The Wild Wild West in Canada
“Easy girls”, I hear Tim’s voice from the front. He doesn’t mean me, of course, but the two mule mares drawing the coach I am on. Earlier that day a two-hour truck drive brought me from Banff to the Bighorn camp-ground on the edge of Banff National Park, Alberta. I was about to gather my first WWOOFing experience, leaving behind electricity, running water, phone reception and lazy days lying in. One and a half hours later I would reach The Outpost ranch.
“There was nothing here, when I first got here”, Tim tells me on another day. In the late 70s he set out to purchase property on the doorstep of the national park and in 1980 launched The Outpost lodge. Its first guests were accommodated in tents, but today, 34 years of business later, luxury levels rose considerably – even though the back-country lodge still lacks the above mentioned commodities. Cozy cabins with wood-burn stoves, a welcoming lodge used as living and dining room, plenty of corals, sheds and barns with room for over 30 horses, a little shower cabin with a glass roof and an outdoor whirlpool with the most beautiful mountain panorama right in front of it. Idyllically surrounded by the high rocky summits of Warden Rock and Wapiti and shouldering the banks of turquoise Red Deer River, The Outpost has room for up to 20 guests, and offers back-to-the-roots weekend retreats with horse-back riding, stage-coach tours, hiking, fishing and ranch-style meals.
If you haven’t heard about WWOOFing before, also check out Travelettes guest-blogger Louise’s experiences here. Basically it means Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. In exchange for work, a WWOOFer receives accommodation, meals and plenty of fun – a great way to experience a country from a special side.
When I decided to WWOOF in Canada, I was looking for two things: horses and back-country. I found both in the description of this place. I made arrangements and here was the plan: two weeks on an isolated farm/lodge with no phone, internet or electricity. I didn’t know anything else. The coach ride actually came as a surprise. And actually, it was snowing, when I first got there. And it was cold. Pretty soon, I thought, “What the heck am I doing here?” We arrived at the lodge, lighted a fire in our cabin and tried to outline our new home. But everything hid underneath the snow. Luckily I wasn’t alone, but two German girls joined me for this adventure.
Our daily chores for the next two weeks included feeding and brushing the remaining 4 horses and 2 mules, cleaning out their corals, cook three meals a day and do the dishes. Additionally Tim found plenty of other jobs to do. We built a new shed in one of the horse corals, rebuilt broken rails, dug holes for fence posts, moved beautiful coaches from shed to shed, split firewood etc. In between we enjoyed hot coffee, cold rum & coke, delicious cakes and pies, and of course, great company.
All work and no play, makes Kathi a dull girl.
Luckily, there was also plenty of time for breathtaking tours along the river banks and into the national park. Sometimes we would walk in the late summer sun, more often get carried across country on horse-back. We were on a ranch after all! Going out on my own with big Diamond one day was definitely the highlight of my stay – if not of my entire horse-loving life. Impossible to get lost (I repeatedly reassured myself before setting out) I rode down the valley and back up again. Crossing the ice-cold river, exploring forest trails and making my way across wide meadows, I felt like in a cowboy-film, well cowgirl. Unfortunately my precious camera wouldn’t my fit in my saddle bag and my phone was out of battery. But the feeling of pure freedom can’t be captured anyways.
The Hay Days
Soon the ranch would fall into hibernation, like the brown bears of the Rocky Mountains. We spent the last days of golden October getting in hay. And even though this sounds romantically peasant, believe me, it is not. But again, hard work was rewarded with cakes, pies and yummy drinks. Tim and his crew retreat to Banff over the winter, while the lodge freezes over and vanishes under a thick cover of snow. Only in May would the people and horses come back to The Outpost and a new season of horse-riding guests and hard-working WWOOFers would begin. Until then, happy winter!
A big thank-you goes out to Tim and his partner Julie, who gave me the opportunity to experience this very special place in the Canadian Rockies. And although I wish I could have dug holes in the “Sandy Mountains”, and horses would feed on fluffy cotton instead of itchy hay, I will never forget the pink sunrises, the yellow fog on evenings, the richly filled root cellar, the interesting stories about all parts of Canada and the lessons on wich-tool-to-use-how. Thank you for my first Thanksgiving and the real cowgirl feeling on Diamond’s back. I hope to be back some day.
All pictures by Kathi Kamleitner, except coach & cabin interior via The Outpost’s website.