Day 15, Saskatchewan Crossing to Banff leg.
Up early. Restless night; for me, anyway. Too much good food and beverage last night; toss in the constant hum of the generator and well, this boy wasn’t as fresh and ready for our big day as he’d hoped. I think the simplicity of life on the trail agrees with me.
We pack up and load Rodeo and Charlie into the trailer. Gunner meets us at 7:00 and we head out to his place to pick up Dixon. Ahi will stay behind to rest, complete his medication prescription and hang out with his newfound friends.
We stop to fuel up the Adventure Rig at the local Petro-Canada and on the other side of our diesel pump is Whaly, a super-cool, customized Mercedes AF 1120: the ultimate expedition vehicle. It was owned by a young Swiss couple who were travelling the America’s, blogging and vlogging about their adventures. Somehow, our driver, Peter G, had either met them earlier in the trip, or on another one of his adventures somewhere. Regardless, he greets them, introduces everybody and a huge Swiss German conversation breaks out at the pumps. I missed most of it, since my Swiss German is non-existent, but the feeling and camaraderie was palpable: adventurers meeting on the trail and enthusiastically sharing in each other’s unique journey. We wished each other safe travels and went our separate ways.
We were stopped at a stop sign, when I noticed this lady on the sidewalk enthusiastically waving to us, trying to get our attention. Whadaya know, it’s the lady Peter and I visited with on Nigel Pass two days earlier, as she was day hiking with her daughter into the White Goat Wilderness. She’d recognized Peter in the passenger seat and wanted to wish us continued safe travels on the rest of our adventure.
By now, we’re pretty comfortable with pushing the boundaries of the Highway 93 vehicle restrictions, so back down the highway we go, retracing our way south, past the Nigel Pass trailhead, then turning east through Saskatchewan Crossing. We stop for lunch at the David Thompson Resort & Restaurant. It’s their last day of business before closing for the season. Not much for tourist traffic through that part of the country after Labour Day long weekend.
With full bellies, we continued on past Abraham Lake to the Bighorn Dam. Crescent Falls, on the north side of the highway, is where Peter and I would’ve come out on Leg 2 of our journey if we’d been able to cross the Brazeau. We turn south, cross the Bighorn Dam, saddle the horses, say our goodbyes to Peter G and hit the trail. Leg 3: Saskatchewan Crossing to Banff had begun!
This area was an ATV paradise with a maze of wide, cleared trails. Between posted trail maps, signposts and our GPS, we make our way 11 km to the singletrack horse trail that would take us through the Kiska/Willson Public Land Use Area (PLUZ) into the Upper Clearwater/RAM PLUZ, and then, Banff National Park. We set up camp for the night.
The loaner horse, Dixon, is working out very well. He’s an experienced backcountry horse, walks out well and doesn’t cause trouble with the other horses. That said, Rodeo and Charlie sure seem to want a piece of him and let him know, in no uncertain terms, who’s who in this little herd. We decide, as we’re setting up the portable electric fence, to create a separate pen for him so he doesn’t get beat up by the others. Unfortunately, first thing he does is check out the electric fence. ZAP! Right on the nose. The fence is working well. He bolts and runs through the fence line into Rodeo and Charlie’s area. They aren’t very hospitable and run him through the other fence line.
Things settled down after the initial chaos and the horses began to graze. Peter and I start to rebuild the electric fence enclosure, while Tina kept an eye on the horses. Suddenly Tina comes racing up to Peter and I, “Dixon is leaving!”, she exclaimed with horror.
Apparently, after getting bitten by Rodeo, Charlie and the electric fence, Dixon decided he’d had enough of this new herd and was heading home. Tina says she watched it happen. He stopped grazing, raised his head, seemed to pause and think, then slowly start to walk and then trot down the trail, heading back to the trailhead. She was immediately on top of things to try to catch him, but it all developed so quickly, and she just couldn’t catch up.
I grabbed Charlie, hopped up bareback and started out after Dixon, figuring he’d slow down or stop to graze. He was wearing a bell, so eventually I’d hear it, find him, catch him and bring him back. Great plan! Except, he didn’t stop; and he didn’t slow down and I couldn’t keep up the bareback trot. Getting Charlie in shape for this trip had resulted in a much bonier set of withers; and let’s just say Charlie’s back wasn’t the Big Comfy Couch like it usually was when I rode him bareback all winter.
I trotted as much as possible, then got off and ran, leading Charlie. When I got tired, I’d either walk, or hop back up and trot some more. Dixon was leaving a very distinct set of hoof prints that we were following down the myriad of trails, back to the trailhead. He must’ve trotted the entire way because we never heard his bell or saw him.
By the time we’d retraced the 11 km back to the trailhead, it was dark, the temperature had dropped, and it was beginning to rain. Then I heard a bell! And saw a flashing red light. Some guy was standing there holding Dixon. It took a minute, or three, before I realized the guy was Peter G; I hadn’t recognized him in the dark and rain. Peter had messaged him on the Garmin InReach, letting him know what was going on and asking him to return to the trailhead to intercept our runaway pony. He, Tina and Rodeo were on their way.
We hung out in the shelter of some trees, waiting for Peter and Tina, as the rain intensified. Finally, Peter G suggested we go back to the truck and trailer where it was drier. There was no way we were going back to our camp tonight in this weather. About 45 minutes later, we see a light coming down the trail. It’s Peter’s flashlight. They’re soaked and cold. We put all the horses in the trailer with feed and track down every spare sleeping bag, clothing and horse blanket we can find. Bundling up as best we can, Peter, Tina and Peter G crash in the small living quarters of the trailer while I hunker down in the truck.
Disaster averted. We hadn’t lost our loaner horse, but it was a cold, wet, miserable, sleepless night.