Becoming a Cowgirl in the Real Canadian Rockies
This post is an exclusive and AWESOME feature from Carolyn Ray, the Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman. If you’re not familiar with JourneyWoman, it’s a reliable and lively resource for women–for travel tips and advice on solo travel, JourneyWoman is wonderful company to keep. Watch for a future post from Carolyn about her experience on the legendary Camino de Santiago with Wild Women Expeditions this fall.
When I was invited to join this trip by Wild Women Expeditions, my first question was: “Do I need to know how to ride a horse?” I’ve ridden horses before, but never for six hours a day in the Canadian Rockies, through avalanche paths, rockslides, and rivers. My last equine experience was an uncomfortable hour-long ride in Cuba, where I spent most the time trying to avoid being tossed off a cantankerous horse on a steamy day. I scour Netflix for western movies and search for websites with recommendations and am inundated with advice ranging from ‘do squats’ to ‘wear breeches’. I purchase is a pair of Ariat boots and find two women’s cowboy shirts at Value Village. I wear bike shorts under a favourite pair of well-loved, fairly seamless, black jeans. My biggest challenge is finding a hat, and when find the perfect Stetson, I feel ready to be a cowgirl!
Five Humbling Lessons From the Backcountry
It’s exhausting to learn a new skill, something I haven’t done since learning to surf in Tofino. The dynamic of horses makes it different from kayaking, surfing or hiking – there is an animal involved, with his own personality, preferences and behaviours.
Adopt a Learning Mindset
I am completely intimidated when I discover that the other women on my trip all have riding experience. My greatest fear is being that person who holds others back. When I meet my guide, Brooklyn, on a sunny Sunday morning at Banff Trail Riders, I say: “Assume I know nothing. This is your opportunity to teach, mold and shape me.”
Over the next six days, I learn how to get on and off my horse, Latte, hold the reins (in one hand, like an ice cream cone), stand up in the saddle when the horse pees (who knew!). I deliver all the commands both in an authoritative voice and with my body and lean forward and backwards when coming up and down steep trails.
Be ready for the unexpected
Trail riding is a strenuous physical sport. It’s not an activity where you sit passively and watch the world go by. It requires awareness and focus – of the horse, of your body and of your surroundings. At any moment, a grouse can jump out of the bushes, startling the horse.
In the first two hours on a narrow trail, we come face to face with a fast-moving train of 10 mules roped together (called “packers’).Latte, being a social animal, decides to turn and follow them, causing a commotion of epic proportion. “Turn, turn, turn,” Brooklyn yells and somehow I untangle myself from the mules and rejoin my group.
Trust the horse
If only 100 people a year come to this part of the world, even less take the trail up to Allenby Pass, a gruelling 8100-foot vertical climb. On the way up, I lean forward in my saddle to help Latte climb. On the way down, I stretch out backwards like a rower, my head behind the saddle, completely surrendering to him. The trail zig zags across water, rocks and gravel, and many times, I can’t look down, so I follow Brookyn’s advice and look up as we climb slim trails that don’t seem wide enough to walk on.
After several hours, we reach the top and it’s spectacular. Here, we are eye-to-eye with snow-covered, jagged mountain peaks. It’s hot and dusty, and the wildflowers dance in the breeze. Due to the nearby forest fires in B.C., it’s smoky, but it feels like we’re on top of the world. Many of the rocks look like coral, reminding me that this is where the ocean once was before it receded millions of years ago. This is a once-in-a-lifetime highlight.
Embrace the wilderness
I can’t imagine how the early explorers found the courage to break these trails hundreds of years ago, in the middle of this vast wilderness of peaks and valleys. The mantra is ‘take back what you bring in’; even the outhouses are cleaned out before the winter.
While grizzly and black bear sightings are rare, this is nature at its wildest. I stay at two log cabin lodges, Sundance Lodge and Halfway House, which are roughly a three and six-hour ride inside Banff National Park on a single-track trail. Water comes from the river and is heated by solar power. I revel in the outdoor shower at Halfway Lodge, which is open to the elements.
Live in the moment
Over my six-day trip, I meet women from around the world, from New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Much of our discussions are about the animals; they know every mule and horse by name as if they are people. Even though it’s light out until 11 p.m., I can barely stay awake until 9 pm, and fall sleep to the sounds of rushing water and birdsong.
After six days together, Latte and I have formed an understanding. As we return to Warner Stables, I say: “Latte, you’re such a good boy. Thank you for keeping me safe, protecting me on the mountain and staying on the path.”
When I dismount, Latte whinnies and bumps me with his head, grinning his joy at being released.
For intelligent tips on packing and more about Carolyn Ray’s Rocky Mountain high experience, please visit JourneyWoman.com
Disclaimer: I was invited on this tour by Wild Women Expedition, but I covered my own transportation costs in and out of Calgary and the gratuity for Banff Trail Riders. Wild Women did not review this article prior to publication; opinions are my own.