Day 17, Saskatchewan Crossing to Banff leg.
Morning dawned cold, clear and crisp with the three of us incredibly grateful for a great night’s sleep and three horses grazing contentedly where we’d left them the night before. Simple things, but life on the trail really shines a spotlight on finding joy and gratitude in simple things. Simple things one might often take for granted: the sunshiney spot on a cold day, shade on a hot day, rest after a tough day, the aroma and first sip of morning’s first coffee. Mmm… Breathe it in. Taste it. Feel it. Savor it. Gratitude.
We saddled and packed the horses, then headed back to the hunter’s camp where we’d seen a well-used trail that was directionally correct. So great, because the area between Bighorn Dam and Onion Lake had been one of our areas of concern: was there a trail? We were very grateful for the trail and its quality so far and hoped it would continue.
The trail climbed steadily up the mountain in series of switchbacks to a small trampled down area in a stand of trees. From there, the switchbacks stopped and the trail went pretty much straight up the mountain. Holy Smokes! Whoever built this trail needs to relax a bit and throw in a few switchbacks! We had dismounted long ago and were leading the horses. This was officially the longest, straightest, steepest trail I’d ever taken a horse up!
Finally, the vertical grind ended as we reached a plateau. Not only did the grind end, so did the trail. It’s gotta be here somewhere. We let the horses rest and graze while we scouted for the trail. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So, back down we went. This was officially the longest, straightest, steepest trail I’d ever taken a horse down!
What we think happened is this. The hunters would ride horseback up the switchback trail and then tie them in the stand of trees, hence the trampled area. From there, they would jackrabbit straight up the mountain on foot, then spread out and hunt. None of us are hunters, but that’s our best guess.
We retrace, almost all the way back to the hunter’s camp, looking for some sort of trail heading off in the direction we know we need to go. Nothing. So far, we’ve put on roughly 5km and zero progress. Ugh! We know the direction we’ve got to go. We know the North Ram Trail is over there somewhere. We can’t find a connecting trail anywhere. The GPS tells us it’s a little over 2km to the North Ram Trail, as the crow flies. We decide to bushwhack.
At first, it wasn’t bad, relatively flat and not too thick. Definitely better than the bushwhack we did on days 3 and 4 in the Willmore. Then, a scary moment. The bush was getting thicker, there was more deadfall and the spaces tighter. One spot in particular was pretty tight with deadfall and the only way through was between some standing dead trees. Peter went through first, but as Tina went through, the right saddle bag hit the tree. It didn’t seem like it hit it particularly hard, but apparently it was hard enough to knock the tree down.
I was riding directly behind her and saw the tree start to fall. “Tina! Look out!” But it all happened so fast she had no time to react. The tree fell, hitting her in the head, glancing off and falling to the ground on her right. Somehow, she stayed in the saddle. Miraculously, she wasn’t hurt. Sore and momentarily stunned, she shook it off, regrouped and we continued on. One. Tough. Lady.
We continued grinding our way through the bush until the terrain changed, dropping steeply into the North Ram drainage. The best route down that we could find was a narrow, steep, scree-filled, spring runoff drainage. So, leading the horses, down we went.
It was shortly after 1:00 by the time we got to the bottom and the North Ram River. We’d been on the trail six hours and made less that 3 km of actual progress. Time for a lunch and grazing break.
After lunch, rested and refreshed, we scouted across the river on foot and found the North Ram Trail. From here, the trail we pretty straightforward and easy to Onion Lake. From there, there we followed a great ATV trail until we came to a beautiful meadow on the side of the trail and decided to call it a day.
24.5 km travelled, more if you include the distance travelled on foot scouting for trail. Subtract our little venture up the mountain and back, roughly 19 km of actual progress. A tough day on the trail. Tomorrow should be better.