This trail had been my walk around the park for many years, and I wondered if in fact, I had taken it for granted. Rather than riding my horse in “a in the moment” way, mindfully, ecologically and environmentally aware ? Probably not. But, it was about riding. I rode the Elbow trail, Powderface and Prairie Creek religiously for many years and know that there are still years of riding to really know this place. It has become a bit of a conveyor belt of hikers and cyclists outnumbering horseback riders. Sad to say, I have listened to enough people wandering our magnificent trail systems to know that work, relationships, recipes and just plain gossip tended to be the majority of chitchat that you’d hear at your local Starbucks. It still drives me around a bend to be a witness to cell phone conversations in a lineup and hearing a complete spectrum, from an inane conversation about being in a line to a very embarrassing discussion of a delicate health issue, because we know, all cell phones come with a cone of silence.
I happened to really like riding alone. And K-Country offers splendid moments that allow for mental rumination and physical gawking. (I wouldn’t have the same comfort level in Alaska, as their predator levels have a higher per inch capita than our park.)
Riding in K-Country
There’s the big deep breath I take when I hit that curve on the trail that truly says, away from the city. There’s that moment of being some eight feet above the ground, with a good horse moving at a much faster pace than I can walk that becomes empowering. There is the joy of seeing my favourite touchstones: that outcrop of rock, that aged and weather scarred spruce, that signpost, the twist up a hill.
Thinking back on the many adventures I have had on these trails, it suddenly struck me that I didn’t question a lot of things.
In praise of the visionaries
I can ride here! The rules are simple! It is free!
David Thompson – Over his career he mapped over 3.9 million square kilometers of North America.
I am truly thankful for the visionaries starting with the wilderness parks movement across North America, especially John Muir, a Scottish naturalist and preservationist of wilderness in the US before the turn of the twentieth century. Canada was pretty quick off the mark too; Banff established in 1885, and is Canada’s oldest national park.(Banff is about 100 km west of Calgary; K-Country about 30 km, southwest.) We have our own explorers who opened up the Rockies for us to enjoy today such as David Thompson, James Sinclair, John Palliser.
Then there was Kananaskis Country, a provincial park, established in 1976, its use as an economic generator through its immense coal quietly gone when the first pathways were created. It???s 4,211 square kilometers, hundreds of trails and lordy knows how many kilometers of trails there are.
Prairie Creek. ? Why? It’s not in the Prairies and while this little creek may eventually get there, in the meantime, it has to flow to the Elbow River, which is not a long jaunt by any river standards. Once mixed with the Elbow, really, can you recognize which molecules are from Prairie Creek or those of the Elbow as it grinds down to Calgary? Well, nearby is Beaver Mountain, another 2,000 meter plus peak that probably gave it its name. Really, it should have been Beaver Creek (there may be many beaver creeks as beavers are in this part of the world). Note to everyone: never, ever drink straight from water that has beavers in it; it may have a population of giardiasis, a zoonotic parasite too small to see and if you’re unlucky, the cause of very noticeable tummy and intestinal problems. That said, beavers are remarkable and how they engineer their territories are far superior to how we mess with ours in terms of flood control, maintaining ecological diversity and water conservation. But, they have managed to deal with parasites, we are an evolutionary work in progress.
Indian Paint Brush
Prairie Creek is definitely a foothills creek. And, a very horse friendly area with lots of water, grasses and shade. There does not seem to be major falls, rapids or white water; often reflecting the aspens, gloriously so in the fall, running over stones and in parts, clear as a summers day. If there were notable falls and rapids, the parks folks would have moved heaven and earth to have the trail border it, with perhaps a picnic area. It is really, just a pleasant little burbling creek accumulating water and flowing through the lesser valleys in the Rockies, gravity dictating it’s flow to the east. By lesser, I mean, smaller than say the huge valley that the Bow River cruises through.
What did the First Nations peoples call these small and exquisite waterways? What would they have called Prairie Creek? Would they have ridden a horse to follow this creek, hunt, set trap lines, pick raspberries, herbs, mushrooms?
Why Moose Mountain ?
Then there is Moose Mountain. It’s not in the Elbow Loop Trail, but you can get there from Hwy 66 via the Station Flats staging area or West Bragg Creek staging area.
If ever there was a misnomer of a mountain that one probably hits the top 1000 chart. There is no irony, not even sarcasm in the naming. Just wrong. Moose are lowland animals that need to be near water. We have enough moose meadows in Alberta, which you pay great attention to, lest you and your horse sink knee deep or worse into boggy land. Even without a horse, you can sink deep with your own two feet. Those great moose hooves and extra long legs get through, plus they are great swimmers and walk silently through shrubs and brush.
Moose Mountain – Kananaskis
Moose Mountain at over 2,000 meters is more about eagles and hawks; the winds scour areas of short grasses, brilliant flowers and lots of rocks at the summit. One of those places to take a breather with your horse, unpack the saddlebags, find a rock for a picnic and see the amazing vista of the park. If you’re on the Bragg Creek side, half way up in an opening in the dense evergreens, on a clear day you can see the condo towers on Coach Hill, Calgary. On horseback, as you split off to the Moose Mountain trail, it becomes a series of tight, steep, switchbacks through evergreens that cyclists scream down, 9-0. It’s not a good place for a horse. Getting out of the way is not easy, if you even manage to see or hear the cyclists above you. If they are going for broke, good luck. But, if the cyclists are having a more civilized trek down and chatting, I have gotten quite an earful of work-related stuff before they came into view and able to step out of the way and wait for them to pass. They were shocked out of their collective socks, eyes big, not expecting a horse on their trail. But, courtesy prevailed and they kindly told me that more were coming.
This is a wilderness silence place, accentuated by the wind through the trees, rocks and grasses.Perhaps you hear the call of a raptor. But, with every ride, you should have packed a small mental suitcase, not the pile of baggage to see you through for a winter in the Antarctic. And, then, not open it to truly enjoy a moment of just being there and blurring the human outline to hug the landscape.
If meals with family and friends define good relationships with others, then taking a gulp from a water bottle, chomping down on a granola bar in mom natures living room fires up those endorphins to a particularly excited state of enjoyment and helps our sense of place. Did a granola bar ever taste so good?
What my horse thought about all of this, I don’t know. Probably thankful that she was getting a break and could chew on the nutritious, indigenous grasses, cock a hip and lower her head for a snooze. If it’s a longer break, saddle comes off. But, and this is huge, my flat land horse had lots of riding time on various terrain and could do this! Never ask a flat land horse to hit a serious mountain trail the first time out. At best you will have a sore, dehydrated horse. It cannot make up for a water deficit, if you start off without enough in the tank. At worst, you have a very sore, probably cranky, even sick horse that is or is close to tying up. For the horse, lots of breaks, especially for water and lots of chew time (and make sure you include electrolytes for your horse, who, guaranteed, is working a lot harder than you are).
Moments with cyclists and Boy Scouts
Which leads me to actual two occurences.
There I was riding my Sheba along a flat stretch of a meadow, around mid morning: a perfect summer day, the kind where you could fall asleep by the trail with the sun warming your cheek. The creek was on the right winding gently through a bright green meadow, easily accessible and banked with clay soil. Ahead, peddling hard, was a solo male cyclist.
My Sheba was a strangely competitive horse and seemed to like chasing down cyclists and passing them. Seriously, she would, on her own, pick up the pace and sail by. I think there was a see ya (or worse) on her lips with no mental fist bump of congratulations in her attitude. It made sense to pass the cyclist before we got into the aspens and as the trail then narrowed into spruce woods and the thought of leap frogging to test muscle power versus horse-power, just wasn’t fun to think about.
This time, it seemed that the cyclist was not going to give up the lane: somewhat like very irritating drivers who speed up when you indicate you’re going to pass.
Ok, a bit faster. And a bit more. The guy was flying! Stretched over the handle bars and the feet a blur.
As I finally checked the rear views and the lane ahead, I made my pass. I’m not even in a gallop, but I looked at this athlete, with gave a friendly wave, and saw eyes the size of saucers. After a bit of a lope, I found nice access to the creek and headed for it so Sheba could have a slurp. Shortly after, the cyclist came by at a much more relaxed pace.
He looked at me and said, thank god, I thought you were a bear.
I had never thought my shod horse with jingly bits clanking away could have been mistaken for a bear. But, if you’re hearing something going huff, huff, huff behind you, perhaps getting out of Dodge isn’t a bad idea. The cyclist didn’t have a rear view mirror and was too scared to look back, I guess.
Powderface and Prairie Creek Trail Map
On another day, coming back off the loop and getting close to the trailhead at Powderface, I ended up behind a troop of Boy Scouts loaded down with huge backpacks. It was a hot day, so there was no speed to their walk and although they were walking one behind the other they occupied the whole trail, making it really hard to ride around. They were really slow, so slow that my horse was creeping up on them. boys .5 kilometers per hour; horse three. They were a pretty quiet group. Finally, as Sheebs was breathing down on a backpack, with no way to get around the boys, I said, excuse me. The kid was startled and jumped to the side showing yet another set of eyes doing a saucer routine. Neither he, nor anyone in that troop heard or noticed me coming up back.
Did I mention that I have a shod horse walking on stony ground and I’m outfitted in lots of things that jingle and jangle? Sure, prey animals are pretty quiet. And, maybe there are a dozen moose up on Moose Mountain and I have just never seen them. But, put shoes on that moose and things that clank and tinkle and surely, by then, you would notice them.
I didn’t give myself a special badge in ‘Observing,’ as I have walked by oblivious to some astonishing and wonderful things, but it does amaze me how little we sometimes pay attention to what is around us.
In the land of eagles
Perhaps the best story I have heard, and appropriate for this time of year, is that told by Peter Sherrington, The Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation, who made the epic discovery that the Rockies in southern Alberta is on the major golden eagle (and other raptors) migration route to Alaska and the Yukon. Aside from the passion that Peter has for these magnificent birds, a total commitment to conservation and an eagle eye, as a birder in his early days, he was counting all sorts of species all over the place. However, at that time, it was believed that golden eagles were sedentary, that is, non migratory. But, he did something that other scientists charged with learning about the flora and fauna of our land, did not do and that is: Look. Up. Peter states this in his talks with undisguised glee. Scientists were actually based under the flyover area, so had spring and fall to see these birds winging their way overhead. They would count maybe one or two in an hour. Peter, on the other hand, was astonished at the volume of traffic overhead. To be fair to the scientists, once they were given the clue, they immediately began to really look.
With a passion for birds, a science background, huge curiosity and ability to wonder, he looked. We can all muster a passion, bring curiosity and do some wondering. The science. Applying reason, thinking and asking, what if. What did I see ?
Turn around and look back. Look up.
Take a moment off or on your horse and really see what is around you. Stop the internal yada-yada about work, BFFs, or what to make for dinner. You might see that squirrel perched hidden in a tree you, those foot prints that may be a dog, but could be something else. Watch your horses ears as they go up, swivel and point.
And, just look.