Don’t Ride the horses in Alberta

>Back in British Columbia after my tour in Alaska and the plan was to get immediately back on the road. Brenda, Jamie, Braeden and myself took off for the Interior which seems to be any place which isn’t on the coast and isn’t too far north in the province.

We drove through the beautiful scenery of Fraser Canyon, Fraser River, South Thompson River and the North Thompson River. It was quite dry throughout but very impressive regardless.

My swag of Canadian brochures included one for the Hells Gate Air Tram. It looked entertaining enough on paper but when we got there it was a lot less interesting. Although it only cost $12, we decided against it and happily continued our way. A slight mix up in Cache Creek took us to Clinton, which wasn’t really such a good idea as we were trying to head to Kamloops in the opposite direction.

Eventually we drove through Kamloops without stopping and then headed to Falklands where we stopped for the night with relatives of Brenda’s. Their property was beautiful and backs on to a small clear stream and has a big mountain right behind it and pretty much mountains everywhere else as well. I didn’t spot any wildlife there apart from two spiders. This is possibly because of the fires, which were so close that the town was on a one hour evacuation notice.

We took a drive up a mountain via a logging road hoping to spot wildlife. There were a few squirrels, a chipmunk and a long way off there was a single bear which no-one else saw.

Continuing on through the interior we drove through Vernon, Kelowna and it’s many lakes, Penticton and finally stopped in Osoyoos for the evening. These are the areas that were under fire threat at the time, but a week after I left they had massive fires in which over 200 houses were lost and the whole region was considered off limits for tourists.

Osoyoos is supposedly in the region of Canada’s only desert, which is pretty weird as it appeared quite fertile to me. For starters there were vineyards and orchards, not to mention big lakes throughout!

Our final stop for this road trip was Manning Provincial Park, which is where I was supposed to see bear! When we first arrived I went for a 1.5 hour hike. In distance it was probably between 500m to 1km. The terrain wasn’t steep or otherwise difficult, it just took me forever as I stopped to view the wildlife every few steps. First I saw a squirrel which I suppose are common in Canada but we don’t have them at home and they are so cute. The I wandered another 20m and stopped to watch some ground squirrels. After lying on the ground watching them for a while I wandered off to a trail called Little Muddy Trail. Luckily it wasn’t muddy for me.

Soon into the trail I had my usual visions of seeing bear and although none materialised, I did spot some elk just off the trail. They didn’t make a noise so I think it was just luck that I spotted them through the bush. Two of them were sitting on the ground relaxing. I didn’t move for a while as I didn’t want to startle them as they would definitely win that encounter.

I then continued my huge long hike as the weather changed from blue sky with fluffy white clouds, to dark sky with big fat heavy raindrops. This marked the end of my hike.

The next day I hiked Three Falls Trail which is supposedly a good trail from which to spot bear. Unfortunately I didn’t see bear or any wildlife really. Brenda, Braeden and I hiked a little way together before they turned back and I was on my own. No a problem until I saw a bear danger sign meaning that you may spot them and in the event that you do, you really shouldn’t be alone if you would like to stay on this side of the bright white light. Fortunately for me there was a group of hikers not far behind so I waited and hooked up with them for greater safety.

In the end there were no bears to be seen and as the name of the trail suggests, we did see three waterfalls. The end of this trail marks my first effort at driving in North America. Brenda was brave enough to let me drive the dirt road by myself which included only one turn back into our accommodation. I passed with flying colours.

Before heading back to the suburbs we drove up to Valley View and then Blackwall Peak. Remember these places if you should ever wish to feed squirrels and chipmunks as they’re pretty happy to come up to you here and enjoy a feast. We stopped for about an hour to feed them (I didn’t see any signs saying don’t feed the wildlife). They were so cute and as I sat there quietly they happily came up and ate ‘spits’ (sunflower seeds) from my hand, gently resting on me and crawling over me. I’m a sucker for cute critters so this was a highlight.

The last wildlife encounter for the day was seeing a very large ‘quarry’? marmot.

On the way home (meaning my Vancouver home for about six weeks) we stopped briefly at Hope Slide which was the site of a landslide in 1965. 48 million tonnes of a mountain collapsed during a minor earthquake and covered a 3km stretch of the old highway, covered a lake, and raised the elevation of this area 30 metres.

Well, after the road trip I spent a good deal of time working out my next move. I had three plans for which I can tell you the cost, the time and all sort of logistics for each one such was the level of detail of my plans:

• Plan A: Head back out to Vancouver Island, go bear watching in Port Hardy and then catch ferries along the coast to Alaska.

• Plan B: Head back out to Vancouver Island, go bear watching in Port Hardy, catch a ferry to Prince Rupert and then train it to Edmonton via Jasper.

• Plan C: Catch a train from Vancouver to Edmonton via Jasper.

It wasn’t until I caught up with a friend in Whistler the next day that I realised I needed to be in Edmonton before the end of the school holidays. The reason being that my friends there are teachers and would be heading back to work having no time left to play with me.

As for Whistler, it’s clean, very touristy but definitely nice. Due to the weather (rain) I didn’t stay there too long but it was a good day as I had a look around and caught up with a friend (G’day Terry) whom I hadn’t seen since High School. This was unfortunately too quick but such is the nature of my poor planning.

The next day I activated Plan D – flying direct from Vancouver to Edmonton.

A huge thank you to Jamie and Brenda for setting the highest Canadian standard in looking after me at their place. Mentions also go out to Braeden and Chloe (the cat that I never saw) for entertainment. Of course I could never forget sweet Lexy, my four legged pooch friend who is now addicted to treats and is very special. I honestly had a wonderful time staying with you all and will be sending all my backpacker friends to your doorstep.

So that takes us to Edmonton, Alberta where I again have some lovely Canadian hospitality in store with Bruce and Kendra.

My second day in Edmonton was supposed to be a hot one so we headed out to the West Edmonton Mall to escape the heat. The mall was a mall, a big one as far as malls go, supposedly the world’s largest. It has a ship inside it, submarines, a putt putt golf course, a rather large amusement park, and cinemas … but for the record I only saw two book stores!

The most exciting thing of all at the mall was seeing three orphaned black bear cubs. They were only seven months old and for a small donation you were able to have you picture taken with one … but more importantly, I got to pat one. I didn’t so much care about the photo, just that hopefully the money will help them have a better life.

A day or so after that I went on another road trip. The first stop was at the newly opened Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. The bear cubs I saw at the West Edmonton Mall live here as well as a few other bears and animals.

Straight to the bears was where I headed and waited in the heat (yes it does get hot in Canada) for the bear talk/demonstration. As I waited, three young black bears were playing together. As they played together they were purring which actually sounded like doves cooing. Their interaction generally seemed to be a little bit of play fighting, running around, but strangest and cutest of all was when two of the bears appearing to be suckling on the ears of the third bear and would do this for several minutes at a time.

Eventually a lady arrived to introduce us to her bears who were actually movie stars from Dr. Dolittle and Jungle Book. One big black bear was a little shy but of beautiful temperament and always wanted to hold mum’s hand.

Next we were introduced to a bigger bear, a Kodiak Grizzly Bear. During the demonstration, the trainer educated us about human behaviour and bear behaviour, specifically about encounters in the wild, how to avoid them and what to do if it’s unavoidable. The thing that stuck most in my mind was that it’s actually better for all of us to see these animals in zoos. I personally do not agree with animals in captivity but her argument was that seeing a bear there allows us to view them in a pseudo natural environment and more specifically, reduces the amount of human interaction with bears in the wild. Bears in the wild can lose their fear of humans if they see us stopping our cars to watch them, so that’s a plug for this wildlife park.

Finally there was one more bear that we would meet, another big grizzly with a different repertoire of trained behaviours and this is the bear that I got a big wet kiss from. My photo opportunity cost me $20 but being so close to such a big bear was priceless, and again the money is for a good cause. I should also mention that I held a skunk and patted a baby raccoon.

We eventually had to leave there and continue on our way to Drumheller. We drove around town and saw replica dinosaurs on almost every street corner. You can probably guess then that this town is renowned for its dinosaur fossils. It is supposedly the site of the greatest number of complete dinosaur skeletons of the Cretaceous period anywhere on the planet.

We drove a little way out of town to East Coulee to have a private tour of PAST which is a dinosaur modeling business which makes dinosaurs for museums around the world.

On our way back to Drumheller we stopped at the Hoodoos which I suppose are basically rock formations. They weren’t as big as we expected, for that I think you have to drive further out into the badlands.

The Royal Tyrell Museum was next. It is full of dinosaur exhibits and would have been pretty interesting if there was about 10,000 fewer people there so you could actually see something.

We headed out of Drumheller to the fire plagued Canadian Rockies region, specifically Banff. Usually from a distance you would be able to see the mountain but the fire haze meant we couldn’t see anything until we were almost on the mountains.

Banff was nice. Beautiful surroundings but unfortunately very smoky. I took a trip up the Banff Gondola but could really only see smoke. Many trails in the region were closed due to the extreme fire risk. With no hiking to be done there we headed out to Lake Louise which was quite beautiful, still smoky and packed with people like myself … tourists. It was a good thing we went there that day as the next day when we drove through the area the smoke was much worse. Even walking down the streets in Banff, ash was falling on us and from the hotel balcony it looked like it was raining ash.

We stopped for a little while at the Columbia Icefield which was pretty spectacular. We rode the snocoach onto the glacier, wandered around and hopped back on which doesn’t sound very interesting but it was!

After that we headed to the last place on our road trip, quaint Jasper. A much smaller place than Banff but offers similar activities such as hiking, rafting and skiing. Yet again there was plenty of smoke and we didn’t really do much so I think in the end, whilst it was a nice road trip, I will have to return to Alberta one day and drive through Highway 93 again.

That was it for the road trip, now time for some Canadian culture. Nope, not the Edmonton Fringe Festival, that finished before we got the time to go there, I’m talking about the Canadian Football League. The Edmonton Eskimos were playing the Saskatchewan something’s. People turned up with painted faces and bodies and several wore watermelons on their heads … which is a curious thing. It was a good game and I’m sure most of the crowd were pleased as Edmonton won. Luckily I understood most of it as I know many of the rules of NFL … still it’s not as good as Aussie Rules … GO PIES!

Later during the week I caught the bus downtown and checked out Edmonton. Soon enough it started raining which foiled my plan of wandering around so I didn’t do an awful lot but organised the next leg of my journey which was to head south a few hundred km to Calgary on the bus.

As per my efforts in planning my trip to Edmonton, I was faced with the dilemma of where to go after that. Taking the train across the prairies was one option and the preferred one but a tricky time constraint where I have to be in Winnipeg by Oct 10th meant that wouldn’t be wise. I would have to kill too much time in central Canada by which time Eastern Canada would be getting too cold to head there late in the year. So the train trip across the prairies is now officially out the door and I am flying all the way east to St. John’s in Newfoundland. I’m actually pretty excited about this (not the price of the flight, just going to Newfoundland). So rather than being in Toronto in the near future as I had last broadcast, I will now be in Newfoundland and soon enough Nova Scotia. If anyone’s there, let me know.

So the reason I need to be in Winnipeg by Oct 10th is that I’ve been proactive and booked my polar bear trip. It’s costing over $2,000 US dollars for three nights … convert this into Aussie dollars and tell me about it!!! It would have been even more expensive if not for me somehow managing to talk two of my new friends from my Alaskan tour into joining me. Yep, Ruud and Donna are flying in from the Netherlands and England respectively! In truth I think I did little to talk them into it as the polar bears are amazing enough to not need much persuasion.

And finally, perhaps the most interesting tale of this email is my horse ride which Bruce’s dad and his friend. We headed east of Edmonton to Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area where along the way we spotted quite a few buffalo and drove past the interesting looking Ukrainian Heritage Village.

To begin with, any horse ride has to include getting on the horse which proved a little difficult. I’m kind of short and the horse was kind of tall. If the stirrups had been a little lower I may have managed to get my leg up there. Instead I had to settle for an undignified boost, then lying, struggling, wiggling and shifting before I was able to sit up in the saddle. I think all these things should be video recorded.

Our ride took us through beautiful scenery, trees throughout, lakes everywhere, beaver dams and squirrels on the ground and the occasional hawk in the air. We slowly wandered along on horseback, increasing speed only to jog up an incline and it continued at this lovely relaxing pace until something strange and rather scary happened. No it wasn’t a bear … my horse, Tar, bolted for no apparent reason. Something spooked him and he was off like a rocket. For about 1.6km of this 8.3km trail he charged along refusing to respond to my requests to stop either by voice or pulling back on the reins. The only thing he did respond to was direction so we managed to stay on the widest, safest trail, which luckily was also the trail back.

For a good portion of the ride from hell I was still sitting well in the saddle hoping that Tar would eventually respond and stop. Then I started getting worried and started swearing in the faint hope that this would help. Then as Tar started hugging the edge of the trail, meaning we were too close to the trees for comfort, I began thinking of escape routes. The two guys I was riding with were nowhere to be seen so my hopes of rescue were slim. This was really only a minute possibility anyway as they were 70 and 74 years old and perhaps wouldn’t chance the hard ride to catch me. My only other option was to jump off the horse. This wasn’t really the best scenario as I didn’t know what could happen to the horse. I certainly didn’t want him to run away. The other thing that bothered me was that at the pace we were travelling, I could be seriously and unhappily injured.

I decided to stick it out a little longer but it seemed to get worse. We were travelling so fast that my old faithful baseball cap was coming off. I tried to keep it on but decided it was a better idea to hold onto the reins and stay focused on staying on the horse. So off it flew and we continued.

Up ahead I could see the gate where we had parked and I made a decision that this was it. I wasn’t to jump over the gate with this crazy horse and I wasn’t prepared to let him run up the sides of the gate as I knew that at least on one side there was a rocky drain area. That was it … I was getting off. I took my right foot out of the stirrup, and started moving my leg over. No doubt this was not the time to try my own version of sidesaddle but then again there was no time for anything else.

In the next instant I jumped off, landed on my feet, somehow unconsciously held onto the reins … and even more miraculously, the evil horse stopped!

My blood was no doubt rushing through my body at great speed. My legs were shaking, my hands were shaking but otherwise I was ok and the horse, although still a bit spooked judging by the look in his eyes, was ok as well.

I tried to pat Tar to calm him down as I didn’t want him to go crazy again. We found some good clover and he started to eat.

After a while my companions could be seen at the top of the hill. I waved to let them know we were ok and a few minutes later they were beside me explaining that a bee must have stung the evil horse. That was their explanation for Tar’s behaviour as it seems I didn’t do anything wrong which was a relief to me.

They could see the sort of ride I had as they found my hat along the way and saw that the saddle had moved to a slant of about 30 degrees and thankfully no further than that.

I was off the horse by this point but George wanted a photo of me on the horse. I wasn’t too happy to get back on but I did anyway, a little more gracefully than my first effort. I smiled, he took the photo, then I hopped off the horse and helped to brush him down. We then headed to the picnic table, sat down, had lunch, probably all of us shaking (none more than me) but all of us ok.

By the next day I am a little sore but happy as it could’ve been worse. I’m sure that the ride would have been much more interesting if it was captured on film and I could feel like a movie star in an action scene.

The next horse I get on will be a Shetland Pony or one of those ones in the supermarket where you put money in and the music plays along with the gentle rocking motion!

In the end I suppose you’re wondering how it was that I couldn’t stop the horse earlier. I certainly would’ve thought I could, and perhaps some of it had to do with my riding ability … but a crazy horse is a crazy horse, so don’t ride them in Alberta.