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.
From Taber, we carried on to Cypress Hills.
Have I mentioned it’s been 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.