Rockies horseback trek a uniquely Canadian experience
I've never met a horse I liked, and I've never met a horse that liked me.
So when my travel editor sent me an e-mail asking if I liked horses, I pondered the question, flashing back to the four times I had been on a horse and how uncomfortable I felt the entire time.
I read the e-mail further. It was an invitation to a week-long horseback riding trip through the backcountry of Banff National Park with the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies (TRCR) -- a non-profit group that has been operating luxury trail rides for 92 years.
Exploring the backcountry sounded lovely -- but on the back of a horse?
A few months later, I was on the 23-km (six hour) ride from the staging area at Minnewanka Lake to Flints Camp.
Much to my surprise, I immediately felt comfortable on my short, stocky horse named Wombat as we trotted along an old fire road through the forest, then zig-zagged across a few streams.
"This is my backyard," said my guide Shane, who knows this country like the back of his hand and proudly shares stories of encounters with bears.
On this day, however, the only wildlife around is a curious white-tailed deer hot on our trail.
A few hours later we arrive at camp, where the other guests have already been staying for three days. The camp is equipped with two-man tents that have raised beds with mattresses, an elaborate kitchen-dining tent, outhouses that smell like flowers and a shower with hot water. An electric fence surrounds the camp to keep out wandering wildlife.
I sit down beside a wood-burning stove and warm my frozen hands.
Laughter fills the tent as the other guests share stories about their ride that day.
Within an hour, I'm eating a delicious home-cooked turkey dinner complete with mashed potatoes and two types of stuffing.
Now this is camping, I think to myself.
Feeling only a hint of pain in my back from the long ride in, I was pumped for the three-hour ride to Rainbow Lake the next day. And so was Wombat.
Our friendship grew as we crossed several streams and effortlessly charged up steep paths with sharp drops on one side. We were in sync like dancers at a Britney Spears concert. I finally met a horse I liked, and a horse that liked me.
"This is where you really get to see what a mountain horse can do," says Shane as he leads the group.
The endless sea of trees and craggy rocks touching the sky makes me feel like a fly speck in this wild and untouched landscape. It's ridiculously peaceful. The only noise is the clip clop of horses' hooves. Places like this are good for the soul.
We get off our horses at the lake to eat lunch and soak in the beauty. The crystal clear water reflects the surrounding mountains like a mirror. Yellow, blue and purple wild flowers dot portions of the moss-covered shores.
Given its remote location, Rainbow Lake is a place few people will ever get to see, and one TRCR President Stuart Watkins never gets tired of experiencing.
"I enjoy seeing the back country, much of which is not accessible any other way except by horse," says Watkins, who started with the TRCR in 1968.
The organization was instrumental in establishing backcountry travel long before back-packing and tourism became popular in the Rockies. They are a part of western Canadian history, offering the chance to experience the cowboy life.
"I enjoy being "disconnected" from the world: No cell phone, internet, and being with people that are of the same mind -- getting away and enjoying each other's company in the beauty of God's creation."
-- In July and August TRCR will operate six, six-day rides in Waterton National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Alberta. Cost is $2,772 plus taxes per person and includes camp accommodations, meals, use of horse and horse tack, return transportation between Calgary and the campsite, and TCRC membership. Discounts are available for returning riders. For information and reservations, visit trailridevacations.com.
-- Riding experience varies from very little to years in the saddle. Each day riders explore lakes, valleys, glaciers or mountain passes.
-- The idea behind Trail Riders of the Rockies was conceived in 1923 by a group of 14 riders who were camping and fishing along the Kootenay River.
-- Riders come from across Canada, the United States and overseas. Some guests have been on 30 or more rides with the TRCR.