Majestic mountains, pristine forests, lakes as clear as glass, tumbling waterfalls and blue skies – people who have always wanted to become one with nature should travel to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. On horseback you not only experience breathtaking scenery, but most importantly, total tranquility.
Silence is golden
Although "The Sound of Silence“ by Simon and Garfunkel was written about twenty years before I was born, it has always been one of my favourite songs. And I have always wondered what it may sound like, the sound of silence. Now I know: Silence sounds like gently rolling hills and mountain tops covered with snow, like horses softly plucking grass between heather in an alpine pasture. Silence sounds like “no phone connection,” like no electricity. Silence sounds like beef steaks, as long as my forearm, which are slowly sizzling over a log fire. Silence sounds like Brokeback Mountain.
This is exactly where I am: the very place where the notorious Hollywood movie about two cowboys in love was filmed. It is half past six in the morning as I wriggle out of my cosy sleeping bag, feeling surprisingly fit and chipper. I open the door of my little log cabin just in time to see the first rays of sunlight crawl over the mountains. Although it is September, it is quite chilly out here, the temperatures in the low single-digits. The sky glows a cheerful pink and luscious orange. Some hundred metres away, our horses have scattered over the open pasture and are leisurely chewing the late summer grass. There are no fences here – if they wanted, our four-legged friends could abandon us here in the wilderness.
Breakfast in the wilderness
"Don’t worry," says Wyatt, the young cowboy who is our guide on this horsepacking trip, as he walks alongside me, with wide-brimmed hat and clinking spurs. "They may wander off at night, but for breakfast they all come back!" And indeed – a short whistle, a loud clatter with the pellet-bucket and here they come: Orbit, the moody pack horse, the jovial big ones, Lusty and Larch, the well-behaved Guy, the mischievous Charlie, and Moon, the gorgeous dark brown gelding that is my horse for the duration - and already very close to my heart. This quarter horse is only five years old, but has already carried me up and down narrow, steep mountain paths without so much as batting an eyelid, has stomped through rivers, marsh and mud and let me steer him with only a tension of my back and the slightest movement of the reins. Even as a non-Western rider, I am indeed over the moon with my lovely Moon.
Now, after he has munched his feed in the little corral, he patiently lets me heave the western-style saddle onto his back – a true show of strength when you are used to a soft Italian show jumping saddle – and waits, tied to a wooden post, uncomplaining until we are ready to ride. Together, Wyatt – who is 24 years old and originally from British Columbia – and I work side by side until all horses are brushed and saddled, but this is a not a silent activity. Wyatt is a far cry from the stereotypical “silent cowboy”. He chatters away happily, shares funny anecdotes with me and, from time to time, he spits a good measure of chewing tobacco on the ground. But he's not a time waster. Quickly, the horses are taken care of. When we have finished saddling, a hearty breakfast of eggs and pancakes awaits us in the biggest log cabin. On this trip, we are accompanied by Hanspeter, a Swiss who immigrated to Canada more than 50 years ago and who has worked as a ski instructor, mountain guide, and “packer” – these are the Canadian outdoorsmen who have mastered the traditional, centuries-old art of loading a pack horse in a way that it can safely carry more than 100 kg of heavy equipment and supplies for a number of riders through rough terrain.
True family tradition
Centuries old, that is a good keyword anyway. Brewster Adventures, the family business with whom I am experiencing this trip into the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is running in the fifth generation now. In order to escape the Irish potato famine, William Brewster immigrated in the mid-19th century to Canada. His son, John settled in Alberta, and founded a dairy. However, his sons did not much like the milk business and started at the tender age of 10 and 12 years to lead guests on horseback through their homeland. The Brewster pack trips have been organised in the backcountry for more than 100 years now. Additionally, there are day rides in the spectacular scenery surrounding the glittering turquoise Lake Louise.
I had already done the eight-hour ride to the two historic tea houses in the middle of the rugged moutain landscape on my first day in Canada and I was immediately fascinated by the sensational view and the agility with which the horses conquer, like mountain goats, the steep and narrow trails – completely untouched by the weight of their sometimes not particularly skilled riders. High and even higher we went, along steep abysses and over stony rubble paths, up to the very ridges of the mountains, from where you can see not only the wonderful, aquamarine lake with the impressive Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, but also dazzling blue-tinged glaciers which lure visitors from all over the world, year after year. As we are out and about in the summer, we have to share our trail with hikers, who are cresting the mountains with heated faces.
From popular lake to solitude
I had thought that day ride to be breathtaking, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of the untouched and secluded back country which we are now riding across on our pack trip.
When I got back from the two-day trip with my jaw on the floor out of sheer astonishment, I got a laugh and an “I told you so” from Lacey Stanton – daughter of Janet Brewster and Kevin Stanton, who alongside her parents is involved in the family business. The lively redhead manages the company’s fortunes in the office and, more or less as a hobby, drives a truck and a trailer with up to 17 (!) horses through the entire country to participate in barrel races and rodeos, and is always on the move. When she is not busy organizing pack trips or coordinating horses for the rides or in the winter, for the sleigh rides on frozen Lake Louise, she trains her show horses or helps her father on the ranch.
Hard work on the ranch
Now that the summer riding season, which runs from May to September, is coming to an end, Kevin Stanton finally has time to move his more than 100 cattle from the summer pasture to the winter pasture – and I am allowed to help. Admittedly, I am a bit nervous as I have been a showjumper all my life and I am not sure if I can keep up with all the experienced cowboys after only a few days in a western saddle.
What I had imagined to be a wild and hectic racket, is another lesson in the topic, silence. Aside from the guttural mooing of the countless cows that we round up in a walk and completely without hectic, everything happens almost without a sound. Not all the cows will be transferred to the other field. Exactly 21 animals are supposed to stay behind in their summer pasture. In the saddle of his faithful Chester, Kevin rides right into the middle of the densely packed bodies of the black ruminants, knowledgeably selects the animals which are not supposed to move and quietly guides them out of the group. When the boss has staked his choices, the gate is opened and the cows move for kilometres and kilometres along the only road to the other pasture. We accompany the herd on our horses, keeping the cattle in check and recapturing the runaways. Even though the cattle drive – which I was only able to attend out of pure chance, it is not something that tourists normally get to do – has little to do with action packed chasing around, it still is exactly how this girl from Germany would vizualize life on a Canadian ranch.
Where the action is
I am told to come back-mid October at all costs - this is when the action is on at the ranch. All the family's horses – traditionally they do not talk about numbers; in the heyday of the pack trips they had about 400, now it is approximately 100 – will be brought to their winter territory in Meadow Creek, where they can enjoy their free time in the wilderness until April. This is not for wimps. The horses range for their own food in winter and if they are thirsty, they might have to break through the ice on one of the countless creeks. In exchange, they get total freedom - no fences, no boundaries, just vastness as far as the eye can see. To get the horses there, Kevin Stanton and his team ride all the way from the ranch to the backcountry on their own horses, the rest run free, chased along the road. This is neither calm nor quiet, it is rapid and spectacular. They gallop up and down the hills. Some escape and have to be roped back. The Wild West is alive!
And it is very much alive in the boss himself. Kevin is a textbook example of a cowboy with a Stetson and well-worn chaps, a voice like rolling thunder and hands like frying pans, but most importantly with the manners of a true gentleman. There was no door that he would not open for me, he helps his guests on and off the horses and radiates calm and quietness. He is responsible for the cattle on the farm, but mainly for the management of the horses. Without further ado, he puts a missing shoe back on a horse – after all, this is what the 61-year-old has been doing all his life. And even the used horseshoes are put to good use: for the Dance Barn in lake Louise, a vast and self-built log cabin for events of all kind, he built a more than 20 metre high Christmas tree out of old horseshoes.
Everybody gets involved
But I also have to salute (quite literally) his wife Janet. The perky business woman at the Kananaskis Ranch is responsible for the organization of things, but she also accommodates and cooks for large gatherings in the on-site “donut” (a round cabin with a hole in the roof, underneath which they can light big log fires) as well as in the lovingly decorated Dance Barn. Corporate events, birthday parties or weddings – they can all look forward to juicy Alberta beef, served in proper style on a pitchfork with baked potatoes and salad, to a country band and lessons in line dancing. Janet has also renovated and restored the more than 100 year old Guesthouse. Up to eight people can enjoy their holidays here with a sensational view over the Bow River, the woods and the adjacent Rocky Mountains. Even people who are not interested in horses get their money’s worth. In 2002, Janet’s tireless father Bud built a modern 18-hole golf course. Kevin’s and Janet’s younger daughter is a veterinarian, but now she wants to switch. She is currently at school in Europe to become a human surgeon.
A real empire
Over the course of many years, the Brewster family has created a true local empire. The Brewster Mountain Lodge, a hotel in the enchanting town of Banff, which is managed by Janet’s sister, is also part of this. The reason that everything nevertheless emanates a very familiar atmosphere is the family itself. “With us, real people pick up the phone,” Janet Brewster explains emphatically. “We do not want people to call us and be fobbed off on a robot or an answerphone.” This direct connection to Canada has one unbeatable advantage: You can talk about anything. Technically, the Brewsters only offer three opportunities for horseback holidays: the rides in lake Louise, which can last from mere hours to a full day, as well as two- and four-day-trips in the back country and sleigh-rides in the winter. However, if there are groups that wish to stay a little bit longer, everything will be made to measure.
“We can easily arrange customized trips”, stresses Lacey Stanton. Normally, the riders organize their way to the ranch themselves, often in rental cars or caravans. If required, they can also be picked up from the airport in Calgary, which is one hour away. The most important thing is authenticity, as Lacey explains. "Our guests want the real thing, no cheesy staff or kitsch and no fake wild west romanticism. Often we get requests from people who want to come to a real working ranch to help, but basically, this is not what we are. My dad breeds and sells his cattle, but that is more of a hobby. We are not a classic cattle station.”
The special thing about Brewster Adventures is the fact guests do not have to bring anything. As Kevin tells me, "on our pack trips, we take care of everything. Our guests do not have to bring sleeping bags or pillows, everything is there in our cabins. And we are one of just a few hosts that have solid accommodation and no tents. It's more comfortable – and safer." The safety aspect is indeed a very important one. After all, the Canadian Rockies are not only home to cougars and wolves, but also to black bears and grizzlies. Especially when they have cubs, you do not want to get close to them.
It is very important to the Brewsters to cater to every guest’s requirements and needs. No matter whether it is an experienced rider or a total rookie – everybody is supposed to enjoy their holidays and be happy and safe. Just a few days before me, Dr. Heinrich Middelmann, a dentist with his own clinic close to Munich, was on a pack trip with his wife – both are beginners and only had two riding lessons beforehand in Germany. As he says, "we were on a trip for three days with two overnight stays and it really was exceptional. It was wonderful and we had no problems at all, not even with sore muscles. And as we had worn long johns as recommended, not even our bums hurt.”
How to organize a trip
Of course it is not really worth flying all the way to Canada from Europe for just a two or three day riding holiday. When you look at all the other things Alberta has to offer, you'll find plenty to do to round out your holiday. Calgary, the nearest city with an international airport, is a must for show jumping fans, especially in September, when the legendary Spruce Meadows hosts the Rolex Master, a five-star event for the best riders in the world. All those interested in Western culture should come two months earlier – in early July, the Calgary Stampede takes place, an enormous exhibition with shows, rodeos, chuckwagon races and much more. And the city itself is certainly worth a visit: compact and neat, it combines tradition and a modern spirit. You'll can find interesting museums, a diverse dining scene, as well as great shopping opportunities.
Near the Brewsters' Kananaskis Ranch, Banff is only three quarters of an hour away. It's in the middle of a gorgeous Banff National Park, which lends itself to hiking, climbing, cycling, canoeing and camping in the summer months. In winter there are all sorts of outdoor activities including skiing at three major resorts, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and dog sledding. Hot springs in town invite holidaymakers to relax, then stroll Banff Avenue for cute little shops and souvenirs, followed by some excellent dining opportunities. Less than an hour from Banff is Lake Louise, where from June to October horse friends can take the rides to the teahouses or the Plain of Six Glaciers I have already spoken about. Or just walk around the lake or hike to one of the tea houses. In winter, from December to April, there are romantic sleigh rides in the snow-draped landscape and ice skating on the lake. In Jasper National Park, which shares its southern border with Banff National Park, there are plenty of possibilities to spend a day with or on a horse. And for all those who do not feel like doing anything, who want to enjoy the feeling of endless freedom and expanse, who want to find themselves and peace and quiet – look no further. You will just have to listen thoroughly and then you will know how it sounds: The Sound of Silence.