In the mid 1800s, not long after the San Francisco gold rush, deposits were discovered north of the border, in a remote part of British Columbia known as Cariboo Country. Thousands of miners raced in and – though the gold quickly ran out – many of them ended up sticking around, setting up expansive ranches on the dry, rolling hills. Today, the Cariboo is still ranch country, with more horses and cattle per square mile than people in most places. For anyone who’s ever dreamed of the cowboy life – cattle runs, rodeos, big skies and lots of open spaces – its also a chance to get a taste of Canada’s “Wild West.” Dude ranches (yes, those do actually exist) dot the region, offering greenhorn travelers (like me) a chance to get in the saddle. I wrote about a week spent at some of the region’s ranches for the Dallas News.
Saddle up in Canada’s Wild West
By Remy Scalza for the Dallas News
Published July 25, 2014
(For the online version of the article on the Dallas News website, click here)
There’s a saying in horse riding: “Fear travels down the reins.” If that’s the case, I’m in a world of trouble. I’ve come to Western Canada’s Cariboo region, dude ranch capital of the country, from my home in nearby Vancouver.
A few hours’ drive north of the city, gleaming condo towers and fusion restaurants give way to sagebrush and canyons. This is cattle country, where city slickers like me come to earn their spurs.
Roughly the size of Maine and cut through with rivers, mountains and dry plateaus, the Cariboo region is home to more than a dozen guest ranches.
Options range from working farms to luxury retreats where more time is spent in the spa than in the saddle.
Horses, of course, are the common denominator. My prior experience adds up to a handful of pony rides as a kid at backyard birthday parties. That’s about to change.
My first stop is Sundance Guest Ranch, a 1,200-acre spread with a 100-strong herd of horses in the semi-desert hills above the broad Thompson River.
Sundance started out as a cattle ranch in 1864, around the time gold fever hit the Cariboo and thousands of miners streamed in hoping to strike pay dirt. Today, the ranch boasts an original 1890s homestead, plus updated motel-style quarters for guests.
“The No. 1 thing is to stay calm and confident,” says Bryan Golat, a 30-year-old wrangler wearing an enormous silver belt buckle and denim shirt.
He’s just helped me onto the back of a sleepy-eyed horse nicknamed “The Husband Carrier.” While more experienced groups trot on out, we stick behind for a little Horsemanship 101 — how to steer, speed up and, most important, stop.
Then, suddenly, we’re off. Fortunately, Husband Carrier proves true to his name. His big hooves pad out a steady clip-clop as we slowly ascend a dusty ridge, trailed by the ranch’s resident coon hound.
On top, near a lone Ponderosa pine, the valley opens. The river below shimmers in the setting sun, snaking through a treeless moonscape of canyons and furrowed hills.
Back at the ranch, dinner fare is hardly the chuck wagon variety. I load up on grilled sirloin with merlot reduction and Yukon Gold potatoes, then stake out a seat at the end of a long wooden table alongside a dozen or so fellow dudes. War stories are traded — tales of bucking broncos, runaway horses and worse. After my first real ride, I’m just glad to be in one piece.
Back in the saddle
My next stop is a two-hour drive north, roughly following the route of the old Cariboo Gold Rush Trail. Semi-desert cedes to pine forests, and the air feels a few degrees cooler. Alongside a mile-long, crystal clear mountain lake, I find aptly named Crystal Waters Ranch, a working ranch with a few hundred head of cattle and nearly 100 horses.
Despite the size of the spread, the ranch is an intimate affair, just a few log cabins clustered around the lake shore. Guests come for isolation, superb trout fishing and, of course, exceptional riding.
“We’re surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of crown land,” meaning government-owned, says wrangler and owner Nicole Guetler, who first came to the Cariboo from Germany after college and got hooked. “You can ride out there forever.”
She helps me onto a mellow horse named Custer, who’s not exactly on his last stand but close enough for my tastes. We take off at a gentle clip into mixed aspen and poplar forest.
Recent rains have swollen forest streams, and when we cross, the horses plunge in nearly to their bellies.
“Don’t worry, these are bush horses.” Guetler explains. “They’ll find their way.”
Back at the ranch, farm life is in full swing. We arrive just minutes after two mares have given birth.
The foals shiver in the sun, trying desperately to get to their feet. Finally, one manages to stand for a split second before doing a face plant back in the mud. The mother looks on, lapping him with her big tongue for encouragement.
What really sets the ranch apart is Crystal Waters Lake. I trade the saddle for a kayak and push out. The water is as smooth as glass and just as clear. With the sun dipping low, I paddle out to the middle. Mergansers dive as I approach, and a pair of loons call into the night.
One last ride
On my final day in the Cariboo, I drive west toward a one-of-a-kind ranch on the edge of the snowcapped Marble Mountains.
Upon arrival, I’m ushered up an elegant stairway lined with lotus flowers and smiling Buddhas, through an elaborately carved teak door and onto a bed laid with handmade silk. It’s time for my massage.
Echo Valley Ranch may well be the world’s only Thai-themed dude ranch. Clustered around a towering wooden pagoda straight out of Southeast Asia are tidy little log cabins, a corral with 35 horses and a broad-timbered lodge. There’s also a spa offering Thai massages, not to mention hydrotherapy, aromatherapy and sundry other therapies.
After my treatment, which does wonders after a few days in the saddle, I make my way to the lodge for lunch. Plates of seared albacore tuna done rare are brought out by smiling Thai servers. Next comes soya-ginger marinated halibut and barbecue free-range chicken. I have to resolve not to stuff myself. After all, there’s still one ride left.
“Pairing horses and riders is definitely an art,” says Sannukka Pekkala, a 24-year-old wrangler with long blond hair who’s busy in the corral. “The right horse changes everything.” She thinks for a second, then chooses for me a chestnut quarter horse in the corner named Joker.
He’s the one I’ve been waiting for. A veritable Rolls-Royce compared to my first two horses, Joker has a smooth gait and plenty of pep in his step. Halfway into our ride, when Pekkala asks if we want to run, I’m ready.
For the briefest of moments, the horses break into a full-on gallop. The stride is effortless, a horizontal glide through the landscape. And all at once I get it — that horsey high that seasoned riders know and love, a feeling of moving in harmony with the animal beneath you.
When we finally ride back into Echo Valley, sprinklers are sending arching rainbows of water over the pastures. I hop down, give Joker a pat on the neck and knock the mud off my cowboy boots — a city slicker no more.
For the newspaper version of the article (with photos), click here.