The air was chilly in the morning,
but it warmed up quickly. I
stopped by the kitchen tent and filled my tin cup with cowboy
coffee; I was getting addicted to the stuff.
We heard bells, and went down to watch the horses come in
to the corral. We
spent a little quality time with Sparky the collie; he was only
about a year old, and quite playful.
We had a super breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, pancakes,
and cinnamon rolls left over from the night before.
And to think we had wondered if the food would be edible!
The horses arrive at the corral in the morning.
The wranglers saddled up the horses for the day's ride.
Pete, Paul, Pat and Rob were all staying behind to rebuild
the hay shed; it was quite old and the logs had become rotten, and
besides, Lois wanted it moved over a bit to make more room for her
rutabaga garden. Today's
trail leader was Mark, Sparky the collie's owner, and he was
assisted by his girlfriend Alyssa and several of the other younger
We set off in a different
direction from the day before, but again soon headed uphill.
I had feared Magic might be exhausted after the previous
day's exertion, but she seemed fresh and eager to go.
Jineen and I were scouting for wildlife, but these younger
wranglers seemed less in tune with nature than Pete and Paul, and
between the guys talking loudly and Sparky running about, we
figured we had little chance of seeing bears.
Mark and Sparky
After about an hour we came out of the aspen forest to a
log cabin at the edge of an open field.
Mark told us it was a trapper's cabin, but it looked more
like a summer home. It had a nice front porch with homemade log
furniture and great mountain views.
We climbed about two thirds of the
way up the mountain before stopping for lunch.
We tied the horses to trees and sat on a grassy ledge with
an aspen forest at our backs.
Before us was an unobstructed view of the Smoky River
valley and the mountains beyond. We
cooked hotdogs on a fire, and searched the slopes across the
valley with the spotting scope, looking for wildlife.
The high powered hunting scope could pick out animals that
were miles away, but there were none to be seen.
relaxed in the sunshine, enjoying the day.
Everything was quiet, peaceful, almost a little sleepy.
But suddenly there was some excitement - two elk ran
swiftly across the meadow just below us, dodging in and out among
the bushes. Having
spent the better part of an hour searching with the scope for
animals on mountainsides over a mile away, here they were less
than 100 yards from us!
Then it was time to be on our way.
Everyone was just getting to their feet and packing up, and
I happened to be the only one looking down the slope when it
happened: two grizzly bears loped across the meadow below us.
They were moving fast, the sun gleaming on their brown
backs as they darted in and out of the underbrush, following the
same path the elk had taken. I
pointed excitedly and no doubt babbled incoherently, but by the
time the others looked in the right direction they were gone. It
was a brief encounter, but it was really exciting to see the bears
in action. I wonder if
they were hunting the elk?
We headed on up the mountain.
The trail was steep in places, but easy to follow, and much
less severe than the terrain we had covered the day before.
At the top, we stood on a large flat rock outcropping above
a pond and admired the spectacular vistas all around us. The
Smoky River wound through the valley below like a silver ribbon,
with steep mountain slopes rising beyond it. Looking
off the back side of the mountain, we could see the town of Grand
Cache in the distance.
On top of the ridge.
We tied the horses to the tops of some small scrawny pines,
the only trees at the summit.
It wasn't long before Jineen's horse Thunder managed to
entangle himself, wrapping his lead rope around a hind leg.
Unfazed, he stood calmly on three legs with the ensnared
limb held awkwardly off the ground while we extricated him by
slipping off his halter.
When we rode into the camp, we were impressed to see that
the new hay shed was complete.
Slightly smaller than the old one it replaced, it was built
of sturdy logs, and the tarp roof was suspended on a brand new
frame. The doorway was
narrow, and had a log across it four feet from the ground; people
could duck under, but it kept the horses and mules out.
We congratulated the men on their efficient building
skills; we were amazed at how much they had accomplished while we
were out on the ride.
Presently it was time to head back
down. Mark had us lead
the horses down the steepest part of the trail, to the shelf where
we had stopped for lunch. Walking
the horses down that precipitous path on foot seemed rather risky,
and we were slipping and sliding under their feet. I
was in the front, and ended up well ahead of the others for much
of the way. Approaching
the area where I had seen the bears earlier, I had my camera
ready; I was imagining scenarios where I took a great photograph
of a massive grizzly, towering on its hind legs in front of me.
It did briefly occur to me that if the guides carried
rifles because of possible bear encounters, then perhaps I
shouldn't be so far ahead of the group . . . but as fate would
have it, I encountered no more bears. Just
as well, I am sure.
We returned to camp about six
o'clock, after spending seven hours on the trail.
By now I had gotten quite used to the western saddle, and
my aches and pains were minimal.
It had been an excellent outing, though lacking the
exaltation of the previous day's ride.
The New Shed
We sat around the campfire, sipping our wine and talking
with the others guests. Jineen
and I particularly enjoyed talking with Pat, who was very
insightful and seemed interested in many of the same things we
were; he was taking a leave of absence from his job to spend time
in the wilderness. Louise
and Shelly had bought the trail-riding trip at a charity auction;
Pete donates such rides to a number of organizations that promote
conservation of the wilderness areas.
We learned that Shelly had won a bronze medal at the
Olympics in Tae Kwon Do; what are the odds that out of four guests
in camp, two would be former Olympians?
Paul was an expert with a
chainsaw, and had been the primary log cutter on the shed-building
project. He sawed a
wafer-thin slice off the end of a log to show Jineen and I the
pattern of the rings; the trees were very old, though so far north
at high elevation they were not very big around.
Sitting by the campfire, Paul told us that he had enjoyed
seeing us ride, and that he was impressed with how we sat our
horses going down the steep mountainside the day before.
This meant a lot to us, because from the start we had
admired Paul's horsemanship and his quiet alliance with the
It was steak night.
Pete lowered an iron grill that was suspended from the
rafters down over the campfire, and cooked thick steaks over the
open flame. They were
perfection - juicy pink on the inside, charred on the outside; it
might have been the best steak I have ever tasted.
We sat around the fire and talked
long into the night. Pete
described the hunting operation, and told us stories from past
seasons. We went to
bed after midnight, to the sound of raindrops pattering on the
tent. I drifted off to
sleep, thinking about mountain rides, and campfires, and horses
grazing on the wild mountain slopes in the night. Yes, I think Drifter would
like it here . . .
In the morning the sky was clear
again. The horses came
into camp early, and the wranglers ushered them into the corral.
Lois served us steak and eggs, bacon, and camp-made
biscuits, washed down with cowboy coffee; it might have been the
best breakfast I have ever had.
Pat took Jineen and I berry picking in a meadow down past
the corral. Everything
seemed clean and fresh after the night's rain; the sky was cobalt
blue and the aspen boles glowed white in the morning sunlight.
We sampled the ripe mountain raspberries, freshly
rain-washed, sweet and delicious.
When we came back past the corral
the horses were sleeping. Magic
was the only one on her feet, standing under the tree dozing - the
rest were all lying down or flat out.
I wandered along the stream beside
camp. Though the creek
was fairly small, it was surrounded by a wide rocky bed, which was
no doubt a raging torrent during the spring snowmelt.
I built a cairn of stones on the shore, thinking to myself,
I'm leaving my mark - I wonder how long it will stand?
It was time to head back to civilization.
We were sorry to leave; we would miss Pete and Lois, and
life at the camp. We
left our belongings to be loaded onto the pack mules, and prepared
to mount up. It was
with regret that Jineen and I said goodbye to Paul - we were like
kindred spirits. Pat
led us, along with Louise and Shelly, as we rode out ahead of the
pack string toward the park gate. We
walked slowly, looking for wildlife, but all we saw were a few elk
tracks. Magic and
Thunder were probably looking forward to seeing the last of us;
they would get a week to rest before the next group of riders came
Shelly and Louise
We took a side path to a high waterfall.
Tying the horses, we climbed down to the base of the falls
and stood in the spray, the noise of the water echoing in our ears
Before leaving the park, we followed an excellent tip from
Pat, and drove to the end of the road to a place where two rivers
join. We followed a
path along the top of the cliff - it climbed several stone
staircases and took us to a series of four overlooks, each higher
and more spectacular than the last.
The Sulpher River came down through a narrow steep-sided
gorge, passing between tall stone cliffs and merging dramatically
with the larger Smoky River - hence the name Sulpher Gates.
The chalky grey-green waters rushed below us, while the
rays of the afternoon sun highlighted the bright hills beyond,
framed by rugged peaks in the distance.
reaching the staging corral at Sulpher Gates, we said goodbye to
the horses, and to Pete and Lois.
Spending four days in their wilderness camp had been an
unforgettable experience, and we had made new friends.
The Sulpher Gates
After four days in the wilderness, it seemed a bit strange
to return to places with roads and houses, and not altogether
appealing. We drove
south, back towards Hinton. We
passed a coyote by the side of the road, picking at a carcass.
Finding an area with cell phone service, we pulled over on
the side of the road to call home.
Jineen and I like to explore the
smallest roads we can find, and the evening is a great time for
spotting wildlife. We
had several hours until dark and we wanted to make the most of
them. Following a sign
that said Viewable Wildlife,
we turned down a small gravel road to Graveyard Lake.
We parked by a beaver dam and walked along a tiny path
beside a broad stream. The
trees and the evening sky were reflected in the mirror surface of
the still water.
The Beaver Pond
Back on the highway, we turned down another little side
road, which the map showed would take us into a provincial park.
After several miles we drove by the Black Cat Guest Ranch,
but beyond that we came to a full stop.
The road ahead of us was blocked by two rather immense mud
holes, each about 40 feet across.
Not wanting to drive through them without testing their
depth, I got out of the car and threw a large rock into the first
mud hole; it disappeared with a plunk and a splash, giving the
distinct impression that the water was at least several feet deep.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, I
put the car in reverse and backed up.
(Oh well, we've done it before - see Ireland
In the waning evening light we headed down a small byway
towards the town of Brule. We
turned off on a tiny dirt track which followed the top of a ridge
overlooking the river. Soon
the track became rougher, fainter - this was just the scenario we
had avoided telling the car rental guy about when the subject of
the vehicle's ground clearance came up.
Before long we came to an impressive overlook; the river
below us gleamed silver in the evening light, and the last rays of
the sun were illuminating the rocky peaks in the distance, causing
them to glow with a warm light.
Finally arriving in Hinton around ten o'clock, we had
dinner at the A&W fast food place, the only restaurant in town
still open at that late hour.
We checked into the Twin Pines again, and got the very same
room we had stayed in the night before we went to Willmore. We
drifted off to sleep listening to the cars go by, and missing the
quiet of the wilderness.