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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.