Our first glimpse of the Canadian wilderness was sky high in a 6-seater aeroplane. On our two hour flight departing from Vancouver we swept past mountain ranges dusted in snow and marvelled at high-altitude lakes hidden in the elbow of mountains.
I rode shot-gun as co-pilot and was equipped with my very own head set and microphone, I loved listening to the banter between the pilots. It took two planes to fly our riding possee into our remote wilderness lodge and Buster was in the plane up ahead. The conditions couldn’t of been more perfect to fly. A sprinkling of clouds and vast duck-egg blue skies. I’ve always wanted my pilot’s license so it was magic to be able to co-pilot and speak to Ray our Canadian pilot who insisted on taking all of the women on his plane!
From a bird’s eye view the enormity and vastness of the environment below was breathtaking and it just re-confirmed my desire to explore this country from the back of a horse. I spyed the odd mountain cabin crouched on the top of secluded mountain tops. When we reached Chilko River, our final destination, it was a sparkling blue abyss with Alpine trees carpeting the mountains and fringing the lake’s edge. We arrived at the start of Fall and by the look of the Poplar trees we were a little too early to see the transformation of their frog-green leaves turn to buttercup yellow to blood red.
Thankfully our pilot Ray was adept at mountain flying and provided us with a smooth landing on a difficult dirt airstrip that was squeezed between the Chilko river and a mountain range.
As soon as our two feet landed on terra firma we were greeted with hearty handshakes and warm smiles from our lovely hosts the Mclean family and their staff. We were introduced to Bud, a true Canadian gentleman in his eighties, sharp as a tack, who was the trail blazer in this region, and his daughter Karen, who I had been corresponding with via email and her partner/guide Josh. With a sweet-as-maple-syrup welcome we piled into the F-Truck and were ferried to the lodge that sat on the banks of the Chilko river. Cute-as-a-button timber log cabins nestled within groves of Poplar and Evergreen trees greeted us.
The main area where guests, guides and staff congregrate to enjoy shared meals, read books, gaze into the fire had picture frame windows that overlooked the river that runs like a serpent snaking its way through the mountains. Planters overflowed with geraniums, violets, panseys. Memorabilia and keepsakes paid homage to the Canadian cowboy and Indians. Book shelves were slumped in books on fishing, horses, grizzly bears and well-thumbed romantic novels. A stone fireplace with a fire that cracks, spits and warms, a stuffed grizzly bear stands on two legs at the bar and a number of well-loved leather couches and armchairs begged to be curled into. I imagined myself reading a book and nursing a scotch after a arduous day in the saddle.
It was exactly how a family lodge in the remote Canadian wilderness should look. This is the McLean’s family home and as soon as we arrived we felt cocooned in their goodness and warmth. Three generations were working at this lodge, with Lauren the granddaughter to Bud and niece to Karen the head chef for the season – and my can this girl cook!
Within our party of nine was Gwenyth and George an older, elegant coupple who have been visiting the lodge, travelling from their home in Northern Ireland to ride for the last twenty years. They keep returning for the company, riding and adventure that it offers them and the long friendships that have germinated over the past two decades. We were also joined by four American gals, who have left their children, husbands for a 7-day experience to re-connect and ride together. And we had our lovely two Australian guests, Craig and Dorothy, who had travelled under the globetrotting banner.
What I love about horse riding holidays and which I’ve seen time and time again is watching a group of complete strangers who are thrown together due to a common love of horses, adventure and travel get to know each other intimately. With endless hours in the saddle the small talk subsides and you get to know and learn people’s life stories. Intimiate conversations shared while riding alongside each other or sharing a picnic beside a river. So when the final day comes to say goodbye you feel you’ve connected with these once strangers and promise to catch up on another ride. Or sincere offers of a bed if they ever wander past your home on future adventures. And these are true, honest pledges as they feel like life-long friends.
This would have to be one of my most favourite parts of my job, listening and speaking to people from all over the world and sharing thrilling moments with them on horseback.
After lunch our head guide Josh (pictured below), alongside back-up guide Dave, allocated our horses and ran through the steps of grooming your horse, saddling your horse (western style) and a couple of knots that we needed to become competent with when tying up our horses. The majority of the rides that I promote the horses are groomed, saddled and ready when you get to the stables. Not the case with this ride, which isn’t a deal-breaker, as some riders prefer to take care of their horse. The majority of riders that come to the lodge, I assume, don’t have their own horses at home and preparing your horse for a days ride is a novelty ad helps connect to your stead. I’m not bothered either way and follow the instructions and try to master the knots that are new to my knot repertoire.
I was assigned a grey, arab gelding known as Blue. A perky 6-year old that was new to the herd, he had a lovely spark to his eye and a bit of sass which is always a plus for me. After the introductory briefing Josh led the way with Dave at the rear. We were taken on the mandatory introductory ride to ensure that everyone is teamed with the correct horse according to their ability.
Throughout the seven days I learnt to appreciate the Western saddle, eventhough I’m used to riding in a English saddle at home. I loved the laziness of resting your hand on the horn. Or when you needed to dismount quickly you can loop the reins behind the horn providing a safe rein length so that the horse won’t step through the reins or when tightening the girth hooking your stirrup on the horn. I normally sit out of the saddle at a canter but with a western saddle its all about riding long and sitting deep in the saddle.
Buster and I were allocated the sweetest house on the prairie style cabin known as the bunk-house. With flower boxes filled with blooms on the windows and a patchworked quilt adorning our bed. The accommodation for all the guests was welcoming, warm and cosy with gas fireplaces and plenty of hot water (very important in my book) to soothe aching riding muscles.
At lunch Karen explained that they saw a grizzly bear sour with her three cubs around the lodge and to be extremely vigilant when walking to and from your cabin and the stables. At this time of year the salmon are dying in the river so bears migrate to the river as it transforms into a salmon smorgasbord for them. Also the berries in the park, bears love to eat berries. I was tingling with the excitement of seeing my first grizzly bear. To me bears are the X-Factor to this ride. The prospect of seeing bears roaming in their natural environment I was peeing my pants at the prospect of it! To be utterly honest.
And did we see bears! The second day of riding we saw the sour and her three cubs from across the river. With the safety blanket of the river, we tied up our horses and observed them without fear. I’ve been fortunate to admire mountain gorillas in their natural environment and I would have to say these Canadian Grizzly Bears intrigued me just as much. I’m sure for a Canadian or American its ho-hum like us seeing a kangaroo or a koala but Steven and I were glued to their every move.
From that sighting we were on a bear hunt to capture these playful, strong animals on camera. What we loved about this remote lodge is the diversity of activities that were available when you weren’t in the saddle. On the third morning Steven and I got up at 6am and paddled upstream in a canoe to document this pristine wilderness in the golden light of dawn.
Upon arrival I was drawn to the river and the life it attracts and supports – it truly is the beating heart to this region. I found it mesmerising to sit on the jetty or in a canoe and watch the wild atlantic salmon as they made their solo pilgrimage upstream to lay their eggs before dying. There were literally thousands upon thousands of these richly bronzed fish with their over-shot jaws swimming against the current. And with the swift-flowing, transparent waters of the Chilko River it was easy to see the intricate details of the salmon as they swam past. Every minute or two a salmon would launch themselves out of the water – slap – and then submerge again.
Steven and Craig went fly-fishing one of the seven days, guided by Josh. Catch and release they were on the hunt for the rainbow trout within the river. Suffice to say they had a tremendous day and caught up to ten fish each.
Our seven days revolved around the river that rushed past the lodge. Most days after seven dusty hours in the saddle, Steven and I would grab a couple of tinnys (beer) and head down to the river for a take-your-breathe away submersion. We would launch ourselves from the timber jetty. On a daily basis we would baptise ourselves in the holy waters of the Chilko River. Refreshed and goose pimply, we would lie on our tummies peering over the jetty watching the schools of fish, sipping on our beer and being warmed by the sun.
These were really special moments, as much as we missed our gorgeous Finn, it was nice to be the two-of-us for awhile.
Sometimes lodge riding can be quite boring as you’re traversing the same country again and again and I normally prefer riding from camp to camp. But I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the rides on a daily basis. One of the days we climbed one of the largest peaks around, taking at least four hours to reach the top with breaks for the horses. As we climbed the trees stripped away and the landscape changed to rocks and low shrubs, luna in appearance. At the summit we had a 360 degree view of the Chilcotin region in all its glory. The weather was sublime so we spent a lazy two hours on top of the mountain, eating lunch out of our saddle bags and dozing in the autumn sun!
It’s days, moments, experiences, adventures like the ones I’ve painted above that make you fall in love with travelling and exploring again and again. Snapshots in time where you’re not plugged into technology and your daily demands or objectives are simple and born from the heart. Encounters like this are my re-set button where I erase all of the materialistic and work strains which is everyday life and you can just be – no strings attached.
I’m going to leave you with some images of the trip.