Through the Wilds of Banff National Park

by Hidden Trails 04/06/2007

A grizzly bear stood just 30 feet from me.  It paused from its romp in the berry bushes to gaze curiously at me, no doubt wondering how much of an imposition I might become. My racing heart went into my throat as the great bear stood upright on its hind legs.


Its curiosity lasted only seconds before it decided I was less interesting than the berries on the bushes. The grizzly went back to eating and I went back to breathing normally again.


This encounter was just one of the many surprises I got during my week-long Hidden Trails trip in Banff’s Rocky Mountains. I had been craving for an “unusual” trip, an adventure. For better and for worse I got exactly what I hoped for.




Day 1 – Arriving in Banff in the early morning, I daydreamed about how I’d look on horseback. In my mind I pictured myself looking like a glamorous movie star in a slow motion shot with my hair streaming behind me as I rode effortlessly through the forest. A beam of sunlight would break through the dense trees and shine on me illuminating my hidden but undoubtedly natural riding ability. In truth, my actual riding experience was minor at best but that didn’t stop me from my daydream.


On this six-day adventure trip I joined with a motley crew of outdoor enthusiasts and experienced horseback riders from all over the world.  I’m the least experienced of the bunch and it takes only seconds for my glamorous daydream to turn into a very un-glamorous reality. It started to rain so I put on my two-sizes-too-big, rented rain slicker and starched straw cowboy hat. I look a lot like Billy Crystal’s character from the City Slickers movie, which is not really comforting since I’m female. My cowboy wardrobe is warm and necessary but completely erases gender and utterly lacks in movie-star glamour.  The rain starts to pour so I button my coat.


A tough looking cowboy type, who I am sure will spit chewing tobacco onto the ground any second, introduces himself as our guide Barry Ferguson. This area is literally his backyard being born and raised in Banff and none of us doubt his ability or authority here.


Next, a stream of gorgeous horses is paraded into the corral. My adrenaline surges and I’m back to my glamorous daydream. Then I meet Shea. She’s the mule assigned to be my ride for the week. A mule? In a split second I revert back to being Billy Crystal again. I find out that the majority of tourists on these excursions ride horses for the trip but occasionally someone gets the privilege of riding a mule. Since I’ve never met a mule before I decide to reserve my opinion until later.


The days’ first ride culminates at Stoney Creek Camp where we get a choice of pre-constructed canvas tents to bunk in.  With wooden pallet floors, the tents are scattered throughout the camp and are spacious enough to fit two people plus a lot of gear. I’m solo on this trip so I get my own tent along with the responsibility of unpacking and organizing the gear.


After a full day’s ride I was less than graceful lugging my bedroll, sleeping bag and rucksack over to my tent.  Ughh… where were the strong, young cowboys to do the heavy lifting?


Along with being experienced horseback riders everyone else in my group was also an experienced camper and fully capable of handling their gear. They finish setting their camps long before I do but I get several compassionate looks and words of encouragement and I stubbornly persist with the task.


Later I realize it’s easy to take for granted all the lights the city offers at night. In the mountains dark is really dark and this is completely evident when trekking alone by flashlight to the outhouse. Note to self: avoid these perilous treks by limiting intake of fun drinks after dinner.


Day 2 – I have abandoned my fantasy of effortlessly galloping my mount through the dense forest. Did I really think that I could do that? Instead I focus on learning the skills necessary not to fall off Shea and to just possibly ride without bouncing like a rodeo clown.


The second day’s ride is scary but gorgeous. Barry takes us through a meandering mountain trail. At times, the brush is so thick I’m grateful for the over-starched hat that protects my eyes as I duck my head.  At other times we’re on high mountain slopes overlooking surreal views. This area is so deep in the Rocky Mountain backcountry that you can only travel there by horseback. The isolation is evident as we continue for an entire day, never seeing other people at all.


Reaching a lower level on the mountain we suddenly see an entire herd of Elk calmly making their way through a clearing. They’re magnificent and only mildly interested in us. We’re further rewarded by seeing the herd’s babies rush enthusiastically after their mothers.


Day 3 – I’ve made friends with Shea the mule.  I was dubious at first but I quickly learned that mules are not only very steady on their feet, making the steepest slopes feel smooth, but they can also be more affectionate than your average horse. Shea enjoys a snuggly ear scratch at rest breaks. This helps us bond.


Barry the guide is a “mule whisperer”, renowned in his industry. He takes time during our trip to show me a few skills.  So far, I’ve learned how to properly rein-in, stop and slow down and even go backwards. This may seem a small accomplishment to a more experienced rider, but for me it was a stark jolt of reality. Riding, whether it’s a mule or horse, takes skill and concentration. It’s a challenge both physically and mentally as the rider must firmly, but kindly exert himself as the master of the animal. This is no easy feat since the animal has the advantage of instinctively knowing just how experienced its rider is.


Today we rode to Flint’s Park Camp, our second camp on the trip.  The terrain was very challenging with steep trails overlooking 7,000-foot drop offs. The other tourists gasped appropriately, impressed with views of the Canadian wilderness. I was impressed too but admit to also squinting my eyes closed on the scary, steeper parts of the trail. Barry told me that closing my eyes while on horseback is a stupid thing to do. His point was quickly learned after I got whacked on the head from a nearby spruce branch I didn’t see.


At Flint’s Camp we unload our gear and choose tents again. This time setting camp goes more smoothly than before and I feel like I’m getting the hang of it. I make it to the kitchen tent in plenty of time to visit with the others before the huge meal is served.  At each camp there is a large kitchen tent equipped with tables. The camp cook prepares meals. I’m relieved that someone else is doing the cooking!


That evening we enjoyed a campfire and the American tourists taught the Europeans how to make smoores deserts.  The evening has become especially chilly. The days are warm enough to wear just a light shirt but the nights are quite cool even though it’s summertime.


Day 4 –A frosty night’s sleep. Literally. Last night’s chill turned into a Canadian freeze as temperatures dipped to – 8C overnight.  The other tourists are stunned, most having never experienced these temperatures before. I’m thankful for being Canadian and able to anticipate what cold feels like. I made it through the night just fine with my thick sleeping bag and extra fleece blanket.


The tour company informs guests far in advance to pack prepared for cool nights but some people thought Canadian weather was exaggerated. Those people had a cold night.



Our ride that day was rewarded by more incredible wildlife spottings. Deer, Big Horned Sheep and dozens of mountain goats graced our day. I have actually become skilled enough on the mule to manage taking photos while remaining mounted. Plus we traversed a steep ridge walk in our pursuit of wildlife viewings, and I didn’t need help once.  I am becoming an outdoorsy-type! 


Barry shows us how to spot animal “droppings” so we know what kinds of animals are nearby. We spot lots of cougar and grizzly droppings as we go. Our tour group jokes about how we feel like prey knowing these creatures are so near. The nervous laughter adds some excitement to the trail and we ride on.


Day 5  Spectacular ride today. The winding trails led us up high and then opened onto the secluded Rainbow Lake. This is a real treat and total surprise as no one expected to have lunch gathered around a lake. The trees surrounding this area are hundreds of years old and provide picturesque backdrop.


That evening we ride into Mystic, our final camp. I jump down from Shea and grab my waiting gear. It takes me only a few minutes to get my stuff unpacked and stored. I don’t bother with the careful separation of dusty to cleaner stuff like before, having realized that we tough outdoorsy-types care little for such trivialities.  I am jubilant in my accomplishment and make my way to the dinner tent.


Day 6 – It’s our last day of the adventure. At times I wondered if I’d been crazy to do this. I’ve never been so dirty or had so many “adrenaline moments” at one time before. Our tour group jokes endlessly on the trail as we reminisce over our previous week. I join the laughter and realize I’m proud of myself for doing this trip.


I actually learned to ride and to do it reasonably well. What’s more, I had the adventure I was looking for and even saw a wild grizzly bear.


It’s a pleasant nine-mile ride from Mystic Valley to the awaiting mini-bus at Mount Norquay Corral.  As we approach the tree line a beam of sunlight breaks through the dense forest and shines right on me and Shea. For a split second I swear I looked as glamorous as a movie star.


The Banff rides are booked through Hidden Trails in Vancouver. Check out their website -- there are many wonderful rides !


By Cheyenne Steffen

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