I am sleuthing through the pantyhose section at my local drugstore. How does a 6’ 3” chap, a mere neophyte at this game, figure out his size from the plethora of numbers on the back of each little packet? Eventually I hazard a guess and head to the check-out muttering something about my lanky sister.

This completes my defense against saddle sores.

I have borrowed chaps, cowboy boots, saddlebags and a genuine cowboy slicker from a pal who has riding ability to match his gear. Consulting the list I am still short an air mattress, sleeping bag built for arctic temperatures and a duffle bag to stuff it all into.

Saturday morning 8.30am. I take a cab from my hotel to the “Holiday on Horseback” headquarters in downtown Banff. It is too late for any “careful what you wish for” thoughts. My four companions for the next 5 days are already in the van.

John and Eileen, medics from Ontario, are dressed to chase after hounds. English-style jodhpurs, high leather boots and helmets. Only the hunting horn is missing!

Malcom, a Milwaukee doctor looks every inch a cowboy, decked out in a natty leather vest, navy western shirt and tailored chaps. Between the bright red bandana and a perfectly rolled hat brim lurks a huge grin of anticipation.

“Do you know that some of the best bull-riders in The US are African Americans?” He announces, with obvious pride in his Alabama roots. “No really - Wow!”

All three have left their own horses back home. They, like many people from around the world, have come to fulfil a dream. To ride through some of the most pristine and spectacular wilderness the world has to offer.

Suddenly, I am grateful for the few lessons I endured at the hands of a merciless teacher!

Our fifth member Denis, a Quebecer in jeans and sneakers, decided this would be a cool way to fill in time before heading North for the big bucks in Fort MacMurray.

At the Mount Norquay trailhead our horses are already saddled and ready to go. Anything not needed for the ride to our first camp is loaded onto a team of mules - No vehicles are allowed into Banff National Park.

Heather, our pretty young guide from Powell River, has already strapped a couple of wooden boxes onto the back of her favourite mule, Calamity - Along with a battered guitar case and an axe.

She offers a bit of useful advice beginning with: “Your chaps are inside out” and then: “Make sure Crow, (my horse and hopefully new best friend), stays in the lead. He’ll kick anyone who tries to pass!” We set off between idle lifts crossing empty runs that will soon teem with skiers when the snow arrives.

For the first hour we run into an endless stream of jolly South Korean hikers heading up the trail with the aid of walking poles. Didn’t they notice some serious piles of bear scat, not to mention paw prints large enough for a senior Sasquatch?

In 3 hours we have climbed to 2400 metres, crossed rivers and felt as insignificant as ants at the feet of massive mountain peaks – all under a perfect sunny sky. Beyond the day-hiking zone, we are alone. It can’t get much better than this!

Time for lunch. A BBQ and firewood (no chopping in the park without a licence) are magically produced from the boxes attached to Calamity. The air soon fills with the delectable smell of sizzling hamburgers and a boiling coffee pot. A perfect time to get acquainted with new friends and to check body parts for permanent damage. The pantyhose/chaps combo seems to be doing the job!

Around 4 pm we drop down into Stoney Creek Camp. It has taken 7 hours to ride 11 miles over Elk Lake Summit between Brewster and Cascade mountains. I’m ready for a nice cold beer!!

OK – The camps are no place for Princesses or Princes for that matter. Park rules prohibit permanent structures. Everything arrives and leaves by mule. Canvass tents erected over wooden platforms are removed and patched between seasons.

A row of upturned tin bowls, each with a mirror hung above, sit military style on an outdoor plank. I guess it takes a seasoned cowboy to bare his body parts to the elements on a nippy mid-September morning!

The cook tent - The “happening place,” is simply built with white plastic sheeting covering a log frame. There is always a pot of coffee warming on the woodstove. Everyone gathers at 2 long tables to discuss the day, play cards, read or just relax with a beer.

Each of the 3 camps has a hostess/cook whose responsibilities include: Cleaning up between groups; “freshening” the outhouses; washing the dishes and keeping on top of the beer and food supplies which are brought in by mule 3 times a week and stored underground.

Penny presides over the propane oven, the only modern appliance at Stoney Creek. Tonight she is busy creating tomato/basil soup and roast chicken. It is Walter the mule-packer’s birthday. Dessert will be a slice of birthday cake which is deliciously heavy on chocolate and whipped cream.

By 9.30pm, I am delving into my duffle bags delivered by Walter’s mules. I note to set up my sleeping gear before dark in future. I close the tent flaps with laundry pegs provided and proceed with the tricky operation of swapping pantyhose for thermal underwear using only a headlamp!

We leave camp at 9am the next morning. The sky remains dark blue. I’ve got the hang of my chaps. My companions have learned to give Crow a wide berth. All’s well in my world.

Today we get to savour the scenery without meeting another soul. Whether we cross the same river 6 times or 6 rivers once, it’s reassuring to know that our horses are sure-footed. Blooming wild flowers celebrate a late fall. We will spend 2 nights at Flint’s Park camp and rejoice at the thought of a hot shower.

Through cunning planning, groups remain separate. Guides never mention yesterday’s customers. Cooks rarely discuss last night’s guests. However there are exceptions. Amanda, our delightful Australian hostess/cook, was forced to confess that 17 Danes had cleaned her out of beer. A fresh supply would not arrive until tomorrow. Groans all around.

Day #2 at Flint’s Park is noted as a “A day ride.” An opportunity to visit special sights and return to camp for a shower, a cold beer and a night around the campfire.

Sounds good you might think? Until Heather arrives, map in hand, on her favourite mule Calamity. From the mischievous look in her eyes, something is up. “I’ve always wanted to find this lake,” she announces lightly. “Are you interested?”

With that she sets off along the trail – For a while anyway. Suddenly she aims Calamity up a perpendicular cliff through trees growing mere inches apart. Crow’s neck and my head bond as he heads skyward, scrambling to find footing. Going down the other side I am at one with Crow’s tail. The strap preventing my hat from going rogue, is now strangling me.

“Are you sure it’s this way?” I ask plaintively. “Absolutely” she replies, urging her sure-footed mule over a rocky gulley and up to the next ridge.

A voice from way back roars out: “You’ve got to be bloody kidding – I’m not going any further.” It seems that Denis, and his horse for that matter, hadn’t expected anything quite like this. The project is abandoned.

Next day we set off to our last camp in Mystic Valley. The trail takes a turn up the edge of a cliff. The bull elk watches from a distance. A huge golden eagle is perched on a bow that crosses our path. A male ptarmigan puffs up his colourful plumage. I accuse Heather of more bushwhacking. She’s in denial.

We are almost at the snowline as we climb higher. The drop to the right looks as deep as The Grand Canyon. Even Malcom is nervous!

Eventually we tie up the horses in a flat meadow. Time for lunch. Heather leads Calamity through the trees and suddenly we are face to face with Rainbow Lake – The ultimate Kodak backdrop.

This is our last night. The campfire blazes. Heather produces her guitar once again. John adds some Stan Rogers. Malcom throws in a couple of spirituals in his wonderful baritone voice.

Tomorrow we will sadly return to the trailhead at Mount Norquay. No wonder people come from around the world for the unique opportunity to ride through some of the most stunning scenery on earth.

Perhaps someone would like 3 pairs of well-proven, chopped off at the knees, pantyhose?

No! I think I’ll keep them for my next visit for I surely will return.


Ron Warner began these circle trips in 1979. His skilled management hand has ensured that you never eat the same food twice. That you never run into another group. That you always feel special.

The facilities are basic. The scenery is incredible. The staff are all young, upbeat and international. The prices are reasonable. The choice of adventures can be lodge or camp based.

Check the website and book the trip! www.horseback.com



Copyright © 2012 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.