I’ve hesitated to write about the Hedley cattle drive which took place this past weekend, not because I haven’t wanted to but because I haven’t known where to start.
I could, I suppose, start at the beginning….
- the predawn meet-up at Grassroots Ranch where Deb had Brie and Georgia ready to load into their trailer
- the drive along the Fraser valley in the emerging light of day, a snaking mist rising off the tree-line marking the course of the river
- the stop into Thomasina’s in Princeton for fresh-baked biscuits and tarts
- the righthand turn off the highway into Stirling Ranch, picture perfect in the autumn sun with black cattle grazing against a rolling pasture of valley green
- the introductions to other ranchers and cow hands, everyone busy with parking their rigs and unloading their gear and horses.
Then again I could start by describing our camp on the side of the mountain…
- the 7-kilometer ride up the Stemwinder through Ponderosa pine then Douglas fir forest to get to it,
- the grind of on-coming logging trucks that kept Sarah and me on high alert around the tight bends of the switchbacks
- the tents Deb and Terri had pitched in a mountain meadow valley bordered by stands of birch and trembling aspen
- enough ground fall to keep a fire going for days (and Terri’s fire-building obsession stoked!)
- the horses under their bright fleece warming blankets chomping hay along the high line
- the earth-rumbling “what-was-that?!” bellow of a bull in the distance and the answering, low-to-the-ground moo of his harem
- the big fry-ups for breakfast cooked over the open coals (eggs, potatoes, bacon, ham and havarti)
- the thin layering of ice that covered the entire camp, our tent zippers included, when we awoke the first morning
- the stories of the days adventures at the campfire, Sarah’s aluminum-steamed potatoes, Hafiz readings and Deb’s campfire cocktail: hot chocolate with whiskey
Or I could start with our cattle adventures (after all it was a cattle round-up!):
- the challenges of locating isolated herds of 3-4 cow/calf pairs scattered over a tract of land 60-90 kilometers square across mountainous terrain
- the first morning out tracking cattle and the herd of 8 that almost ran Terri over. (Unbeknownst to us Deb and Sarah had flushed it out from the far side of the mountain.)
- the boggy incline that was so steep Sarah lost her footing in the stirrups and was hanging on to the back of her horse by a finger
- the herd we thought we’d chased down the mountain a time or two already only to find that they had double-backed and had taken up residence in our camp – eating the horse’s grain out of the back of the pick-up no less
- the obstinate bull to which the camp dogs, Coola and Jackson, gave chase. (On the last day it took 3 riders, 2 hours to corral the bull down the mountain to the feed lot.)
So you can see my dilemma, there are so many worthy launching points to tell the tale of the Hedley adventure. Tell you what, I’ll keep it simple and begin at the same place where I’ll end, the place the locals call “The Top of the World”…
- Terri and I rode up there late afternoon of our second day in camp. I had always imagined that “the top of the world”, were I ever to reach it in my lifetime, would be a sheer ice precipice or a jagged jut of rock but on this day I learned otherwise. The top of the world, my friends, is, in fact…. a pasture!
- An undulating plateau of dry, wind-blown grasses so high up the view below is dizzying. To the west the sun was skimming a drift of cloud above waves of interior mountain ranges lapping into each other. And deep in the valley below the dark line of the Similkameen River.
- We took the horses along the high fence line and looked out over at the old
Mascot gold mine where miners huts are perched precariously on the edge of a towering rock face.
The horses were “feeling big” (as Deb would say) and broke out into a gallop along the skyline pushing our riding skills to that edge where terror meets exhilaration. It was one of those moments in life (of which I’ve been granted more than my share) where you breath deep and say, “This is why I am here: to live this moment on this day in this place.”
Thanks for believing in us Deb, and, Brie and Georgia, for your amazing stamina. It was an opportunity we’ll never forget (and we are already making plans for next year!)
(Photos courtesy of Teresa Coulthard and Sarah Garretsee)
Today was the third day of heavy rain with no sign of letting up. They are calling the consecutive waves of wind and drenching rain the first of the lower mainland’s “winter storms”. Water was gathered in large pools out in the fields and on the gravel road leading up to the barn. A few hardy horses in dripping overcoats stood nibbling hay seemingly undeterred by the weather. I found Gosha puttering around inside the barn keeping all the systems dry and clean and functioning. Traveller looked out over a stall door and watched her work. I gave him a rigorous head rub. He whinnied. Does he recognize me? I need to learn more about “horse language”.
I was lulled into the mesmerizing quiet of the barn’s interior where I stood sheltered from the downpour. Traveller and I watched the chickens pecking at the soggy ground for a long while. No doubt this will be the first of many wet Mondays to come. I’ll have to get myself better outfitted and learn what it takes to ride in the rain!
Thanksgiving Monday. The sky was dishevelled as we drove out to the ranch this afternoon, some clouds scattered, some stacked in a haphazard way, messy like a teenager’s room. I was surprised to see all the horses clad in checkered horse blankets. Gosha said these nylon overcoats are necessary now with the cold night air and risk of rain. My 14-year old son Oliver helped me bring Traveller in from the field then groom and saddle him. Oliver has always been a bit intimidated by horses but the hands-on work of brushing Traveller’s coat, combing out his mane and even shovelling his droppings put him at ease as he began to experience firsthand the unique movement and manner of a horse.
I rode Traveller around the outdoor arena, working mostly on maintaining a steady gait as I transitioned from walking to trotting to loping and back. The sky cleared in that window of time and the sideways-streaming light of late afternoon filled the valley.
On the car ride home we passed a field with a lone maple ablaze from top to bottom in the consuming red of autumn. “The burning bush”, 15-year old Abigail observed aloud from the back seat past the noise of her iPhone and her headphones and the other-reality-distractions inside her teenage head.
I’m new to horses. I only really started riding last spring. So I speak from limited experience when I say that Traveller is a good horse. But I’ve heard others say it so I know my assessment is not too far off.
This is not to say that Traveller doesn’t have his uppity moments when he wants to “run the show” as Deb says. Apparently this is “the thoroughbred in him”. Like when we were out on the dykes last week and he was determined to turn back toward home long before we had any intention of doing so. Nor is he above a testy head toss or a nose prod if saddling up is taking too long, as it usually is with novice riders like myself.
But those aren’t the things that stay with me after spending an afternoon with Traveller. Rather what stays is something I can only describe as a type of kindness. It comes from the way he looks at me obligingly when I approach him in the field with the lead shank, and the way he nuzzles in against me when I give him a soft brush along the side of his face, and the way he stands patiently in place while I mount then dismount because I’ve forgotten my helmet then mount and dismount again to fix my stirrup length.
Traveller is an old horse as far as horses go and Deb was telling me over lunch at Cheesecrafters about his varied past. He was raised and trained as a calf roping horse then was later scouted for a dude ranch in Maple Ridge. After a stint as a privately-owned recreational horse he was returned to the land to herd Highlander cattle. All of that before being delivered into Deb’s hands three years ago where he’s giving the last of his working years to teach us urbanite wanna-bees to ride like cowboys.
It’s strange the affect a horse can have on you. I left the ranch today sad to bid Traveller adieu even if only for a week. He, incidentally, was completely indifferent as regards my departure, far more interested in the sweet-smelling scatter of hay at his feet than in my random comings and goings. I know he’s not my horse. I like to think I have stakes all the same.
Deb and I took Bree and Traveller out along the dykes today. It was new country for me and my longest ride yet. The dew was heavy on the ground like water, sagging drips on the undersides of rails as we set out through the paddocks behind the barn down to the river. Traveller was sporting a new pair of dazzling shoes that picked up the bright glint of sun from a cloudless sky. Golden Ears rose large on the immediate horizon like a cardboard cutout propped up from behind and in the distance, a range away, the slate grey peaks that mark the far side of Whistler.
The dykes were put in a hundred years ago by industrious, water bending Dutch immigrants for whom holding back the sea is an ancient art. They create a patchwork of high riding trails that look down over cultivated rows of blueberries and cranberries, each crop tidy in its own segregated quadrant.
We stopped atop a small marsh where the South and the North Allouette rivers merge and watched a noisy flock of Canada Geese arrange and rearrange themselves in preparation for lift off… to?….Ohio?…the Bahamas?…the next field over? The horses rested and ripped at the grass along the bank. Deb says that giving them free reign (now I know where that expression comes from!) helps counter their urge to race home and “get silly” at the turning point.
We picked up our pace on the return trip with Traveller breaking into a mane-flying lope at every opportunity on the open stretches. Clip-clopped across the bridge, then sped through the dappled woods dipping up and down on the twisting narrow trail, the heavy overgrowth of summer whizzing by at our sides.
It was an exhilarating way to mark the fall equinox and attend to the change of seasons, both in the natural world and in the turning of our lives.