Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta, Canada
SUMMER, 2010

Day 3 - July 30

We woke up early, full of anticipation.  Today we were heading to the Willmore Wilderness Park.  Just north of the Jasper National Park, this 4,600 square kilometer wilderness area has no roads and allows no motorized vehicles; the only access to the park is on horseback or by backpacking.  We had booked a four-day riding/packhorse/camping trip, and the outfitter had promised to take us to areas that few people ever see.
The night before, we had dragged everything we had brought on the trip (which was about twice as much as we should have) into our motel room for repacking.  Coming out in the morning, we had more bags than we checked in with; the people at the Twin Pines must have thought us strange.  Figuring we'd better have a meal while we could, we stopped for breakfast at McDonalds; we didn't know what the food would be like on the trail, but we had visions of cold canned beans and burnt hotdogs.  Fortunately we had packed plenty of granola bars in case we needed some sustenance to tide us over.
We had booked the trip with a guy named Tyler.  Actually, he was our second outfitter; originally we had made arrangements with another guide, but about a week before leaving for Canada we found out that he had skipped town after cleaning out the bank account, taking our deposit along with him.  So after a few frantic phone calls and some word of mouth recommendations, we found Tyler, who had made last minute arrangements for us to ride and camp with his father Pete's outfit.  
We phoned Tyler to find out where to meet him - but rather than giving us directions, he told us to come to the town of Grand Cache and then phone him again.  Aside from the International Roaming charges being accrued by my cell phone, this made us a little nervous; he'd better answer when we called back!  Suppressing mental images of wandering around Canada unable to reach the elusive Tyler, we left Hinton and headed for Grand Cache, 152 kilometers to the north.
We left the mountains behind, driving through a forestry area, where mile after mile of rolling hills were planted in pine trees. But as we neared Grand Cache we could see mountains to our left again, and as we climbed up onto the plateau where the town was sited, the scenery was once again impressive.  Grand Cache is a small town, but apparently its usual population was doubled that weekend, as long distance runners flocked to the area for the 'Grand Cache Death Race,' a 70 mile foot race through the mountains.
We stopped at a gas station for fuel and phoned Tyler again; he said he would meet us in 10 minutes.  He asked us if we had bathing suits for the hot tub in camp; ha-ha, very funny, a little cowboy humor, we supposed.  But  true to his word, he showed up shortly, horse trailer in tow, and told us to follow him.
We turned down a gravel road and passed a sign for the Sulpher Gates Provisional Recreation Area.  Following the horse trailer in a cloud of dust for several miles, we mused that the name Sulpher Gates sounded somewhat hellish, but Tyler did not appear to be the devil, and eventually he led us to a small parking lot, with a corral filled with horses, mules and wranglers.
Tyler introduced us to our horses; mine was a palomino mare named Magic.  She was sturdily built, mostly Quarter Horse with a touch of Percheron.  Tyler said she was gentle enough to take his 4 year old daughter riding on.  Jineen's horse was a chunky grey called Blue.  We left our duffel bags with the wranglers to be brought into camp on the pack horses, and stowed our cameras, water bottle and rain gear in our saddlebags.  Before we knew it we were mounted up and heading out on the trail with a young wrangler named Rob.  He was riding an attractive bay Morgan /Percheron cross, and carried a rifle in a scabbard on his saddle, presumably in case of bears.   

We headed off through the woods, climbing steadily.  To our left we could catch glimpses through the trees of a wide greenish-gray river far below us.  We followed a wide path up and down steep hillsides, roughly parallel to the river.  The trunks of the aspen trees glowed white in the sunlight. 
After a while, we came out into an open meadow where we could see rolling hills sloping up to tall mountains on our right.  Rob pointed out an elk in the glade; it moved quickly away, much more wary than those in Jasper.  We stopped on a ledge above the river and looked across to the mountains on the other side.  It was a beautiful warm day, with blue sky and puffy white clouds.

Riding through Willmore

     Magic was a pleasant ride; she was very steady and quiet, but forward thinking and eager to keep up.  Jineen found Blue's gaits less than comfortable.  The western saddles were very different from what we are used to, but actually quite comfortable.    
     At first Rob did not seem overjoyed to have drawn the job of taking us to camp - I am sure leading trail riders, many of whom have no experience with horses, is not a wrangler's favorite task.  He kept the pace to a walk for quite a while before checking out our equestrian skills with a bit of trot.  When that didn't faze us, he reined in, gave us a devilish grin, then turned and slapped his horse on the shoulder with the end of his reins and took off at a quick gallop.  I think he was testing us - these east coast Yanks say they ride, let's see if they can really ride.  Looking back to find us keeping pace with him and grinning, he seemed satisfied.  After that, having apparently passed the horsemanship test, our walking was occasionally punctuated with sharp gallops, and Rob was much more friendly and talkative.  He did indicate that galloping with the clients was not usual procedure.   
After about two hours, we crossed a rocky stream and arrived at the camp.  A loose collection of tents, log buildings and corrals were set in a clearing amidst a poplar forest, beside the swift flowing brook.  I immediately thought the camp had a friendly feel, and this was quickly confirmed upon meeting Lois, who was Tyler's mother and the camp cook.  An immediately likable person, she gave us cold ice tea and a plate of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever tasted, still warm, just out of the wood burning oven.  

The Camp

     After a brief stop, we rode back out with Rob to find the 'day riders,' the other trail riders from the camp.  Magic and Blue were less than thrilled to go back to work.  Rob took us in the direction he thought the other riders would be, navigating through a complex network of trails.  Glad to have a guide familiar with the area, we commented to Rob that he must know every trail out here like the back of his hand.  But no - he informed us that he had only just joined the outfit a few days earlier, and had never ridden out in this direction before!  But despite this we soon met up with Pete McMahon, Tyler's dad and the owner of Sherwood Guides & Outfitters.  Pete's outfit mainly takes hunters out in the fall to hunt bighorn sheep, but also does a few trail riders in August.  He was riding with Louise and Shelly, the only other clients currently at the camp; they had never ridden before, but were very game to give it a try.  
The group was heading back to camp, but Pete asked one of his experienced wranglers, Paul, to ride on with us for a while.  Jineen's horse Blue made an unsuccessful attempt to return to camp with the others.  We followed Paul back through the woods.  Before long we forded a small river, belly deep; the horses struggled for their footing against the swift current.  

Crossing the river with Paul

      Paul fit one's mental image of the old cowboy, sitting tall and easy in the saddle.  Talking with him, we learned he is from Switzerland, and that he works as a horse wrangler around the world.  He goes to the Yukon every summer, and then comes to Pete's outfit in Willmore for the autumn.  When the hunting season is over he goes to Australia for a few months (while it is summer there), then back home to Switzerland in the spring.  He has been with Pete and Lois's outfit for quite a few years.  He has a soft-spoken and gentle way with the horses, and it was evident that he is a gifted horseman.  Jineen and I immediately took a liking to him.
     Paul led us through the trails at a walk for a short while, then gave us a short gentle jog.  Seeing that we appeared competent, he gave us a mischievous look, muttered "Look out," and then took off suddenly at a fast gallop.  Magic and Blue kept pace with him, and we seemed to have once again passed the test.
We came out to a bluff high above the Smoky River, where we dismounted and walked around, stretching our legs and taking photos.  The water below was a chalky greenish gray, and the current looked very swift.  Remounting, we followed a half-blazed trail that skirted right along the edge of the cliff, often at a severe sideways slant.  In places the trail was only eight inches wide, which was a bit of a problem, since Magic's width was more like a meter.  My heart was in my mouth repeatedly, but our sure-footed mounts traversed the ridge like mountain goats.  Once we stopped in a very precarious position while Paul dismounted to saw a small pine tree that had fallen across the trail.  
Magic was very willing and compliant, and nothing seemed to faze her.  Paul told me that she is chainsaw broke; he taught her to stand while he starts up the saw and cuts trees above her head while mounted.  Everyone seemed to like Magic; many of the wranglers at the camp commented how nice she is to ride.  She is a truly versatile horse: Tyler lets his little daughter ride her, and Paul chainsaws from her back.  She will tolerate riders who have never been on a horse before, carry a pack, and tie up to a tree - yet she is forward and keen with plenty of spark. 

The Smokey River 

      We finally came away from the cliff edge, to my great relief, and followed a small path down to an old trappers cabin by the water.  We let the horses drink from the river, and then headed for camp.
We got back to camp at 6:00 o'clock, having ridden for about four hours.  Not an excessive amount of time in the saddle, but they were saddles we were not accustomed to, and our leg muscles were protesting.  I realized that in the western saddle I needed to ride with longer stirrups to take some of the strain off my knees - I would remedy this the next day.
Arriving in camp, we found the corral full of horses, and quite a few saddles rested on the racks near the hitching posts.  The other wranglers had arrived, and they helped us untack.  After currying the horses off, the wranglers would give them a handful of oats, put a bell on a heavy leather strap around each one's neck, and then turn them loose in the wilderness for the night to forage for themselves.  They told us the horses often range for miles at night, but they usually aren't too far away from the corral in the morning.  The horses rolled in the sand near the corral, and then wandered off up the mountainside.
     Our duffels were waiting for us, having been brought into camp by pack horse.  We took our gear to our tent, and then explored a bit.  Everything in the camp had been either built from logs cut in the forest, or packed in on the horses and mules.  We learned that they had just opened the camp for the season a week before our arrival, and were still in the process of packing in equipment and setting up, preparing for the autumn hunting season.  

Kitchen and Campfire

     Central to the camp was the kitchen tent, with floor, table, benches and counter all made from sturdy boards, cut from trees near the camp.  There were several wood stoves as well as a gas stove, and a sink with running water, piped in by a hose from the stream.  The long table would seat at least a dozen, and in lieu of chairs were the plastic tack boxes used on the pack horses, spaced around the table, to be straddled at mealtime.  A campfire outside the kitchen was sheltered by a tarp lean-to, with roughhewn log benches and chairs around it - this was the evening gathering place. 

The Corral 

     There was a semi-circle of hitching posts where the horses were tacked up; the rows of western saddles were covered by oilskin tarps at night.  A split log corral was nearby, where the horses stood during the day if they weren't working.  A shady spot was designated for shoeing the horses, with anvil and farrier tools by a hitching post, and stock horseshoes stored hanging from the branches of a pine tree.  There was a log storage building with a tarp roof for hay and equipment, and a well stocked tool shed.  All of the food for people and the hay and grain for the horses had been packed into camp. 
The sleeping tents were supported by log frames, each with a wooden floor, army cots, and a wood stove.  There was a log outhouse with open slatted sides nearby; this turned out to be one of the least endearing features of the camp, a spray bottle of Fabreeze being the only thing that made the smell tolerable. 

Home Sweet Home

     The ingenuity that had gone into the building of the camp was impressive.  A section of the stream had been diverted for kitchen use; a gravity flow hose brought running water to the kitchen tent, and a wide pool served as the camp refrigerator, with the drinks and other perishables floating in the cold water.  We were gratified to see that our bottles of wine, which had been placed in the grain and packed in on the mules, were bobbing in the refrigerator, chilled and ready for happy hour.
There was a spacious  shower tent with a stone floor.  Water was piped from upstream by a gravity flow system, heated in a woodstove, and delivered delightfully hot to the shower head.  And yes, incredibly, Tyler hadn't been kidding after all; there really WAS a hot tub!  Built out of logs, lined with plastic sheeting, the water was heated to a glorious 104 degrees in the shower wood stove, and circulated by a pump powered by a solar panel.  I asked Pete how many the hot tub would hold; he replied that it depended on how friendly they were, but at least eight.  He told us that he built it because a friend had bet him that he couldn't.

Refrigerator and  Hot Tub.

     At the end of each hunting season, the camp is totally taken apart.  The log frames and furniture are left, the heavy stoves are hidden, and pretty much everything else is packed out on the horses and mules.
Other than the guests, there were about a dozen people in camp.  Pete was presumably in charge, but Lois, as cook, was arguably the most important person there. Paul was the head wrangler and in charge of the horses, and Rob, who had led us in to camp, did the shoeing.  A half dozen others worked as wranglers, log cutters, builders, guides, or whatever else needed doing around camp.  Some of them seemed to be employed by Pete, and others were friends there for a working visit, or students who had come to learn about wrangling and the wilderness.  It was a friendly group, and there was an easy sense of companionship among them.  One of our favorite occupants of the camp was Sparky, a beautiful collie dog who belonged to Mark, a young wrangler that worked for Pete. 


Pete and Lois

     Lois treated us to an excellent dinner of homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, roast beef, salad, and fresh baked bread, and we polished off a bottle of the Stoneleigh along with it.  So much for having brought granola bars in case the food was bad!  We ended up giving those to the horses.
After dinner everyone sat around the campfire and talked; we learned a lot about life in the camp.  Pete said we would be going into the high country tomorrow.  We told him we wanted to see bears.  
The sound of bells let us know the horses had come back into camp for an after-dinner visit; they browsed around a while before heading back out to the bush.  It was almost eleven o'clock when we went to our tents, and being so far north, it was not yet fully dark.  
We were armed with an
insect coil that Pete had given us to burn, telling us it would kill all the mosquitoes in the tent; it gave off an acrid odor when we lit it.  We weren't sure it might not kill us too, but we figured it would probably kill the mosquitoes faster.  Sure enough, after half an hour the tent was insect free and we were still alive, so it seemed to be working. We rolled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep, wondering what chances the morning would bring.

~ Continued on next page ~

Canada 2010 Pages:           3                     (next)

Back to Phyllis's Travels Page