It's a Nice Day in the M-K
I always thought
a rodeo was a big event that took place in a little town and
featured bullriders, bucking broncs and real-life cowboys. Little
did I suspect that I would one day star in my very own rodeo and
live to tell the tale. This is that story.
The cry from the
front of the line sent shivers racing down my spine.
One by one, I
watched in horror as the horses at the front of the pack train
charged wildly forward, bucking and whipping, their riders hanging
on for dear life as trees with jagged branches whizzed by.
Within seconds I
was swept along in the wave of panic with my horse as it crashed
down the trail with reckless abandon. The goal was simple:
hang on at all costs. The prayer equally as simple: please
let me hang on at all costs.
Four days earlier,
there had been no inkling of a life-threatening stampede through the
wilds on my horizon.
I had been working
quietly in my office in Canmore, Alberta, Canada when the phone rang
and an invitation was extended; would I like to take part in a
two-week horse trip in the northern Rockies, in a wilderness area
the size of Switzerland, as remote as Siberia? Of course I would.
My decision was
made even before I considered the fact I had only been on a horse
once before, more than 25 years ago at the ripe old age of ten.
I’d survived that one-hour ride just fine, thank you very much, so
I didn’t see a problem with going on a slightly longer journey
aboard an equine friend.
In a whirlwind of
activity I tied up loose business ends, bought a whack of new gear,
film and food, and embarked on a 19-hour drive north through the
Canadian Rockies, bound for a little lake in the middle of nowhere
on the Alaska Highway where I was to catch a float plane that would
take me to meet a horse and a destiny with small stinging insects.
The first signs of
doubt surfaced an hour before I arrived at Muncho Lake. Like a man
going to meet his mail-order bride, I suddenly realized exactly what
I was doing. My horse expertise began and ended with ‘Whoa’
and ‘Yup, that there’s a horse, fer sure;’ yet here I was going on a
two-week horse trip in the wilds with five people I’d never met
before and thirteen horses I’d definitely never met. What had I
The plane ride in
provided a glimpse of the terrain and trials to come. We flew for 30
minutes above a glistening ribbon of water which snaked its way up a
broad tree-choked valley, then the plane abruptly turned up and over
spectacularly steep and rugged-looking open high country
nestled amid snow-capped peaks. After 45 minutes in the air we
descended from the high country, flew low over a large river valley
and landed on the first of a series of beautiful lakes set deep in
the boreal wilderness.
Welcome to Wayne
Sawchuk’s trapper cabin. Sleeps one, set your tent up over there.
is the single largest piece of undisturbed wilderness south of the
60th parallel in the world.
Wayne saw its potential 20 years ago and began leading horse
trips into the heart of the M-K in an effort to raise awareness for
the area to ensure that it remains intact and wild, a strategy that
has proven effective as the M-K remains largely protected from
At the front door
of Wayne’s cabin we were more than 90 miles from the nearest road,
more than 300 miles from the closest town, and just feet from that
moose right over there, see him?
The first day I was
informed we had to go “get” the horses. I had no idea what that
meant, since I assumed that the horses were somewhere close by, like
in a corral or similar fenced-in area. I was quickly informed that
there were no fences for a few hundred miles, so yes we did have to
go “get” the horses.
We departed the
cabin in rubber boots and raingear and five miles later found the
horses upriver in a small meadow. Five miles of walking gives a man
time to think, time to formulate a strategic plan for ‘horse
management’; I planned to be calm, stay calm and act calm.
That lasted exactly
twelve seconds, after which a very large horse moved in my
direction. A new strategic plan took effect immediately; I let those
who knew what they were doing take control and watched safely from
I remember asking
which horse was mine and being told, “Your horse is Cassiar.
He’s one of the black ones.” My wandering eye immediately
focused on a giant of a horse, deep dark black and ominous-looking,
basically the kind of horse that all beginner riders have nightmares
about. Thankfully, my
gaze was redirected to a mini version of the monster and I
immediately decided that Cassiar, though also jet black, was far
from ominous-looking with his slim build, sleek coat and thin white
blaze across his forehead.
I would love to
tell you how I walked up to Cassiar and hugged him and we lived
happily ever after for two weeks of bliss on the mountain trails.
Reality is a much darker creature, unfortunately, and I spent the
next few days too scared to go anywhere near the horses as they
grazed around Wayne’s cabin. Instead, I focused on preparations
for our journey ahead across three major rivers, over four high
mountain passes and down a long winding valley to the Alaska
By the time the big
day of our departure aboard the horses came, I was a nervous wreck
and could barely talk. The horses all looked huge and dangerous; yet
some part of me couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of
moseying down the trail on the back of a horse like the explorers of
Cassiar for the first time that morning and to my amazement, he did
not attempt to crush me, step on me, bite me or do anything out of
order. In fact, he looked at me with his big black eyes and barely
moved as I was taught how to saddle him and put his reins on. As the
day wore on and the packing of our gear and the horses concluded, I
got more and more thrilled at the prospect of riding this
magnificent animal through the wilds of Canada’s northern Rocky
At 2 p.m. on Day 4,
I leapt into the saddle and we were off. Not even a minute down the
trail I thought to myself, “This is amazing, what a life!”
Nine minutes later
I was hanging on for dear life, the cry of “Bees!” ringing in my
Note to self:
horses do not like bees, so avoid them at all costs. Most horses
stampede wildly at the sight or sound of even one small bee. In bush
lingo, this is called a ‘rodeo’, where all the horses in a pack
train do everything in their power to escape the bee threat. So nine
minutes into my first horse ride in 25 years I was a star in my very
own rodeo in which I hung on for dear life and prayed that I would
continue to hang on.
Whether or not
you’ve ever ridden a horse before, it doesn’t take a genius to
realize that charging madly through the bush on the back of a horse
is not necessarily something you want to do often. Or ever. The fact
we got to do it 10 to 15 times that first day as we encountered
beehive after beehive was bitter icing on the proverbial cake. Sure,
it was a beautiful sunny day and yes, indeed, that river crossing
was fun, but truth be told, I was absolutely terror-stricken and
adrenalin-laced most of the day and didn’t have the time or the
energy to take in my surroundings. Completely and utterly pooped by
nightfall, I skipped reflecting on the day’s events and opted
instead for the comfort of my sleeping bag immediately after dinner.
I awoke at 5 a.m.
in the dark in the middle of nowhere to the pitter-patter of a
steady rain. For one of
the few times in my life, I questioned myself; did I honestly have
what it took to do this? Was I hardy enough? I was sore and
exhausted and I had finally realized the magnitude of the adventure
I was on.
My tent-mate Mark
and I got up first that morning at 6 a.m. and started the fire,
collected water and cooked breakfast. It was the start of a daily
routine that in retrospect seems like pure craziness.
Up at first light,
do breakfast, get horses, break camp, saddle horses, and pack
horses. That would take
five hours, minimum.
From there, we’d
actually get on the horses, then ride or hike for hour upon hour
over steep rocky terrain, through soggy marshes and soaking wet
forests, across turbulent little streams and pristine alpine
We’d be hot one
minute, freezing the next, completely dry, then soaking wet. This
went on until it was nearly dark, at which point a camp was picked
and the horses were unloaded, hobbled and set to pasture, the tents
were set up, the fire was started and dinner was cooked.
They were long days
at a long time of year in a harsh wild country. But as each day wore
on, as each storm came and went, as each saddle sore stung a little
more, something odd happened to me.
innocently enough. On our second day of riding we didn’t encounter
a single hornet nest or any yellow jackets. Not a bee to be found.
So I took some time and looked around and began to take in the
magnificent mountain vistas around me. I also looked beneath me for
the first time since those initial nine minutes and started to
wonder what my horse Cassiar was all about.
And Cassiar, like
many a horse before him, was all about eating.
It led to our most
prominent series of battles, for I was of the opinion that when the
pack train was moving, Cassiar should also be moving. Cassiar, on
the other hand, felt that if I had been dozing at the wheel as the
train moved along then it was his god-given right to sneak in a
quick bite of that tasty grass on the side of the trail and if it
held up a few horses behind him, then so be it.
By the fourth day
on the trail we’d hatched out an agreeable, albeit tenuous,
compromise; he could eat if the pack train was at a standstill, he
could not eat if the train was moving.
Of course, when it
came right down to it, Cassiar often did as he felt like. This was
exacerbated by the horses directly in front of and behind him, his
good buddies Tuchodi, the black monster horse that had given me
nightmares on the first day, and Gataga, another giant of a horse
whose eye stood a good six inches above my six-foot, three-inch
beautiful, muscular, chestnut-coloured animal, was basically a wild
and crazy guy in a horse’s body. If the trail went right, he went
left. If the jellybeans smelled good, he tried to have some. And if
the air smelled like trouble, he rolled his eyes back into his head
and charged off in whatever direction his legs took him.
Cassiar’s half brother, was equally unbalanced. As huge and
dangerous-looking as he appeared, he was a big softie at heart and
an even bigger wimp. At the first sign of anything, real or
perceived, he’d get all antsy and literally shake on his hooves.
And when something as horrible as bees were present, you cleared the
tracks for Tuchodi or risked dieing in his mad plunge through the
two best pals, I was lucky enough to have a constant escort from
Gataga and Tuchodi. Gataga always went in front, choosing horrible
routes across rivers and creeks and causing havoc where there was no
havoc to be caused, and Tuchodi in behind, irritating Cassiar with
his attempts to butt in front (a no-no in the horse world where
every horse keeps his spot in the train or all hell breaks loose)
and occasionally causing mass stampedes by kicking and writhing
furiously in a mad race off into the nether regions of the bush for
no apparent reason.
As the days piled
up, the things that should have been disheartening – the rain, the
snow, the long slogs up terribly crooked mountain passes, and the
constant battles with Cassiar and his buds – were dismissed, even
My dreams of
moseying down the trail on my trusty steed had been replaced by
reality. I was there,
in the wilds of the Muskwa-Kechika, astride a beautiful horse in a
beautiful country, moseying each and every day to my heart’s
I found myself
slowly starting to dread the end of the trip. I’d have to say
goodbye to Wayne and to the four other incredible new friends I’d
made from Idaho – Mark, Jan, Al and Jerry. I’d have to say
goodbye to some of the most beautiful and haunting terrain I have
ever seen. And of course I’d have to say goodbye to the horses, to
Paint and Percy, Buck and Spunk, Gataga and Tuchodi, and to Cassiar,
my newfound best buddy.
On our final day in
the high country we stopped in a place aptly named Heaven’s Pass
and set up camp in the midst of a stand of krummholz; stunted tiny
spruce trees growing together in a clump to best ward off the harsh
weather of the pass environs. I spent my 36th birthday
watching Cassiar graze off in the distance in a setting that would
make Hollywood swoon with desire. I spent it with strangers in a
strange place with a tiny campfire in rain and snow and sleet, and
it was the best birthday I’ve ever had.
I awoke that night
when Wayne called out into the night, “Northern Lights!” and for
the next hour watched the skies dance above our tents to the north.
The next morning,
we started down the final valley towards the Alaska Highway. We
spotted stone sheep and caribou and moose and spent a great evening
camped along a river, eating campfire popcorn and swapping tall
tales. And on the second-to-last day, for the first time in almost
10 days, we saw signs of other humans.
A trip that started
with a phone call ended with a man and a horse standing on a
transport truck ramp in a pullout on the side of the Alaska Highway.
It didn’t seem quite right, but a few words were said, a few tears
For Cassiar, it was
the start of 10 months of ‘horse heaven’ hanging out with his
buddies on winter range, not a soul to be carried, not a pack to be
hauled. For me, it was the start of something suprising, a love
affair with horses, and the end of something magical, a trip back in
time to an era when men and women explored this great country on
horseback, a trip into a wilderness wild and free.
Henry David Thoreau
once wrote, “all good things are wild, and free.”
May the M-K stay that way forever.