Sunday, November 22, 2015

1996 Alberta Cattle Drive

There are holidays and then there are ADVENTURES FROM WHICH YOU NEVER WANT TO RETURN. In 1996 I had the greatest adventure ever - I got to be a cowboy for 7 days. And not just any old where - I got to live in the land of my heart, the grasslands of Southern Alberta.

It all started when my Auntie Jean passed away in January of that year and I travelled to Medicine Hat, Alberta to attend her funeral. While there I heard about a cattle drive that was being organized for the centennial celebration of the Alberta Stock Growers Association. For seven days a group of people would travel through open range land, starting from the edge of my great grandparents homestead, and ending up in Medicine Hat. As soon as I was back home in Ontario I met with my friend Deirdre to see if she wanted to go - it was a clear YES. Then I made a hard phone call to my sister to see if she'd reschedule her wedding. She is a good sport and understood my anguish so said yes. I got on the phone 9w6 (the brand for the association) and reserved two spots.

A dilemma presented itself. This was a cattle drive and to drive cattle you need a horse. Luckily, I was buying my first horse, a Norwegian Fjord, from Helena, a Calgary woman, and she agreed to provide the horses if I paid for her to go. DONE!

There was only one problem left: it wasn't until July - a long 6 months away!

I was excited when the trip was first arranged and by July I could barely sit down, let alone sleep. Concentration was out the window. I was wired. Not only was I getting my first horse, there was this little thing of the cattle drive. I may have been a bit overwrought. (I relived a bit of that excitement when I wrote this)

Anyway, July actually arrived and I got on the plane for the flight to Calgary, which seemed to be the longest flight ever. In fact we might have taken the eastern route and flown over China on our way there - I felt like I could have run to Alberta faster.  When I debarked, there was Helena; I stayed with her for a few nights before we trailered the horses to the starting point. We'd be meeting up with Deirdre there as she was flying in 'on the day' and catching a ride with an unknown cowboy.

As soon as I unloaded my bag from Helena's truck we stepped out to the corral to meet the ponies, including my new horse Justin (soon to be renamed Frey).  Our cow ponies were Jovan, Lars, and Dora, whom I purchased several months later. My sweaty hands gripped a new leather halter that I brought for my new steed. He didn't have it on for 5 minutes before he flew back against his tie and broke it. I wasn't good at foreshadowing, but that's a whole other story.

The next day Helena and I did the final preparations, then I tossed and turned all night in anticipation. Finally the big day arrived! We loaded gear and horses, then headed south to the starting point. A recording of Jeff Foxworthy 'You know you are a redneck' sped us down the road. I don't know if we laughed so hard because he was funny, or if we were punch drunk from excitement.

We arrived. I might have cried.

Organizers met us at the gate and directed us to the black bandana group and showed us where to water and tie our horses. We got the horses settled and our tents up, then Helena drove the trailer down to Medicine Hat, taking the bus back with all the other trailer drivers. Deirdre showed up, and we showed her the ropes.

The drive people were well organized - they had to be with 1500 riders! The riders were divided into groups, and each assigned a bandana colour. Coloured flags on tall poles designated the tenting area for each group. The caterers had transport trucks full of supplies - the food was great with beef on the menu every night - I'm pretty sure there were no vegetarians. Port a-potties were placed at the edge of the tenting area of each group; trailers were assigned to each group to transport our tents, and bags; hay was available; huge water troughs sloshed with clean water; during the week transport trucks fitted with showers visited the site. Everything ran smoothly.

We visited my cousin George who lived nearby, then had supper back at the camp. We met up with my great Uncle Olaf, Uncle Buster, cousins Ed, Wendy and Janet who were also on the adventure.
Another sleepless night and then rodeo time!

Feed horses, water horses, tack horses, mount horses: I rode Jovan. All calm except for shaking hands and butterflies doing cartwheels in my stomach. Around us there was a rodeo. Fresh horses bucked and spun. Riders hit the ground. We watched from the comfort of our reliable Fjord horses.

Southward Ho!

Group by group we headed through the gates into the expanse of the 'British Block', aka CFB Suffield, or in my words: home. The land spread out before us, the kingdom of cowboys and long ago Natives. The grasses rippled and the sweep prairie fragrance threatened to make me swoon. Sage brushed at our horses knees, a patch of cactus with their thorny arms brushed their ankles.

When we arrived at the next night's destination, after a 10 - 12 mile ride, we gave the horses a long drink of water, then lifted the saddles from their weary backs. They were happy to take their places on the 'line' and chow down on some hay. We set up our tents and ate the bagged lunch we had been provided with. A sandwich eaten while sitting on the parched prairie ground beats lunch at a 4 star restaurant any day.

The steers, all 2000 of them, were well away from the main group, but everyday a group of riders would travel with the herd. We chose to stay with the riders.

I don't know why, but the land we were traversing touches the deepest part of my soul and I wondered if I was alone in this. Every night a big stage was set up and people from the drive would get up to sing, tell tales and read poetry. The people on this drive were real cowboys, ranchers and farmers. They were people of the land, rough and tough and ready to handle nature's challenges. Craggy faces and worn hands, younger people, skin still smooth, but with determination in their eyes, all got on the stage and sang softly about the beauty of the landscape. Cowboys, more used to being out on the range, read poetry they had written about their feelings for the prairie. One old guy had written a poem about carrying a weak calf in front of him on his horse to the ranch through a blinding blizzard. He spoke of awe for the power of Nature and reverently about the land. I had wondered if people used to living in this utopia would appreciate it as much as I did. Not only on stage, but all around me through the week I heard talk that showed me they did.

Each day found us at the summit of another belvedere and gasping at the beauty. One hill held an ancient t-pee ring; from its centre I could see miles each way and the smell of sage and grass seemed especially sweet. For those of you who think the prairies are flat - they are not, especially in this region of Alberta. One night we camped by the South Saskatchewan river and Deirdre and I put on our bathing suits and went for a swim. We saw pelicans fishing in the river, and a rattlesnake as we were making our way back up the hill. One evening a thunderstorm rolled in - we could see it coming for miles. A quick drench and it was on its way, leaving an end-to-end rainbow as an apology. Everyone stared in awe - the only sound heard for moments was the horses chewing on their hay, and a lonely meadowlark.

The magical days and nights continued much like each other, until… we hit a fence, our first once since we started this fantastic voyage. My heart fell as we waited our turn to squeeze through the hole, back though the looking glass, out of Wonderland. My heart pounded and I looked wildly around me - I couldn't leave this world and return to a life of city and high tech. But there was nothing I could do - I was caught in the flow of 1500 people going in one direction. Looking around I could see my disappointment mirrored in the faces of my fellow riders.

As we rode single file down the ditch of the highway towards Medicine Hat, I could see a speck of a building in the distance. At a horse's pace it grew and grew until it took up half the horizon. The ugly refinery belching smoke on the outskirts of the city jarred me. There was no doubt or hope left - it was over. Tears burned at the backs of my eyes and I felt like I might choke on my disappointment.

We set up camp under the black shadow of civilization. It wasn't just me with a long face, all around me faces were glum. People talked about what a great trip it had been and how they didn't want it to end. There was no mood for entertainment and people went to bed early. Most people. A group of young guys tried to swim the river on their horses to go to a bar in the 'Hat' and one of them drowned.
A pall hung over the cattle drive the next morning as the news travelled around the camp, but as everyone knows, the show must go on. Horses were quietly groomed and saddled, we tied our bandanas around our arms in respect of the fallen, and headed out towards the big city lights.

Excitement grew again as we started to travel residential streets. Fifteen hundred riders, a bunch of cows and a hundred chuck-wagons were travelling through the city - it was a sight to see from the back of a horse, and I heard that it was a spectacle from the ground. I sat up taller in the saddle and straightened my cowboy hat and I felt Jovan get a little bit bigger. Everywhere we went crowds of people were lining the roads. On the north side of the city I saw Carm, Mom, Dad, and Uncle Graham in the crowd, waving wildly to get my attention. Reality was another step closer... choke... We paraded through downtown. It seemed like everyone in Medicine Hat were lining the roads. It was my first parade and it could have been the Rose Bowl - it was that fantastic.

And then, all of the sudden, it was over.

Too busy to cry, we started the job of getting back to reality. Horses had to be cared for, tack had to be carried to Helena's truck, people had to be greeted, my bag had to be assigned to Carm. Reality. I could barely stand it. The emptiness in my chest was unbearable, I felt like I might explode into a million pieces and had to concentrate not to cry. But there. Everything has a beginning and an end, and even though the end might not be welcome, it is inevitable.

Ground-in dirt with a coating of dust went down the drain as my clothes spun in the washer and I reluctantly stepped into a much needed shower to complete my transition to reality. A few tears may have mixed with the last of the dirt from my Wonderland.

Clean, and in fresh duds, we went to the cattle auction that afternoon, which was followed by a dinner and dance. I suffered mightily from lunch bag letdown and could only summon up half-hearted participation. I said my good byes to Deirdre and Helena and the ponies the next morning.

Now it was a regular visit to the 'Hat', a regular holiday.

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