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2023 09 Adventure Canada - 10 days on horseback through the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains


It's the beginning of September. Autumn is approaching, but the weather is still friendly and summery. Together, 11 brave riders from four different countries set off on what some will later call the adventure of a lifetime.


It's early in the morning when we set off from Jasper. Several trucks and three large horse trailers take us and our 17 horses to the starting point, just around the corner from the famous Columbia Icefield Glacier


We had already got to know our horses the day before during a short test ride. They are all predominantly cold-blooded and are strong and sure-footed backcountry trail horses.

Now it's time to saddle up and pack all our equipment onto the horses. All our personal belongings have to fit on our own riding horse. These are mainly rain gear, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a few toiletries and some food plus water for the day. We tried not to carry more than 20 kg in total.

Tents, tarps, food and all kitchen utensils are distributed in boxes among the five packhorses. We also have three chainsaws and an axe with us. They say that the trails ahead of us have not been used for the last three years. This means that a large number of trees have fallen, making some of the paths impassable. A big task lies ahead of us...


There is a bustling atmosphere. Everyone is scurrying around and suddenly we are off. We want to master a total of 140 km of the South Boundary Trail through Jasper National Park.


Just around the first bend, the rugged forests of the Rocky Mountains swallow us up and quickly take us from our heads to our hearts. No more time for thoughts, all that remains is to marvel, admire and enjoy.


Goodbye civilization - hello wilderness


A new reality opens up before us, revealing more and more of its breathtaking beauty around every further bend. We slowly wind our way up the first steep mountain. This is the Nigel Pass, the crossing of which will take us into the first valley. The path is steep and rocky. The packhorses, which are running free, are already getting very creative and finding their own way through the rough landscape.


Once we reach the bottom of the valley, we come across the Brazeau River, which we will follow for the next few days. This first day should already demand quite a bit of effort from us. After a short break, we have another 10km or so ahead of us.

We work our way leisurely along the river and have to cross it a few times. We reach our first camp for the night around two hours before dark. We unsaddle our horses and set up camp.

At the same time, we start collecting wood and making a fire. Someone fetches water from the river in large iron pots and puts it on the fire. A routine that will soon become familiar to us. Peter cooks dinner while our guide Gunner and his two helpers release the first half of our horses so that they can graze. The plan is to swap horses after a while so that the other group can then go foraging. The remaining horses wait patiently tied to the trees. Some of them are dozing, as they seem tired from the long day. In the background, we hear the bells ringing, which the grazing horses wear around their necks. But after a while we suddenly hear nothing! That's not a good sign!


And from now on, every day is a story...


Gunner and his men run in the direction in which the horses have disappeared. It is already getting dark, you can hardly see anything. The horses, which are still tethered to the trees, are slowly becoming restless. They also sense that the other horses are no longer there. We decide to let the horses that are left behind graze by hand. And so a good two hours pass before we finally hear a whinny through the dark night and the gentle ringing of bells. We breathe a sigh of relief. After a while, the men appear and have three horses with them. They were able to follow them to the last major river crossing. The horses were just about to cross to the other side, three of them just managed to stop them and bring them back. The men had no chance of getting through the deep river on foot, so they had to let the last six runaways go.

The next morning they rode off at first light to search for the missing horses. It took the men more than four hours to get back and bring back the remaining horses, tired but safe and sound.


It was already midday by the time we had loaded our equipment onto the horses and were able to move on. The route took us further along the valley, always following the river upstream. To our left, the vertical rock faces of the nearby mountains rose up. To our right stretched the wide valley, which then flowed into the mountain slopes on the opposite side.

A very impressive backdrop.


After a few hours, we reached our new camp called Brazeau Meadows. We wanted to stay here for two days and take a day off. This time we didn't have to worry that the horses would run off again. For one thing, there was significantly more forage here as the land had not been grazed in recent years. Secondly, this horse camp was so well laid out that the exits could be closed off with a wooden fence. Because of these good conditions, the whole herd was allowed to roam and feed freely together.


We pitched our tents and tarps right next to the river. Although it was a little risky not to seek shelter between the trees because of the already very cold nights, it was also too tempting because of the indescribable scenery.


Brazeau Meadows spoiled us with all the advantages that a camp could offer. Some of us went swimming in the river for the first time and were able to wash our hair and clothes. The water was bright blue and yes, freezing cold! But what an indescribable feeling of elation when you were clean and warm in fresh clothes. Life's highlights can sometimes be so simple!


The following day we planned a short ride to Brazeau Lake, the place where the Brazeau River originates. But before the day really got going, Peter woke us up and brought fresh coffee or tea to everyone's sleeping place. This created a very cheerful atmosphere. Our mattresses and sleeping bags were covered in a layer of egg from that night. It was the first time we had slept outside in sub-zero temperatures. So a hot drink was more than welcome!


After breakfast around the campfire with warm porridge, we set off. Our horses enjoyed the easy ride to the lake. The sun was high in the bright blue sky. Although we were already very close to the Alpine region, it was summery warm and the lake was literally beckoning us to take a dip in it. So that's what we did first thing. The atmosphere was exuberant and cheerful and everyone who dared to dive in or even swim in this very cold water was loudly celebrated. If you're not used to it, it takes quite a bit of effort, but the Canadian flair and the warm sun made us feel brave.


Afterward, Peter invited us to a sumptuous lunch from the saddlebag. He had thought of everything. There was smoked salmon from Alaska, home-made dried meat, various dried fruits, nuts, and very tasty cheese from France and Switzerland. It all tasted so good out here! We happily munched our way through the sumptuous buffet and listened to Peter's many stories of trail riding from all over the world.


On the way back, we stop at one of the ranger huts. Our guide Gunnar, who is a real local and also the owner of the horses, told us stories about the family that once lived there. He showed us an old logbook, which was started in 1978.

Anyone who passed one of these huts could sign it. So we browsed through these old records and finally decided to immortalize ourselves in them today, almost 50 years later.


The next morning we moved on, leaving the Brazeau area behind us. Our destination this time was to be a camp at Isaac Greek. There we would also find the next rancher's hut and another logbook to browse through and immerse ourselves in times gone by. We learned more stories about life out here in the wilderness. The park ranchers used to travel through these areas on horseback and some still do today. That is why there is usually a large grassy area near these huts where the horses can find enough food. This should also benefit our horses in the coming night.


The trail was easy that day, with only gentle climbs and took us through beautiful marshlands, forests, streams, along enchanting waterfalls and vast grasslands picturesquely framed by the mountains.


The ride was not very long and after a few hours we reached Isaac Creek. It was still early afternoon, so we had plenty of time to explore this new place. The river was particularly wide at this point and the entire riverbed was so huge that you could hardly take it in with your eyes at once. This scene was framed by rugged mountains that began to glow fiery red at sunrise and sunset!


This was to be the gift of the next morning. It was still dark at night when the wranglers started the campfire, fetched fresh water from the river and we set off in search of the horses with the first barely discernible light.

The atmosphere was magical when we found the horses on the vast grasslands in the mystical light of the blue hour. They came running to us as soon as they saw us. They knew it was time to return to camp. When we reached the camp, some of the horses decided to walk a little further over to the river to quench their thirst. I followed them, while at the same time the sun set the surrounding mountain peaks on fire, bathing the whole scene in a glowing hue of pink and orange. The air above the river was still slightly foggy and intensified this play of colors. Everything inside me became very still and I would have loved to stop time at that moment.


After breakfast, it was back to packing up the camp and saddling the horses. We were getting better and better at this routine and this time there was enough time to help load the packhorses. I had asked our guide Gunner the day before if he could teach me how to do this. It is a special way of attaching the boxes to the pack saddles using a rope and knot technique. After watching for the first few days, I was allowed to help bake the boxes for the first time today and practise the hand movements.

Curious, a few group members joined us and together we helped the wranglers as best we could so that they were no longer alone with the hard work.


After all the horses had finished loading, we set off again later in the morning. The landscape today was hardly any different from the day before. It was a pleasure to ride through this untouched nature. The weather continued to be friendly, sunny and warm. What lucky bastards we were!


After a few hours, the appearance of the forest suddenly changed dramatically. We entered an area of forest that had burned down in 2006. The scene seemed almost a little eerie. Many dead, branchless trunks were sticking up vertically, countless partially burnt trunks lay criss-crossed on top of each other like in a giant game of Mikado. Thousands of young trees sprouted upwards, crowding close together in competition for the best spot and light. Some of them are up to two meters high. Most of them are pine trees and we learn on this day that they grow very slowly, which is why they were still so small after 17 years. A narrow path winds its way between all this dense chaos, which we followed for a while.


A little later, the path leads us along a kind of ridge and gives us a clear view of the river further down and the surrounding foothills of this forest. Everything was burnt down as far as the eye could see. The dimensions of this area are almost incomprehensible. Another rancher's hut appears between the trees. Gunner tells us that it was rebuilt after the fire.


We tackle a short but steeper descent and arrive at the river below, which we now have to cross. This time the river is not very wide, but it is fast and deep. The foremost men cross it with their horses. The packhorses, which run freely behind, follow. However, they decide to cross the river further to the right. But there the water was much deeper and very rapid due to a few rapids. I myself was the last rider further up the slope and watched the scene with some horror. Peanut and Pepsi were our two strongest packhorses and my breath hitched as I watched helplessly from above as they struggled against the masses of water. While the two fjord horses bravely tried to reach the other bank, some of the following horses and their riders unfortunately decided to go after the packhorses instead of crossing the river further to the left in the shallows. It was hard to see how the horses were in trouble down there and could hardly make any progress in the raging masses of water. I started shouting down that everyone should keep to the left. But one horse after another jumped into the raging river. Finally, a rider was able to stop her horse just at the river bank so that it wouldn't blindly follow those ahead. We watched with relief as all the horses fought their way out of the water and made it safely to the other side. The rest of us riders now crossed the river at the shallower point and even there the water was so deep that we got wet in places and the current was so strong that it was a noticeable effort for our horses.


Pumped full of adrenaline, but also happy and satisfied, we reached our new camp on the Southest River a few minutes later, which was to be our home for the next two days. There were several square kilometers of grassland here and therefore plenty of fresh food for the horses. They left happily when we set them free that evening.


The next day was to be another rest day for the group. They would go for another easy ride in the surrounding area, or simply stay in camp and rest. Everyone could decide for themselves.

Gunner and the two wranglers, however, had other plans. They wanted to ride as far ahead as possible on the next section of trail to clear as many fallen trees as possible. They had invited me to come with them. With shining eyes, I agreed. The next morning, the four of us set off early, not knowing what to expect on the stage ahead.


There were a lot of fallen trees in the forest fire area. However, most of them were passable, so we decided to clear them up on the way back. We wanted to ride as far out as we could first. Our deadline was 2 p.m. to turn back so that we would be back at camp by nightfall.

We had to cross the river a few times. It had repeatedly washed away the trail by up to several hundred meters. For us, this meant searching for the trail and making new markings on the trees. Sometimes the trail was completely overgrown with dense bushes that we had to ride through. You really couldn't be squeamish here. We lost the trail a few times as a result, but were quickly able to find it again.


The men cleared as many trees as possible that day, while I followed with all the horses in tow. Tired, we reached camp in the evening just before dusk. Satisfied that the whole group would have a much easier time tackling the next section of the route the next day.


Up into the Alpine...


The next camp awaited us near the Cairn Pass, just below the tree line. Here, too, we were to stay for two days, as another team had to be deployed to clear the trail ahead of us of trees. This time, two men from Parks Canada were even flown in by helicopter to help us.


So there were six of us out that morning, which was a good thing because the number of trees blocking the way was incredibly high this time. There were so many that we unfortunately couldn't finish that day. We still had to clear about 9km to the next camp the following day.


While the trail team bravely worked their way through the trees, the rest of the group undertook a hike to one of the nearby peaks. The hard-working hikers were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the surrounding valleys, lakes and rivers. Autumn had already arrived up here and the colorful splendor was another bonus for the eyes.


The next morning, Gunner, his team and I set off early. We wanted to get a head start on the rest of the group so that we could continue to clean up. The group caught up with us over the last 5 kilometers or so. We only made very slow progress. There were now so many trees down that it was no longer possible to get through. All the chainsaws were now in action, Peter and another participant lent a hand. With our combined strength, we made it to the end as a team and finally reached our last camp for this trip on the Medicine Tent River.


Somewhat wistfully, we set up camp. One last dinner together around the campfire. Gunner and Peter created something particularly tasty for the evening. One last night under the stars, the sound of the river, the gentle tinkling of grazing horses in the distance - I took it all in before falling asleep.


The gentle tinkling of horses in the distance?

It was gone again the next morning. The horses had wandered so far again that we could no longer locate them. This time it took Gunner and his team about 3 hours to bring them back. But it wasn't really exciting for us anymore. We were already used to it and it's just part of life that things like this happen. For ten days now, we have lived exclusively to the rhythm of nature and with the circumstances that the day brought us. We no longer know what day of the week it is or what hour it is. So even an event like this can no longer upset us. We have breakfast and then everyone dismantles the camp as far as possible. When the horses arrive at camp, we load them together hand in hand and set off.


Our last stage lies ahead of us. And it should also be our most challenging of the whole trip. We are still high up in the Alps at over 2000m. There will be some very steep uphill and downhill sections today. The path is sometimes less than 10 cm wide on the steep scree slopes. Very exciting for us, but the horses are incredible and master this with a lot of strength, stamina and the necessary calm. But even they should get so out of breath a few times today that we have to stop them again and again so that they could catch their breath. The view was simply fantastic and is difficult to describe in words.


After a few hours we reach the Rocky Pass. There we were already expected by

Gunner's entire crew was already waiting for us. They cheer us on. We are happy and deeply moved at the same time. We lie in each other's arms and a few tears roll down our faces. The pick-ups with the horse trailers are ready to take us out - out of the wilderness, back to civilization ...


Thanks


Before I set off on this trip, I believed that the biggest challenge would be the time out there in the mountains and especially the very cold next few days. Afterwards, I learned that the biggest challenge for me personally was coming back. The simplicity out there showed me how little it actually takes to feel connected, complete and free. This experience is a huge gift that is priceless. On behalf of the whole group, thank you from the bottom of my heart to Peter van der Gugten from extremtrail.ch and Gunner from astoriaoutfitting.com for the idea and realization of this adventure. It was the ride of our lives!


Anne Temme

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