Banff’s Backcountry Bliss

By Cline Owen | December 13, 2021

When I said yes to the Banff Backcountry Riding Adventure I was dreaming about the towering jagged snow-capped mountains of the majestic Canadian Rockies, and travelling through this expansive land by trusty steed, completely cut off from all communication with the outside world. I’ve been travelling in the wilderness since childhood, and for over 20 years as a guide. What I’ve found over the years is that there are fewer and fewer spaces where you’re really “away from it all.” I’ve paid my electricity bill from an island on the Magnetewan river, called my sweetie from a remote cabin in Iceland, posted on Facebook from the jungle in Thailand, pulled up the lyrics to a song on my iPad around the campfire in Algonquin Park. For better or worse, I’ve become accustomed to staying connected on trips.

The Banff Backcountry Riding Adventure was my first trip after a year of intensive working and studying online during the pandemic. I was really looking forward to being forced to unplug, and the chance to spend quality time with real three-dimensional humans! An intimate group of four, plus two guides, we fell into an easy camaraderie, and the laughter and deep conversations began immediately. Over the course of our six days in the backcountry, we experienced several wildlife sightings, incredible views, awe-inspiring cuisine and friendship. We found a rhythm and ease in nature and each other. As we went deeper into the backcountry, something opened up inside ourselves as well. We explored topics beyond the everyday, connecting to some of our deeper truths and questions. Of course, what comes out in those intimate trip conversations, stays on the trip! But, the content isn’t as important as the feeling that we get when we tune into ourselves and each other without the pressures and distractions of everyday life.

It’s a Beautiful Night for a Moondance…

At Sundance Lodge, where we spend the first night of the trip, we fall into bed, between crisp white sheets and cozy duvets, exhausted after a long ride in an extreme heat wave.

In the morning, we linger over a cozy fire in the main room’s wood stove and wait for the sun to crest the mountains. There’s something about a fire that opens the heart. We share more stories, struggles and triumphs, and find much common ground there. We laugh, shed a few tears, and offer words of support, understanding, empathy. By mid-morning, we’re packed up and ready to head back out to the horses to begin our ride to Halfway Lodge, another 10 miles and 1000 vertical feet away. The climb from Sundance to Halfway Lodge is diverse and beautiful. We pass through craggy rockslide and avalanche paths, cross verdant and expansive meadows, and dip into the cool, mystical quiet of the forest.

Fireside Confessions

It’s a meditation for the senses with the changes in temperature, the pungent smells of pine and spruce mixed with the sweet smell of horses, the changing scenery, and birdsong mingling with laughter and conversation. I feel myself expanding into the vastness of the landscape, and relax into the ease and comfort of the group. We settle into the Lodge, where we’ll spend the next three nights. Here, the kitchen, living room and dining room are all together in one cozy space where the focus is on the comfort of the central wood stove, creating an intimate environment where more of our stories come to light.

We share tales of the day, our lives, our hopes, dreams and fears. We laugh. A lot! And, then laugh some more. As the sun sets and the propane lanterns glow, the conversations again grow more intimate. There’s something so absolutely refreshing about connecting with others. when there are no technological interruptions. No one checking out of the conversation to send a text. No one taking a call or making a post. We are simply here together, connecting without distraction. All too soon, it’s time to start the return journey, first back to Sundance Lodge, then back to Banff.

Bittersweet Banter

Our final day is gorgeous. It’s cooler than it has been with a bright blue cloudless sky. We’re in no hurry. We stop for lunch at the same place we’d eaten on the first day. We linger over our meal of smokies cooked over a fire, and reminisce about how far we’ve come. Our first lunch here, we were just getting to know one another. We were asking the questions that you ask strangers: where are you from? Last trip you were on? Next trip you’re planning? Now, we banter easily about life, relationships, loss, dreams, visions, who we really are when we leave the technology and patriarchy behind for a few days.

We arrive back at the stables in Banff at the end of the afternoon, and linger there, reluctant for the trip to end. I’m the first to leave, heading to Calgary to catch my flight. The others are staying nearby before driving home the following day. As we pull out of the parking lot, I take a moment to feel the bittersweetness of saying goodbye, the joy of spending time together and the reluctance for it to end. I’m filled with fabulous memories of a great adventure, and the warmth of the support of a truly caring and beautiful group of wild women. While the horses, the views, the food and experiences make for a marvelous trip, it is often the conversations, friendship and connections that make some of the most lasting memories. On this trip, we have it all, and as I drive away, I’m filled with immense gratitude and a deep sense of alignment with myself, my new friends and the wonders of the Canadian mountain backcountry.