It is the beginning of September. Fall is pretty close, but the weather ist still friendly and warm. Eleven brave Trail Rider from four different countries are going to head out together - into the adventure of their life!
It is early morning when we began our journey in Jasper. Several trucks and three big horse trailer were bringing us and 17 horses to our starting point, just behind the famous Columbia Icefield Glacier.
We've met our horses a day before and had the chance to get to know them on a short test ride. Most of them are strong Draft Mixes. All of them were very experienced Backcountry Trail Horses.
Now it was time to tack up and to put all our equipment on the horses. All our personal stuff needs to fit on our horse. Mainly this is rain gear, sleeping matt, sleeping bag, clothes to change, a few bathroom things and a bit food and water for the day.
Tents, tarps, food and all kitchen utensils are distributed in boxes to the five pack horses. In addition, we have three chainsaws and an axe with us. The trails ahead of us have not been used for the past three years. This means that there is a large number of trees down and this makes the paths partly impassable. We have a big task ahead of us...
There is a bustling spirit of optimism. Everyone is scurrying around and suddenly it starts. A total of 140km of the South Boundary Trail through Jasper National Park want to be mastered by us.
Already behind the first corner, the rough forests of the Rocky Mountains swallow us up and quickly bring us from our heads into our hearts. No more time for thoughts, all that remains is amazement, excitement and joy.
Goodbye Civilization – Hello Wilderness
A new reality apears in front of us, revealing its breathtaking beauty more and more behind every new corner. Slowly we wind our way up the first steep mountain. It is the Nigel Pass, its crossing will take us to the first valley. The trail is steep and rocky. The free-roaming pack horses are already getting very creative and looking to find their own path through the rough landscape.
Down in the valley we arrive at Brazeau River, which we will follow for the next time. This first day asks a lot of strength from us. After a short rest, there are another 10km ahead of us.
We leisurely work our way along the river and we cross it a few times. About two hours before darkness we reach our first camp for the night. We unsaddle our horses and set up camp.
At the same time, we began collecting wood and starting a fire. Someone brings water from the river in large, iron pots and puts it on the fire. A routine that will soon become familiar to us. Peter cooks dinner while our guide Gunner and his two Wranglers let the first half of our horses free to graze. It’s planned that after a while the horses will be swapped so that the other group can graze. The rest of the horses wait patiently tied up in the trees. Some are dozing, as they seem tired from this long day. In the background you will hear the bells ringing that the grazing horses wear around their necks. But after a while, we suddenly don't hear anything anymore! That's not a good sign!
From now on, every day brings up a new story...
Gunner and his team run in to the direction in which the horses have disappeared. It's already getting dark and one can hardly see anything. The horses which are still waiting tied to the trees, are slowly becoming restless. They also sense that the other horses are not longer here. We decide to let them hand graze a bit. A good two hours pass before we finally hear a neighing in the dark, as well as a soft ringing of bells. We breathe deeply as a sigh of relief. After a while, the men show up leading three horses with them. They were able to follow them to the last major river crossing. The horses were just about to head over to the other side, but the men were able to stop three of them and bring them back to camp. On foot, the men had no chance to get through the deep river. So they had to let the last six escapees go.
The next morning they headed out with the first morning light to look for the missing horses. It took them more than 4 hours to get back the rest of them. They were very tired but safe.
It was already noon when we loaded our equipment onto the horses and were able to move on. The route led us further along the valley, always following the river upstream. To our left, vertical rock walls of the nearby mountains stood out. To our right stretched the extensive valley, which in turn ended in the mountain slopes on the opposite side.
A very impressive setting.
After a few hours we reached our new camp called Brazeau Meadows. We wanted to stay here for two days. This time we didn't have to worry that the horses would run away again. On the one hand, there was significantly more food here, as the areas had not been grazed in recent years. On the other hand, this horse camp was so well laid out that the exits could be closed with a wooden fence. Due to these good conditions, the whole herd was allowed to roam and feed freely.
We pitched our tents and tarps right by the river. Although it was a bit risky not to seek shelter between the trees because of the already very cold nights, it was also too tempting because of the indescribable scenery.
Brazeau Meadows spoils us with all the benefits that a camp could offer. Some of us went swimming in the river for the first time. We were able to wash our hair and clothes. The water was bright blue and yes, ice cold! But what an indescribable exhilaration when we were clean and warm wrapped in fresh clothes. Life's highlights can sometimes be so simple!
Am folgenden Tag planten wir einen kurzen Ritt zum Brazeau Lake, quasi der Ort, wo der Brazeau River entspringt. Doch bevor der Tag richtig los ging, weckte uns unser Guide Peter und brachte allen frischen Kaffee oder Tee an den Schlafplatz. Das sorgte für viel heitere Stimmung. Unsere Matratzen und Schlafsäcke waren von dieser Nacht mit einer Eischicht bedeckt. Wir hatten das erste Mal bei Temperaturen im Minusbereich draußen geschlafen. Ein heißes Getränk war also mehr als willkommen!
After sitting around the campfire having breakfast with warm porridge, we set off. Our horses enjoyed the easy ride to the lake. The sun was high in the bright blue sky. Although we were already very close to the alpine area, it was warm and the lake literally invited us to go for a dip. That's what we did first. The atmosphere was exuberant and cheerful and everyone who was brave enough to plunge in this very cold water, or even swim, was loudly celebrated. If you're not used to that, it takes a lot of strength, but the Canadian flair and the warm sun helped us to be brave.
Afterwards, our guide Peter invited us for a rich lunch from his saddlebag. He had thought about everything. There was smoked salmon from Alaska, homemade dried meat, various dried fruits, nuts and very tasty cheeses from France and Switzerland. It all tasted so good out here! We happily ate our way through the rich buffet and listened to Peter's numerous adventure stories from trail riding all over the world.
On our way back we stop at one of the ranger cabins. Our guide Gunner, who is a local and the owner of the horses, told us stories about the family that once lived here. He showed us an old logbook, which was started in 1978. Anyone who passed by at one of these cabins could register themself. We browsed through these old records and in the end, we didn’t miss the opportunity to immortalize ourselves by putting our names in it, almost 50 years after the first ad.
The next morning, we moved on, leaving the Brazeau area behind. This time our destination was a camp at Isaac Greek. We found the next rancher's cabin and another logbook to browse and immerse ourselves. We learned more stories about life out here in the wilderness. The park ranchers usually roamed these areas on horseback, and some of them still do so. That’s why there is usually large grassland near these cabins, so the horses can find enough food. This should benefit our horses during the coming night.
The trail was easy that day, had only gentle climbs and led us through the most beautiful swamplands, forests, streams, along enchanting waterfalls and extensive grasslands picturesquely framed by the mountains.
The ride was not very long and after a few hours we reached Isaac Creek. It was still early afternoon, so we had plenty of time to explore this new place. The river was particularly wide at this point and the entire riverbed was so huge that one could hardly see it with their yes at once. This scene was framed by rugged mountains that began to glow fiery red at sunrise and sunset!
That also was the gift of the next morning. It was still dark night when the wranglers started the campfire and fetched fresh water from the river. Them and I set off with the first barely imaginable light to look for the horses.
The atmosphere was magical when we found the horses on the vast grasslands in the mystical light of the blue hour. They came running to us as soon as they saw us. They knew it was time to return to camp. When we reached the camp, some horses decided to walk a little further to the river to quench their thirst. I followed them, while at the same time the sun set fire to the surrounding mountain peaks, bathing the whole scene in a glowing hue of pink and orange. The air above the river was still slightly foggy and intensified this explosion of colors. Everything in me became very quiet and I would have loved to stop time at that moment.
After breakfast it was time to clear camp and saddle the horses. We were getting better and better at this routine. This time we were fast enough with our own horses, so we could help load the pack horses. I had asked our guide Gunner the day before if he could teach me. It is a special way in which the boxes must be attached to the pack saddles with a certain rope and knot technique. After watching the first few days, I was allowed to give it a try for the first time and practice this new skill. A few group members joined us curiously. Together we supported the wranglers as best we could so that they were no longer alone with the hard work.
After all horses were loaded, we set off again during the late morning. The landscape should hardly change today compared to the previous day. It was a pleasure to ride through this unspoiled nature. The weather continued to be friendly, sunny and warm. How lucky we were!
A few hours later, the forest suddenly changed dramatically. We entered a area that had burned down in 2006. The scene seemed almost a bit eerie. Many dead, knotless trunks stood up vertically, countless partially burned trunks lay crisscrossed on top of each other, like in a giant Mikado game. Young trees sprout upwards by thousands, crowding close together in competition for the best place and light. Some of them were about two meters high. They are mostly pine trees, and we learn that they grow very slowly, which is why they were still so small after 17 years. Between all this dense chaos there is a narrow path, which we followed for a while.
A little later, the path leads us along a ridge and gives us a view over the river further down and the surrounding foothills of this forest. Everything had burned down as far as the eye could see. The dimension of this area is almost incomprehensible. Between the trees, another rancher's cabin appears. Gunner said it got rebuilt after the fire.
We manage a short but steep descent and arrive at the bottom of the river, which we needed to cross. This time the river is not very wide, but fast and deep. The men in front are crossing it first with their horses. The pack horses, which run freely behind, follow. However, they decided to cross the river further to the right. But the water was much deeper at this spot and very raging due to a few rapids. I was the last rider further up the slope. I was able to watch the scene with slight worries. Peanut and Pepsi were our two strongest pack horses. My breath stopped as I had to watch helpless from above as they barely reached the masses of water and struggled hard. While the two fjord horses bravely tried to reach the other bank, unfortunately some of the following horses and their riders decided to go after the pack horses instead of crossing the river further to the left in the shallower area. It was hard to watch how the horses were in trouble down there and could hardly make any progress in the raging masses of water. I started shouting down “Keep to the left!”. But one horse after another jumped into the whipped river. Finally, a rider was able to stop its horse at the riverbank, so that it would not blindly follow the previous ones. With a big relief we watched how the horses fought their way out of the water and arrived safely on the other side. The rest of us crossed the river at the shallower point and even there the water was so deep that we got wet. The current was so strong that it was a hard piece of work for our horses.
Full with adrenaline, but also happy and satisfied, we reached our new camp at the Southest River. Here we would stay for the next two days. The grassland was several square kilometers big and thus a lot of fresh food for the horses. They left happily when we released them that evening.
The next day was to be another break day for the group. They would again take an easy ride in the area, or just stay in camp and rest. Everyone could decide for themselves.
However, Gunner and the two Wranglers had other plans. They wanted to ride as far ahead as possible on the next section of the track to clean up as many fallen trees as possible. They had invited me to come with them. I agreed with pure excitement. The next morning, the four of us left early, not knowing what to expect ahead of us.
In the burned area, there was a particularly large number of fallen trees. However, most of them were passable, so we decided to clean them up on our way back. We wanted to ride as far out as we could. Our deadline was 2 p.m. to return so we would be back at camp by dark.
We had to cross the river a few times. It had washed out the trail again and again, sometimes up to several 100m. For us, it meant looking for the trail and putting new markings on the trees. Sometimes the path was completely overgrown with dense bushes that we had to ride through. One really shouldn't be squeamish here. One or two times we lost track but we were able to find it quickly.
The men cleared as many trees as they could that day, while I followed with all the horses in tow. Tired, we reached the camp in the evening shortly before dusk. Satisfied that it would be much easier for the whole group to tackle the next section of the route the next day.
Up into the Alpine...
Our next camp we reached near Cairn Pass, just below the tree line. Here, too, we were supposed to stay for two days, as a team had to move out again to clear the trails in front of us. This time, two men from Parks Canada were even flown in by helicopter to support us.
The next morning we were heading out as a team of 6. Which was good, because the number of trees blocking the trails was incredibly high this time. There were so many that unfortunately we couldn't finish all of them that day. So we had about 9km trail ahead of us left for the following day.
While the trail team bravely worked their way through the trees, the rest of the group went on a hike to one of the nearby peaks. The diligent hikers were rewarded with a breathtaking view over the surrounding valleys, lakes and rivers. Autumn had already arrived up here and the blaze of colours was another bonus for the eyes.
The next morning, Gunner, his team and I left early. We wanted to have a head start on the rest of the group so we could continue to clean up. On our last 5 kilometers to the next camp, the group caught up to us. We were making very slow progress. There were so many trees that it was no longer possible to get through. All chainsaws were now in use, Peter and another participant pitched in. With combined forces, we fought our way through to the end as a team and finally reached our last camp for this trip on Medicine Tent River.
A bit wistfully, we set up our camp. One last dinner together around the campfire. Gunner and Peter created something particularly delicious for us. One last night under the stars, the murmur of the river, the soft tinkling of the grazing horses in the distance. I took it all in before I fell asleep under my tarp …
The soft tinkling of the horses in the distance?!
Again it was gone the next morning. The horses have wandered so far that we could no longer locate them. It took Gunner and his team about 3 hours to bring them back this time. But it wasn't exciting for us anymore. Meanwhile we were used to it. It is part of the game that things like that happen. Since ten days, we have been living exclusively in the rhythm of nature, accepting the conditions the day brought us. What day of the week it was, or which hour of the day, we didn’t know since a while. Thus, even such an event could no longer disturb us. After a short breakfast everyone cleans up camp as much as possible. As soon as the horses arrived at camp, we load them up all together hand in hand and set off.
Our last section was ahead of us. And it also was our most challenging of the whole trip. We were still high up in the alpine area, at over 2000m. A few times we went very steeply uphill and downhill. The path sometimes was less than 10cm wide on the steep scree slopes. Very exciting for us, but the horses were incredible and mastered this with a lot of strength, endurance and the necessary calmness. But even they needed to catch their breath a few times so we gave them a few short breaks. Meanwhile the view was simply fantastic and is difficult to describe in words.
After a few hours we reached Rocky Pass. We were awaited by Gunner's entire crew and they cheered us on. We were happy and deeply touched at the same time. We laid in each other's arms and had quite some tears. Pickup Trucks with horse trailers were ready to bring us out – out of the wilderness, back into civilization ...
Bevor ich zu dieser Reise aufgebrochen bin, war ich in dem Glauben, dass die größte Herausforderung die Zeit dort draußen in den Bergen sein würde und vor allem die schon sehr kalten Nächste. Hinterher durfte ich lernen, dass die größte Herausforderung für mich persönlich darin lag, wieder zurückzukommen. Die Einfachheit dort draußen hat mir gezeigt, wie wenig es eigentlich braucht, um mich verbunden, vollständig und frei zu fühlen. Diese Erfahrung ist ein riesiges Geschenk, das unbezahlbar ist. Von Herzen Danke an dieser Stelle im Namen der ganzen Gruppe an Peter van der Gugten von extremtrail.ch und Gunner von astoriaoutfitting.com für die Idee und Umsetzung dieses sehr speziellen Abenteuers. Das war der Ritt unseres Lebens!