Spider the horse is a little wild at heart. Born feral and later tamed he is a favourite among the staff and guests who frequent Banff Trail Riders, but he has never lost his adventurous spirit.
In 2013 when rains and meltwater combined to cause the biggest flood in Alberta’s history, the Brewster River which runs through the grounds at Sundance Lodge threatened the building so the staff were evacuated by helicopter. Before they flew away, they removed all tack and released the horses from the paddocks so they could find higher, safer ground. Within 3 weeks all the animals had found their way home, but not Spider. Spider roamed the forest and hills for several months before sauntering back to the paddock in late summer, a little wilder looking, but healthy and happy after his mountain vacation.
Who wouldn’t want to experience what Spider did for a few days in the beauty and tranquillity of Banff National Park? You can, with creature comforts and three square meals a day when you ride with Banff Trail Riders.
While I didn’t get to meet Spider, I was fascinated by his story, told by our guide Tyla while we rode at a leisurely pace from the base at Warner Stables up the path toward Sundance Lodge, 16 km away. The journey was peaceful, the air warm and the Alberta sky legendarily big as we began our 3 day and 2 night ride. My horse Norquay had a little junk in the trunk since he and the other ponies spent the winter at the BTR ranch near Cremona, grazing and taking it easy, but he gently and expertly bore this novice up steep inclines, narrow paths and across rivers.
We stopped for lunch after a few hours, along a river, grateful for the chance to walk around and stretch our legs as our guide deftly prepared a steak lunch over a small, swiftly lit fire. The steak was perfectly rare, served with Ceasar salad followed by a steaming cup of cowboy coffee. Recharged by the hot meal, and sufficiently excited by a grizzly bear sighting (fortunately, he stayed across the river and ignored us) we hopped back up on the horses for the next leg of the journey.
If this already sounds like more riding than you’re up to, fear not! Banff Trail Riders also have shorter trips and, offer 1 – 4 hour day rides, some with lunch. Longer overnight trips (up to five nights) are an option for more hearty folks!
Sundance Lodge is a log building constructed in the early 90’s and refurbished in the mid 2010’s with ten guest rooms, two bathrooms (plus outhouses), a living room, kitchen with communal dining table and a large inviting porch. The decor is cowboy-esque, with handmade furniture accented with leather cushions, beds laid with crisp white linens and most importantly for a weary rider, plenty of hot water in the showers.
The staff had prepared a tray of snacks for us including veggies, pita, and dips which we enjoyed on the front porch watching the Brewster river with a chilled glass of wine (they have a small selection of beer and BC wines for purchase). The horses and grizzly were not the only wildlife we encountered – the grounds of the lodge host a half dozen marmots who scamper around the grass and the buildings delighting some of the guests with their antics.
The staff, from check-in, to guides, to the mule wranglers, to the cook, were all exceptionally friendly and helpful. They were quick to assist in mounting or dismounting the horse, patient when I couldn’t tie a proper hitch knot, offered tips for easier riding, and were always cheerful. And as most of them were in Canada from somewhere else, they told incredible stories of their exploits thus far – impressive for people still in their 20’s. I loved the family-like energy at the lodge as we sat around a long farm table enjoying salmon with risotto followed by chocolate cake for dessert. That meal became particularly special when I learned the cook, Claudia, was on her first day in the position, having been promoted from within the organization.
A delicious dinner and breathtaking views could not keep us awake however and we were in our rooms and fast asleep by 9:15pm. All that fresh air and riding took it out of us and we slept like rocks in comfortable beds among the complete stillness of the mountain night.
The next day, after a breakfast of homemade muffins, yogurt with granola, pancakes, fruit, bacon and coffee we were well-prepped for the day of riding ahead. We travelled further up the hills, crossing rivers, meadows, and enjoying the peace the mountains bring. Our watchful guide Tyla checked in with all of us to see how were faring, correcting our posture and praising our improved stance.
Dinner that night was roast pork with green beans and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. The team at BTR started a bonfire for us and we all sat around chatting until late. Summer solstice, coupled with a full moon made the experience completely magical.
After two days of riding, we were practically pros, and the ride home went by far too quickly. We came home on a slightly different route and the views were spectacular but the subtle change in the forest as we descended reminded us we were heading back to reality. Invigorated by the adventure and the connections made with both the horses and other humans, I imagine Spider felt the same when he decided to venture home, satisfied with his travels and ready to face the world again.
Want to see more photos of our Banff Trail Riders Adventures? Visit our Photo Gallery to see what didn’t make it into the story! Photo Credit Melissa Vroon
The author is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada (Prairies-NWT Chapter) who facilitated this trip, hosted by Banff Trail Riders. Neither reviewed this article prior to publication and all opinions are the authors.