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It's a Nice Day in the Muskwa-Kechika


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 been thinking??

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.  

The Muskwa-Kechika 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 outside interests.

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 the sidelines.

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 Highway.

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 old did.

I approached 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 Mountains.

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 ears.

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 meadows. 

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.

It started 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 frame.

Gataga, a 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.

Tuchodi, 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 forest.

Being Cassiar’s 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 embraced.

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 content. 

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 shed. 

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.

Muskwa-Kechika
Photo Gallery

Click on thumbnail images to view larger photos


Mayfair Lakes


Wolf Tracks


Horse Packtrain


Lost Creek


Caribou Skull


Mountain Pass


Morning Glory


Bevin Valley


Bevin Lake


Heaven's Pass


Northern Lights


Cassiar and John

 

For more photography from the Muskwa Kechika please visit the Image Library

 


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