of my money and just find some other place to stay, but it was getting late and I was tired and I didn’t want to hunt around, and so I caved. Turned out we got a lovely, roomy little site along the river, and so I recovered a little bit of my cheer.

 

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The site that kept me from writing an immediate letter to the editor.

 

And then, at bedtime, I checked my GPS, just to verify my route. It told me my driving time to Oliver would be 6 hrs and 45 minutes.

I nearly kakked.

The GPS is pretty reliable, with a few predictable exceptions (gravel roads, mainly). What had happened to my 4 hour drive? I was baffled. The GPS must be wrong this time.

Somewhere in the night, it came to me. The original 5 ½ hour route was not via Fairmont. It was via Salmon Arm. I hadn’t checked the map. By going through Fairmont, I’d ADDED extra driving time.

I was so mad that I removed “morning shower” from my agenda, and just made myself a coffee and broke camp by 6:30 a.m.  By the time we rolled into Hideaway, including stops for gas and snacks, we’d been on the road for 8 hours.

It brings to mind one of the loving phrases Mr Wayde Andrews once tenderly said to me: “For a smart person, you’re really dumb.”

Words to treasure.

 

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

The Golden Rodeo Grounds offers overnight accommodation by donation. I called ahead (Shelley at 250-344-6798) to check that it would be OK (I worry about things like, “What if there’s a gymkhana or clinic or something and it’s full??”) but I get the impression people just turn up and drop a few buck s in the red box. They have about a dozen quite roomy pipe corrals and an adjacent outdoor arena. There’s a grassy area within the fence, so I don’t see why you couldn’t set up an e-fence corral, or tether or hobble if you so desired.

Bear Corner offers accommodation for you and your horse, and access to some pretty gorgeous trails.

Fairmont has unofficially put me up twice, through their trail riding operation, A Bar Z. They remembered me from last year and my super-casual arrangement with them was perfect. Pai had a spacious paddock with a bit of grass and a view. They charged $15 last time; price wasn’t discussed this time so I slipped a $20 under the door when I left in the morning because that’s what I had on me. There are a few campgrounds in the Fairmont area to choose from. The ones associated with the resort are about $35/night for non-powered. The girls at the barn last year also offered me the option to park at the corrals for free. I prolly shoulda done that this year, but I was keen to have a hot shower. (Which, thanks to aforementioned stupidity, I never wound up taking.)

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Pai at Fairmont Hot Springs.

 

 

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Come Sleep in a Tipi, They Said: Running Reins Ranch – July 15-17, 2016

“Come sleep in a tipi,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.

On my X-Canada road trip with the gee-gee, in 2012, I met Ann Molina on the East-West leg of the journey when we were both camping in Kananaskis. We kept in touch, and three years later, we hooked up again for a ride when I was passing through her stomping grounds, just out of Calgary. This year, the timing worked out for us to get together again, this time on a girls’ weekend she had organized with her friends. It would be camping with horses at Running Reins Ranch, with the idea not of doing a bunch of demanding rides, but of toodling around on the trails, taking the horses swimming, and drinking copious quantities of wine.

And sleeping in a tipi.

When I left Ya Ha Tinda on Friday morning, the rain was relentless. (Well, I can’t quite  honestly say ‘relentless’. I did have exactly five minutes without rain, enough time – barely – to dismantle and towel off and pack away my awning. The rain then hammered down all the way to Sundre, where I stopped to pick up a few groceries, and from there all the way to Red Deer County. (It rained hard enough to wash the Ya Ha Tinda mud off every inch of my truck and trailer, as if I’d had them detailed. There’s always a silver lining.)

The weather did show some mercy and subsided to a light drizzle as I pulled in to the ranch and was greeted by the owners, Terry and his wife Janice. I was a couple hours ahead of the other girls, who were all leaving from work. The group had diminished from six ladies with horses to three with no horses – they’d agreed that there was little point in bringing their mounts given the threat of severe thunder showers, the horses’ unfamiliarity with e-fence paddocks (lightning storm, flat field, and potentially spooked horses did not seem like a good mix), plus the fact that Terry had advised them that the heavy rain had made the trails down to the river impassable, leaving only a handful of short trails up top to ride on.

I set Pai up in my own little personal e-fence corral (I figured she would laugh at the provided single-strand electric wire paddock as she walked right through it while wearing her winter coat, one that comes complete with neck cover: it’s like armour against electric wire), and when the rest of the posse arrived – Ann, Trina, and Kim – we spent the next half hour or so arranging and re-arranging our tarp set-up like a bunch of interior decorators plying with drapes on a reality TV show. Many ropes and bungees and guy-lines later, Ann’s big blue tarp, which was as massive as a circus tent, seemed like it might finally be showing some potential in terms of keeping the rain off us.

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Pai and the neighbouring tipi.

 

 

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Spy and our abode. – Photo: Ann Molina.

 

After a lovely late dinner and some time by the campfire, we moved the coals inside like cavemen, into the tipi’s firepit, and socialized some more before bedtime. Kim had spent two summers living in a tipi, and so she knew the ins and outs of maneouvering the poles to change the flap size in the roof. And yet somehow (was it the wine?), we managed to fall asleep with a rather large gap still yawning in the roof.

Remember how I said I slept like a baby through a memorably loud  thunderstorm at Cypress Hills? Yes. Well, I also managed to slumber sweetly through three ladies getting up in the night, swearing a blue streak as the rain positively hosed down into the tipi through above-mentioned hole, Ann stomping off into the night to sleep in the truck but returning without ever getting there because the monsoon was so torrential, and everyone cussing some more as they crashed around outside trying to close the hole without drowning. I snoozed away.

I did have an inkling, though, at 5:30 when I stirred, and found that my sheets, mattress, down duvet, and wool blanket were all soaked.  I was so cranky about my sodden bedding that I turned over and went to sleep again.

“Come sleep in a tipi,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.

Astonishingly, despite a forecast to the contrary, the sun came out the next day, and we laid stuff out to dry like we were having a yard sale. I decided to take advantage of the break in the weather and go for a ride, with a request for my compatriots to beg Terry, when he came around with water, to take my duvet away and throw it in his dryer. (I was emboldened by his clarification to the girls when they arrived: “It’s not a campground. It’s a guest ranch.” There you go. Guest ranches definitely put the wringing-wet duvets of their guests in their personal dryer. Definitely. It’s in the handbook.)

There is a lot of wildlife around the ranch. On my first morning walk with Spy, we cameacross an elk. The following morning, we saw some deer, and also a couple of moose.

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Step away from the moose.

 

Kim is a trainer who focuses on centred riding. One of the things she does with her horses is play Frisbee on horseback, and so on Saturday evening she gave Pai and me a little tutorial. I got some pointers on bareback riding as well.

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Just so you know, the helmet did go on a couple of seconds later. – Photo: Ann Molina.

With the good weather holding, we had a much drier evening, and, having mastered the tipi flap system, we had her closed up weather-tight that night. I had no need whatsoever to use the tarp my very caring tipi-mates had burritoed around my bed.

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A much drier evening. – Photo: Ann Molina.

The only excitement that night was when, after a great deal of wine having been collectively imbibed, I went out to take a leak, and noticed I couldn’t see my horse’s head above the grass. “Aw,” I said to myself. “She’s lying down. She’s so cute when she lies down. I’m gonna go look at my cute horsie.” Except when I went over, she wasn’t there.

For the most part, Pai has one thought on her mind, and it is: How can I get more grass in my tummy? When she ducked under the fence, there was little chance that she was doing anything other than finding more to eat, and sure enough, when Ann and I marched out to look for her, she was only a hundred feet distant, munching away. Brat.

Sunday dawned sunny, and stayed that way all morning and into the early afternoon. Kim rented a horse from Terry and Janice, and she and I decided to tackle the trails down to the river, which were reportedly OK. After several attempts to descend by various paths, we ended up aborting – some of the trail was reasonable, but a lot of it was variably boggy or slick with wet clay mud. It was a shame, because the views we got from the top made it clear that the ride to the bottom would be gorgeous.

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Kim on her trusty borrowed steed.

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View over the Red Deer River.

 

 

After our short (but very pretty) ride, we headed back to camp where Ann and Trina had finished packing up. Trina very generously sent me off with a table extender (basically, a wood panel) for her Coleman stove that I’d admired, and a bottle of homemade dill pickles (my fave).

For the record, sleeping in a tipi totally IS super fun.

Especially with this group of ladies, whom I hope to meet on the trail again someday.

 

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

Running Reins Ranch is in its first year of operation. It is located in Red Deer County, about 60 km east of Innisfail, along the Red Deer River.

You can sleep in a tipi (2, 4, or 6 person), or set up your own rig. There are electric wire corals provided, but setting up your own is also OK. There are outhouses; there’s a shower in a parked RV.  Prices vary by type of accommodation; our 6-person tipi ended up being around $80 a night. Some sites are fairly close together; others, like ours, are nicely tucked away.

The ranch has trails that descend to the river, but these become slick after heavy rain and are a bit of a nightmare to negotiate. There are also some top trails that are all-weather, but it doesn’t take more than half an hour to ride them, so if you want to go longer and can’t get  down to the river, there are the very quiet gravel roads to ride on. The rain we had was exceptional, but even if it’s been regular ol’ rain, it would probably be worth phoning ahead to check the conditions.

 

Terry comes by in the morning and night to refill water if you are too lazy to walk to the cisterns yourself. He will also deliver firewood (and, for us, start a stubbornly recalcitrant fire that refused to get hot after all that wet).

 

 

Home on the Range Deux: Return to Ya Ha Tinda – July 9-15, 2016

I left Donny Peterson’s ranch with Ya Ha Tinda as my destination, and with Brooks, AB as my way-point for overnighting. Just outside Brooks, the Silver Sage Community Corrals offers overnight accommodation for people traveling with horses.  When I phoned Darrell and asked how much notice he needed, the answer was “Next to none”.  Perfect.

On the road to Brooks, I saw that Shaunavon, SK was merely a hop  skip and a jump away. My sensible brain told me to just keep driving. The other side of my brain, the side that is in charge of getting me good food, said Woah, Nelly! So we made a little detour and got gas and rested the horse and I sat on the patio at Harvest Eatery and ate the world’s most delicious prawns. I texted a photo of my food (something I never do) to my blues musician friend David Gogo, the man who insisted last year that if I was anywhere near Shaunavon, I MUST stop there and eat. I did, and I was blown away. “Guess where I am?”  I texted. “Shaunavon??!” he asked. “Mmm hmm.”

I got kinda sorta lost looking for the Silver Sage facility, and between that and dining in Shaunavon and not taking gas stops into account in my estimated driving time, the sun was going down as we pulled in. No matter – there was still enough light to get Pai settled and me fed.  The centre is a superb place to stop for the night – Pai had a roomy outdoor paddock; there was potable water I could use to fill my tank, not to mention a very inviting ladies room in the arena, one which featured a shower. In the morning, Darrell swung by and we had a nice long chat as I broke camp and got ready to go.

Ya Ha Tinda was one of the three must-go places on this year’s trip (the other two being Cypress Hills and the Wood Mountain wagon train). Last year, I’d struck up a friendship with Ruth, who was looking after the camp on behalf of Tom Davidson, who pretty much runs the place, but who was home haying. Through Ruth, I met Rick and Jean, who are in charge of the ranch.  So coming back to Ya Ha Tinda was like another homecoming, with Ruth and Rick keeping an eye out for my arrival.

So yeah. About that rain.

I stopped in Sundre to gas up and do laundry and to pick up a few odds and ends. While I was getting gas, the most tremendous thunderstorm broke, with cracks of thunder so ear-splittingly loud that they made this storm-savvy Ontario girl jump. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard thunder that loud before.

It rained all freaking week.

I arrived on Saturday, and left on Friday. It rained every single day, sometimes torrentially.

I have my previous stay at Ya Ha Tinda to thank for making my most recent stay enjoyable. The memory of a couple of miserably cold, wet days made it imperative that this camping trip involve long underwear, an extra blanket for the bed, a drover’s coat, shitloads of firewood, and a canopy that lets me cook outside.  I also brought handwarmers and toe warmers for riding.  And bought myself a cheap cowboy hat to keep the rain off my neck. And was just generally prepared to the abysmal, wrist-slashing depression that camping in the rain usually engenders. I HATE being wet and cold. Indescribably so.

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A hat and a fire and Stanfields and rubber boots and a canopy make camping in the rain kinda sorta tolerable.

Upon my arrival, my camp set up, which usually occurs with military precision, was somewhat delayed by my fascination with my neighbours. They had two fine-looking mules, and the black one brayed almost constantly while I was getting organized. She cracked me up.  Apparently, she prefers to be ridden than to be packed, and one time made her opinion known by getting out of Dodge on a packing trip down in Lake Louise. She eventually turned up at Ya Ha Tinda.

My truck and trailer were covered in about a half inch of clay from the road. That, plus, when I went round back of the trailer to unload the steed, the door was already open. I’d lost my I-thought-was-utterly-redundant linchpin that secures the closure on my door cams, and hadn’t replaced it because the closure is so stiff I can barely open it most of the time. When I got to the ranch, the door was ajar. Presumably, my horse had been bouncing around inside, hoping for the best on the increadibly washboarded and potholed Ya Ha Tinda road, as the door swung around in front of her for god knows how long.

Rick, the ranch foreman, rounded me up for coffee on my first morning, and ferried me over to Tom’s tent. Tom is eighty years old and tough as nails, and is the de facto manager of the camps.  He was presented with an outfitters tent for his recent birthday, to replace the tarp house he called home for the summer. The new tent makes for a bright and roomy gathering place. And roomy it needs to be – one evening when I was visiting, there were thirty people in the tent, talking and singing and even dancing (thanks for the dance, Mr Davidson!). From what I gather, that is by no means a big crowd when it comes to get-togethers at Tom’s.

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Tom riding by my camp (bareback at eighty years old!), after watering his horses.

I spent quite a lot of time in that tent, listening to yarns told by men who had been riding and packing and hunting in those mountains for decades.  And I met newlyweds Dana and Kevin, who were camping and riding with their extended family and friends.

Our first ride, on Sunday, was out to James Falls, an easy three-hour ride we’d done before.

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On Monday, they were gelding and freeze-branding colts up at the ranch, and so I popped up to check it out and lend any hand that might be needed.  Vet Mike Wilson, of Pioneer Veterinary Services, was running the show. As he made short work of a big job – seven colts to geld, extract wolf teeth, vaccinate and freeze brand – he regaled everyone with stories and opinions on politics.

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Rick, Dr Mike, and Rob.

 

Parks Canada is in the midst of reintroducing bison to their traditional ranges, and so there were a few youngsters hanging out at the ranch, so the horses could become acclimatized to them.

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Bison at the ranch.

 

After riding alone my first two days, I was invited by an old roper named Marv to tag along with a group of friends and family (and another set of newlyweds, Jessie and Megan, who had gotten engaged at the falls two years prior) who were riding up to Hidden Falls. I’d done that trail last year, and it was well worth repeating – the falls are spectacular. Including me, we were a group of twelve – Marv, Brian, Ed, Joanie, Tim, Debbie, Diane, Jessie, Megan, and young fellas Lane and Seth.

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Watering the horses before crossing the river.

 

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Pictures can’t do it justice.

 

I hadn’t noticed, last year, the collection of flat stones on the west side of the creek, with names and dates of visitors scratched out on them. I added one for us.

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The river was running fast and high, and the horses had a bit of a tough time holding their course across it. Jean told me last year about one time when she was crossing the river and her horse got turned ass over tea kettle, with her upside down in the water. Good times.

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In Tom’s tent that night, as Alf played his guitar and a group of cousins sang along and a great deal of alcohol was consumed, I very subtly hinted that I would like to ride with Jim and his friends the next day: “I WANT TO RIDE WITH YOU! CAN I RIDE WITH YOU?!”

Jim and his friend Al collected me the next day, and made sure I rode trails I’d not been on before, with prettiness being high on the list of criteria for choice of route. Our trail wound through cottonwoods with grass growing lush between the trees, and wildflowers everywhere.

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Jim and Spy.

 

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Jim and Al on the prettiest trail ever.

 

Jim went home the next day, but Al stuck around, and I rode with him and his friend LaRue, father of Dana the newlywed. Her husband Kevin rounded out the group. We rode a nice five-hour loop that took us to a lunch spot on a high point overlooking the valley.

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Al and Kevin.

 

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Scenery was kinda okay.

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Looking towards Warden’s Rock.

 

We came across a small herd of elk, which Spy treated as if they were cows. They ran a little, but weren’t particularly concerned about the annoyance of a dog.

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By the time I was ready to go on Friday, headed to Red Deer to meet up with some girls for a camping weekend, I was so, so done with rain.  Most of the rides I’d done were mercifully dry, even though thunder storms and rain showers threatened in every direction, but  I was glad I’d experienced Ya Ha Tinda in sunshine the year before, else I’d have gone away with some pretty dismal impressions of the weather. Dana said they’d been coming this same week in July for fifteen years, and only one other time had it ever rained like this. My week there in July was like Vancouver Island winter: 10 degrees and raining.

But still. Camping with your horse in the rain still beats not camping with your horse.

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Hey Girl, House Calls, and Hog Roasts: Wood Mountain Wagon Train – July 3rd – 8th, 2016

I’m pretty sure I never imagined I’d enjoy being greeted by men with a “Hey, girl!” or “Hey there, Missy!”, but there you have it. I do. Very much so.

I  am 99% certain that the entire reason I like it is by virtue of the nature of the men who are doing the greeting, which is to say, men who remind me of all my maritime cousins and uncles: salt of the earth. The folks on the Wood Mountain ride remind me entirely of my PEI family.

When I left Cypress Hills on Sunday, my destination was Donny Peterson’s ranch out of Glentworth in southern Saskatchewan, on the margin of Grasslands National Park, which runs along the Canada-US border. I’d ridden with the Wood Mountain Wagon Train last summer, and as I stepped out of the truck, I was hailed by shouts of “Hey! Didja bring Klepto?”, a reference to Spy’s famously thieving ways. (One lady told me she didn’t know what his real name was – as far as she was concerned, his name was Klepto). Coming back to the ride felt like coming home. It was good to see familiar faces – Bob the driver of a black wagon team; his cousin Mark from Minnesota; Glen; Jerry; Darrell and Marie; the Anderson extended family; the Mennonite crew with the fantastic musical talent; Theresa (organizer of this year’s ride) and her daughter Jasmine; Jim and Lonnie from Manitoba.

Our camp set-up at Don’s was just about as perfect as you could get. I parked my rig next to Doug’s – he’d arrived, with grandson Ian in tow – just shortly before I did – and threw up a roomy e-fence paddock for Pai that was so abundant with grass I didn’t need to feed her any extra forage all week. With my trailer parked in such a way as to block the prevailing north wind, and with a view of my horse ten feet away in her paddock, it was a pretty sweet camp.

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The Wood Mountain Wagon Train, a ride which features a half-dozen or more wagon teams crossing the prairie accompanied by thirty to fifty outriders, has been an annual event for over four decades, with some families now attending with a third generation of riders. I am very much a newb in this crowd, but people did remember me from last year, and did remember that I am an animal doc. In perfect veterinary synchronicity, just as I was cooking my dinner on my second night there, I was beckoned, with no small amount of urgency, to come see a colicky horse. And, just as I laid my stethoscope on the horse’s barrel, the skies, which had been darkening for the previous half hour, broke loose with wind, torrential rain, and hail the size of gumballs.  The timing could not have been more hideously perfect. When I returned to my dinner a half hour later,  I was a drowned rat, my bowl of fish and potatoes ready to be turned into fish cakes was full of water, and the interior of my truck, whose windows were down, looked like someone had sprayed a hose around in there.

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Can’t run from a comin’ storm…

There were a couple of other minor house calls over the next few days, all non-critical problems which were already being treated just fine by the horses’ owners. The owners’ gratitude far exceeded the worth of my opinion.

We rode out daily for five days, on Don’s ranch and in Grasslands National Park. The first day, with more than a few horses excited about being in a group, and many nervous about the wagons, was a popcorn-munching kind of affair, with three involuntary dismounts, a loose horse, and some broken harness before the day ended. Pai wore a very pretty neon pink ribbon in her tail to warn all comers about her issues with personal space, and yet still twice ended up with horses right up her ass, whereupon some ear-pinned kickiness ensued. (“Back off, motherfucker! Too close! Too close!”) By day two, everyone had, for the most part, figured out how to keep their horses happy and avoid a gravity lesson, and things went more or less smoothly.

The riding terrain was grassy, wildflower-strewn hills that at first glance appeared to be rolling, but, when tackled, proved themselves to offer a steep climb. From the top, the vistas were endless.

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Doug and Ian.

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Pai at lunch.

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Our lunch stop on the first day was at the remains of an old homestead in a sheltered, treed draw. The buildings were constructed out of wattle – mud mixed with straw, packed into a frame of cottonwood branches. Nelson, whom I’d met with his wife Margaret last year at Cypress Hills, was knowledgeable about the construction, and was able to point out many of the neat little details of the house.

Nelson and Margaret had brought along their six-year-old granddaughter Emma, who was cute as a bug as she rode along on her solid, unflappable palomino. She always had a big smile, and a ready answer for all who teased her about the contents of her saddle bags (“I’m not sharing!”) and whether she would agree to sell her mount (“No!” “For a thousand dollars?” “No!”)

Cell service was pretty much non-existent on the ranch and in the Park, but if you walked a half a km or so up the road to the top of a hill, you were in business. These beauties – yearlings of Donny’s – came to get a better look at me one evening as I was sitting on a log, chatting to Mr Andrews:

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On Wednesday, the ride came in early so that those who wished – about half the camp – could head over to the annual pig roast in Canopus, a forty mile drive away.  I did not attend last year, and had no intention of going this year (what is the point of a vegetarian going to a pig roast?), but the promise of good baked beans and the offer of a drive swayed me.  It ended up being much like a PEI church supper, with everyone knowing everyone else, jawing about horses and farming and politics. I ran into Arliss, whom I’d met briefly on the last day of the ride last year, and had a good chat with her.

Doug was camped alongside his family friends Celeste and Earl and their teenaged daughters Josie and Sasha. On the way the pig roast, we stopped at Celeste’s brother Eric’s place, where he has multiple generations of black cats, not to mention peacocks and fancy chickens.

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Jack and his kitties.

When Earl’s mother Judy heard I’d never tried saskatoon berries, she sent me over a container full of ones she’d picked that day. (Delicious).

Between morning walks with Doug, and the attentions of Sasha and Josie and Doug’s seven-year-old grandson Ian, Spy was well-entertained despite not being allowed to ride out with the horses.  The pooch and I did take a quick horseback ride one afternoon with new friend Rod Annand, who is a long tall drink of water out of Mossbank, SK, and who rides a Tennessee Walker. Rod has a couple of German Wirehaired Pointers who make the insanely active Spy look like he is standing still. As we rode across a meadow, a couple of coyotes on the hillside watched us pass.

Thursday night is traditionally Games Night. I joined in the scavenger hunt with some of the Anderson crew, a hunt that had us chasing down a list of various flora and fauna of which we were meant to take photos to present to the judge (Mark from Minnesota). While we claimed no prize, we certainly ought to have, for something like Largest Number of Things Not Even Appearing on the List. We had photos of including, but not limited to, Spy, a revoltingly grody toe, deer and elk tracks (100% forged), and a cougar (selfie).

One of the many fun things about the Wood Mountain ride is the nightly campfires, with music. I’d brushed up my repertoire since last year, and was better able to keep up with Les Anderson (on guitar), and Brenda Peterson (on banjo) and her mum (on mandolin) and dad (on accordion) as they played (I have zero ear for music, though, and I still need someone to call out the chord progressions to me if I don’t know the tune). The family of Mennonites (all the names escape me) are a fantastically talented group of people, with girls who have perfectly angelic voices, and musicians who can happily play multiple instruments.

All good things must come to an end.  After a short ride on Friday, most of the camp started packing up to carry on to the Wood Mountain Rodeo.  Until the very moment we got back to camp, I’d not made any decisions about where I’d spend the night – stay over at Donny’s until Saturday, take Rod up on his offer to stay at his place (a garden to raid, a wine cellar, a sauna, a shower, laundry… So tempting!), or head out towards my next destination, Ya Ha Tinda.  When we got back to camp at 12:30, and after doing the math on driving time to Brooks, AB (and riding up the hill to where you can get cell service to confirm that staying there would be a go), I made up my mind and broke camp with Brooks in my sights.

If Cypress is my favourite place to ride, the Wood Mountain Wagon Train is my favourite bunch of people to ride with. Hands down.

Home on the Range: Returning to Cypress Hills – June 27-July 2, 2016

One of the great things about these vagabond trips I have taken with the steed has been the annual stopover I make at my friend Vanessa’s in Taber, Alberta. On my first road trip, to PEI, Vanessa offered to put me up, and has extended the offer every time since. Staying with Vanessa and her family not only feels luxurious after having lived in a horse trailer for a few weeks, but it also feels very much like coming home. Plus, there’s always great conversation and good food and, of course, wine.

And another thing about staying in Taber: I always learn some fascinating tidbit about the area. This year, I discovered that there is a group of people who are so pro-tar sands that they hate Prius drivers. They hate Prius drivers to the extent that Vanessa, who drives one has come out of a store to find that someone had horked on her car door handle. They hate Prius drivers to the extent that there is a club of folks known as Coal Rollers, who will slow down right in front of Priuses in their honkin’ big trucks, and then rev their engines and blast diesel smoke back at the offending Prius. Apparently, around Taber, they do it because Prius drivers are an affront, since their car purchase choice does not support their industry (by not burning enough oil). (Yup, you got that right. They’re driving around in big pricey trucks, all boo-hooey about not being supported better by families who might be a little less extravagant vehicle that lowers their gas bill). Adorable, hunh?

Pai and Spy and I only stayed the one night with Vanessa and Brady this time, but it was a delight. Pai was very pleased to be able to stretch her legs and munch grass in a paddock after having been high-lined for three nights.

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It’s OK – I can eat lying down. Really, it’s fine.

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Always has to be up on something.

From Taber, we carried on to Cypress Hills.

Have I mentioned it’s been raining?

And raining.

It has not been (praise be) the relentless days-on-end kind of rain you get, say, through Vancouver Island winter, but rather the kind of rain that cheerfully appears every afternoon like that annoying but persistent not-quite-friend we all have: “Hi! Hihihi! Here I am, coming to turn the trails into water slides and make that hill road out there impassable. No, no, it’s OK – you’re WELCOME!! And I’ll come back tomorrow and do it again, ‘kay?”

We had a thunderstorm on five of my six afternoons/nights at Cypress Hills. Luckily, we always made it back to camp before the rain hit. One morning, when the campground was awash with new puddles, a fellow camper exclaimed to me about how hard it had come down the night before, and what a thunderstorm it had been. I was astonished: “It thundered last night?” Apparently, it was a crazy, crashing thunderstorm, with torrential rain. I’d slept through it all.

I could blame my sound sleep on the several glasses of wine I’d imbibed, but instead I’m going to attribute it to my late nights and early starts. Despite staying up til around midnight most nights, I’d been getting up at 5:30 (ungodly early, for me) in order to go walking with my cowboy friends Doug and Marv, who go on a seriously motoring (I could barely keep up) 2-3 mile walk every morning. It was a good way to burn off some of the Spyderman’s energy before breakfast.

I’d planned my timing for hitting Cypress Hills around meeting up with Doug and his brother Rob and their friends for a few days before heading on to the Wood Mountain Wagon Train. Turns out Rob had some health issues and couldn’t make it, but I did catch up with Doug and Marv and Warren, the fellas I’d met last year at Cypress, as well as Blair and Marj and some of their other riding friends. By the time I got there, Doug and Marv had already been there for about 10 days.

Whether or not he wants to be, Doug frequently seems to end up more or less as the unofficial Trail Boss, since he knows the place like the back of his hand. I like riding with him, because he is careful of the horses, and is conscious of group safety without you much being aware that he is looking out for you. I would ride anywhere with Doug.

Our first ride out was with a group of ten people: Doug and his friends, plus a young couple – Carlene and Jordy and their Aussie dog Roxy – who had never been here before.

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Doug, Marjorie, and Blair.

 

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Climbing up from camp.

 

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Warren at lunch.

 

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The crew at lunch.

 

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Doug on Ace.

 

The next day was an absolute dead loss of a ride. By virtue of a thunderstorm that had interfered with my usual post-ride routine, I’d failed to check Pai’s feet at the end of the ride the day before, and hadn’t noticed that she’d pulled a shoe. When I clued in in the morning as I was tacking up, I threw on an Easy Boot and away we went.  I’ve no idea how she managed to do it, but somewhere along the line, she succeeded in completely trashing the boot. When I looked down, it was flapping around uselessly on her hoof. A short way into the ride, we hit cell service, and Marv returned a phone call to find that his good horse had ripped the side of its face off, and he was needed at home; he made plans to head out as soon as we returned to camp. A little later, we ran into nose flies, which are devilish little critters I’d never before encountered, little no-see-um type bugs that fly up into a horse’s nose and, depending on who you listen to, either fly around inside their nasal passages, or bite hard – either way, making the horses go pretty much crazy. They head-toss and run their faces on the ground and strike. Between the nose flies themselves (which didn’t seem to bother Pai so much as rev her up), and contending with horses who ran off ahead to escape the annoyance, my mare turned into a maniac, getting awfully light in the front end and dancing around like a horse about to run the Belmont. Cranky horses and frustrated riders were all back home after two hours or so.

Fortuitously for me, Marv happens to be a retired farrier who carries his shoeing equipment with him when he travels, and despite having a sore back that was acting up, not to mention having a need to get home right some quick, he insisted on putting a new shoe on my horse before he left, and, of course, being the sweet soul he is, refused all payment other than a beer. Godsend.

Our third day’s ride was a pretty loop around to Fort Walsh. Doug led us out with a gang of riders from Manitoba.

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Riding with the Manitoba crew.

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My fourth ride, on Canada Day, was arguably the most gangster ride of my life. By then all Doug’s crew had pulled out, except for Warren and me. Warren was keen to ride to the Mystery Rocks, and I was totally game. Rather than take a direct route, my trusty leader decided we should go via the Cougar Caves, and thence did our troubles begin. Little did I know that my guide has exactly zero sense of direction.  We did not pass the Cougar Caves. Not even close. (I know this because I went there the next day with some riders who knew the lay of the land). And our entirely circuitous route to the Mystery Rocks involved intensive bush-busting, some fuck-you fence dismantling (and reconstructing, of course – thank god for my Leatherman tool – the sum of which made me wonder whether we were going to get thoroughly scolded by some rancher on whose land we were trespassing), and more than a few moments of “Go back, or push on?” That being said, the only time I verged on getting a little testy was when Warren disappeared into the bush, and stayed gone. He’s a bit deaf, and so I had no idea whether the fact that there was no answer to my hollers meant that he was splayed out near death on the ground somewhere, or that he simply hadn’t heard me. I’d just gotten Pai tied to a tree and gotten myself prepped to go find him on foot, when he reappeared.

Oh, and I also lost a pair of ridiculously expensive Serengeti sunglasses along the way. Those and the Buff Wendy Bush had given me on my first trip across the country. Bummer.

We did get to the rocks, by a route that was in all likelihood the longest ever recorded. At one point, Warren said, “I’m glad you’re still talking to me.” I said, “Oh, I’ll talk to you. Not sure I’ll ever ride with you again, but I’ll talk to you.” (When all’s said and done, we had a pretty good day of riding, had a lot of laughs, covered a lot of ground, and saw a lot of landscape. A day on a horse is a day on a horse, no matter whether you end up where you want to or not.) Time clocked: just over eight hours. And the cherry on the cake was in the last 10 minutes of the ride, when we came upon a herd of calves who were utterly blasé about our approach until the very last minute, at which time they decided we were The Devil, and scattered in a panic. Except for one physically inept calf, who skidded on the slick mud slope and fell over and tumbled down under Pai’s belly. She is a very good horse to have put up with that kind of crap at the end of a very challenging day. She thought about freaking out, but she stood.

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Mystery Rocks, at last. I’m STILL having fun.

 

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Fort Walsh from up high.

 

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Warren on the last leg home… a mere hour to go…

 

One of the things I most enjoy about camping with my horse is the camaraderie you find at a lot of the equestrian campsites. Cypress Hills is top of my list for horse camping, not just because of the wide-open riding available, but because of the atmosphere at the campground. It is a very social place, and a lot of the riders have been coming for decades. Although my intention was to meet up with Doug and Rob & Co., I ran into four other groups of people who remembered me from last year. One such group was a bunch of gals – the excellent Ellen, Dawn, Jeanie and Linda – from Pilot Butte near Regina, who come out to Cypress annually over Canada Day. I spent my last day with them, since they were sweet enough to invite me along on their ride to the elusive (see above) Cougar Caves.

After a nice little three-hour ride on single track through woods and across meadows strewn with wildflowers and dancing with butterflies and dragonflies, a ride that involved no bushwhacking, no fence crossing, and no stifled internal cussing whatsoever, we returned home for a dip in the creek that runs past the campground, and then on to wine tasting at Cypress Hills Winery, which you pass on the way in to the park from Maple Creek. The vineyard has been operating for 10 years, ever since BSE took its toll on the owners’ previous enterprise, cattle ranching, and they had the ambitious dream to start a winery in southern Saskatchewan. We tasted some delicious fruit wines, toured the garden, and had a picnic lunch on the patio.

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Dawn, Linda, Ellen and Jeanie.

 

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Cypress Hills Winery.

 

The ladies invited me (well, invited Spy, but I got to tag along) to join them for dinner as well. It was the perfect way to end my visit to Cypress.

I think Cypress Hills is my favourite place to ride. (Seriously, this time.)

Camp and Trail Notes for Horsey Folk:

Camp and trail info can be found at the end of this 2015 post.