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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.