We spot bison, a highlight on this trail ride through Prince Albert National Park thanks to Gord Vaadeland from Sturgeon River Ranch Adventures in Saskatchewan. This is possibly the only one in North America that can claim proximity to these rare and massive creatures that once roamed this region in remarkable numbers. Today the herd in this national park surges and wanes between 200 and 500 each year, with conservation efforts spearheaded by local grassroots groups. The best way to find them is to follow bison prints along trails they carve through the forest (and big pools of poo are evidence of their travels).
During our ride into the park, we encounter about six buffalo in total, mostly from a distance although the lead horse did spook at one point, coming within ten feet of one along a forest trail. Here’s what I learn about bison: first, they stand their ground horses when they get too close and second, they hop. Yes, hop. These massive masculine beasts actually bop along like bouncy wind-up toys across open fields when startled or in need of speed. It’s the most comical surprise of the trip; humour I’ll need to endure a night in a tent fully aware of my own limitations I suspected would surface after the sun sets.
At camp, sleeping bags are provided, and so is dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. Some horses are tied nearby; some graze freely around the perimeter. Or they get smart like Jackson, the chestnut Morgan cross, and stand near the fire pit’s smoke to keep bugs at bay.
After almost three hours of riding, we dismount at our campsite where our fearless leader is most interested in kicking up his heels around the fire and throwing back a beer or two. It’s like being at the cottage with none of the creature comforts, and we wait and watch while staff members scramble to set up, including manifesting a portable cooking station. I’m impressed with the dinner Becky creates using only two frying pans and a Dutch oven – fresh fish, fried Bannock and a mélange of vegetables in a cream sauce that almost magically emerges from an iron pot covered in camp fire cinders. It’s a challenge most Master Chef reality T.V. contestants would fail.
Night, however, is a different experience. I freeze under one sleeping bag and an army-style blanket (despite the flannel cat-print pajamas I wore that invited taunting from tipi mates). My jeans and socks are damp, and peeing in the woods is something I survive thanks to the many squat exercies my gym trainer demands. All hardship angst, however, disappears when I get back on the horse in the morning and head through the forest pushing through tree branches like Mantracker on a mission. And speaking of that reality TV show, Gord appeared on two episodes of that show as the sidekick guiding Mantracker through the very trails we trot through now.
After a peppy two-hour ride back to the entrance of the park (the horse know they’re heading back to the trailers and home), I’m glad to get back to civilization (or a prairie version of such), wish I could take my mount Queenie home with me, and look forward to the shower of my dreams when I finally get to a motel room. I vow never to sleep outside again, never to wear the same jeans for three days in a row, and never to live without indoor plumbing. But glad I’ve crossed that off my bucket list and am happy to leave the great outdoors to the great wild beasts.
That is until I see the photos. The horses look beautiful, everyone riding is smiling and the camera picks up no evidence of bugs, body odor or bruises. The lighting is perfect, rolling hills picturesque, clouds notably cotton-like and sky an ideal eye colour blue. No wonder people from afar think Canada is an impressive Eden of lush green simplicity and maybe, sometimes in certain places, they’re right. And that’s something truly romantic.