“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).