PHOTOS: BRADLEY BISCHOFF; J. PAGE, PARKS CANADA
“These are my last two babies,” says Rick Smith, foreman at Parks Canada’s Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, 75 kilometres west of Sundre, in Alberta’s foothills country. A biting December wind blows off Warden Mountain to the west as he strokes the muzzles of eight-month-old colts Quill and Quigley.
It’s no coincidence both their names begin with Q. Entered in a dusty horse register kept in a 1918 cabin near the corral are the names and statistics of every horse born here for the past 70 years. Colts born on the ranch each year were given names according to a revolving alphabetic sequence: 2004 was the year of the Qs.
There will be no more Rs. In a cost-cutting move, Parks Canada has decided to buy ready-broken horses instead of breeding their own. Since 1917, Ya Ha Tinda has been breeding, raising, training and wintering the horses that patrol the backcountry of Canada’s western national parks, including Riding Mountain in Manitoba, Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, Banff, Elk Island, Jasper and Waterton Lakes in Alberta and Kootenay and Yoho in British Columbia. Quill and Quigley are the end of the line.
But it’s by no means the end of the trail for Parks Canada patrol horses; nor the ranch. The federal government created this spectacular 3,945-hectare ranch bordering the Red Deer River in 1917 because the natural grasslands, clear of snow most of the winter and adjacent to Banff National Park, were ideal for parks horses. Breeding and raising horses will cease, but training and wintering the more than 100 horses will continue, along with advanced park warden training.
After all, a sure-footed horse has been the vehicle of choice in the backcountry for centuries. “There is nothing that will replace the horse in the backcountry,” Bradley Bischoff, a senior park warden at the Banff warden office, told me in an earlier interview. “To travel out there, there’s just no better way than a good horse.”
The warden service was literally created on horseback. In 1909 it was born as the Fire and Game Guardian Service, so called because those were its two original functions. That gradually changed. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s visitors to national parks more than quadrupled, so responsibilities were broadened to include ski and mountain rescue training, public safety, proper trail markings, backcountry campsites and trail maintenance.
Out of approximately 400 wardens in the Parks Canada service coast to coast today, Bischoff is one of just seven who patrol the entire network of Banff backcountry trails on horseback each season, staying in strategically located cabins along the way—a lifestyle little changed from those early years. Along with four seasonal wardens, the seven are responsible for a spectrum of duties from trail maintenance to wildlife observation to catching poachers.
Bischoff says he wouldn’t trade the life with anyone. Working the trails on his horse, nine days on and four days off from May to October, he starts each shift by buying all the food he’ll need for his stint in the backcountry. His gear is always ready. “We call it duffel,” he says. “It is top packed on the horse (they normally travel with one saddle horse and one pack horse). There are two pack boxes, one on each side and the duffel goes on top. We put a tarp over that and tie a diamond hitch to keep everything together.” It’s all the stuff he’ll need for nine days: clothing, uniform, foul weather gear, a collection of boots, hats and gloves and oilskin slicker. This is because there’s a lot of different weather in the mountains.
The wardens also carry firearms in the backcountry for safety, but no side arms. “We all have rifles on our saddles.”
Bischoff carries a .306 pump-action rifle. “We also carry a saddle axe and chainsaws in specially made boxes. There’s a lot of trail clearing in the first few trips in the spring especially,” he says. These are usually in late May to early June as the trails clear of snow.
Once the trails are opened up, summer is the main season in the backcountry. “During the summer, there are many users, including hikers, backpackers, private horse parties and commercial horse parties,” says Bischoff. One of the larger commercial operators in the Banff backcountry is Ron Warner, who has 350 horses and mules. The regular licensed operators in the park present few problems. “These guys are the ones with experience in the remote wilderness areas,” says Bischoff. “We’ve worked with these fellas for several years and know them all.”
Another popular commercial operator in Banff National Park is Paul Peyto, who can boast a legendary heritage. An ancestor of his, Bill Peyto, was one of the first wardens hired to work in the park. That was around 1914 and he had a mountain lake named after him.
In those days, men who’d already spent most of their lives in the mountains were hired on as wardens; no further training was needed. According to Guardians of the Wild, a history of the park warden service written by Robert J. Burns, most were men who had served as outfitters, guides and packers, but they had to exclude violators of poaching and weapons regulations. They were to be “sober, industrious and orderly, and… engaged in no other employment.” It also helped that they knew their adversaries, such as poachers. They were officially named wardens in 1915 but through the years have answered to titles like ranger, fire ranger and patrolman.
Back then a warden was expected to remain in his district, making regular patrols, on a permanent basis. At Banff, they were allowed just one day a month, exclusive of travelling time, in town to purchase supplies. The best age for park wardens in the 1920s was considered to be around 35 because, in the words of Supervising Warden Dick Langford in 1925, “Younger men seem to require short intervals in town occasionally….”
Now it’s more often the senior wardens who like to stay near town. “The young wardens coming on board are certainly much more mobile than we are,” explains Bischoff. “We’ve started a family, have a house (his is in Canmore, Alta.) so this is a very attractive posting.” He says national parks are set in some of the most remote areas of the country so Banff and Jasper are the most coveted, especially for those wardens with families. “Once you’re stationed here you don’t see much movement.”
As well as backcountry patrols, they assist other wardens who each have a specialty. There are the resource-management crews, including wildlife researchers and biologists. There’s the public safety staff, the mountain safety experts and rescue leaders. “If there’s an accident on a glacier, a mountaineering accident, or a search, when the alarm goes off it’s the rescue leaders who are getting the gear and organizing the team effort. We’re all trained in public safety procedures,” says Bischoff.
Horses, which typically serve well into their 20s, are generally divvied up amongst the wardens according to their individual horsemanship skills and experience. “Our younger wardens get to ride the older campaigners, the ones that go to the same district year after year,” adds Bischoff. “The horses know the district; know the trails. They’re the ones that’ll always get you back to the cabin.”
Wardens look for specific characteristics in a trail horse, both mental and physical. Bischoff lists them. “Quiet, level-headed, nice mind,” he says. “Something that’s got a back, a set of withers, can carry a saddle, something with some leg bone on him. A good foot, including a hoof wall that can take a shoe.”
He’s not interested in what makes a show horse. “We’re not riding in arenas and show rings out there, we’re riding on rocky trails and passes. We don’t need horses that can spin and turn and cut cattle, we need a horse that can transport us down the trail in a safe way.”
While breeding their own at Ya Ha Tinda, Parks Canada has maintained a bloodline of these qualities in their trail horses. But it seems there’s no such thing as a designer horse. “When you’re breeding horses, you take what you get, what hits the ground in the spring,” says Bischoff. “When you’re buying horses, you can go buy what you want. When some of your own don’t make it then where are you at the end of the day?”
Wardens ride alone for nine days at a stretch, so a good horse is critical to keeping risks at a minimum. Bischoff rides his favourite steed Gopher who was born at Ya Ha Tinda in 1994. He rides the horse all summer and while on the trail constantly asks himself: Do I really have to go here? Do I really have to cross this river here? Is this a piece of terrain I can safely get myself through or is there another way? “You’re dealing with an animal that has a mind of its own, but horses for the most part want to get along, they’re looking for somebody to be the leader. Every second I’m around these animals I am acting with confidence.”
Bischoff recalls an incident last summer. “I was in a bit of terrain I had no business being in. We were in a sticky spot, where the objective was no longer getting us to where we wanted to go. It was getting us down from where we were. I got (my horses) into a spot where we shouldn’t have been. I was off route, not lost but way off the trail in an area choked with deadfall. This wasn’t good. And I still had five hours’ riding to get where I wanted to be.”
So what did he do? “I presented the objective (to the horses) in a confident and unhurried manner and we got it done. I’ve never kissed a horse in my life but came the closest that day to it.”
The fall hunting season presents a whole new set of dangers. In their pursuit of big game, some hunters will enter the park boundaries to poach mountain sheep or haze them out of the boundaries and then shoot them. Shooting big game in a national park is a serious offence. And with penalties of up to $250,000 fines and six months in jail, illegal hunters don’t like to be caught. Catching them can be risky, but it is an important warden responsibility. “We’re out there thick as thieves in the fall. It’s a very busy time for us, a time when a lot of wardens who have worked in town during the summer get to go into the backcountry.”
“Hunters are armed, motivated individuals,” he adds. “If I came across a scenario like that travelling by myself I would give it a lot of thought before entering a camp. That’s why we always travel in teams during hunting season.” Each team carries a sophisticated communications system: satellite phones and an upgraded radio system that pretty much guarantees radio communication with dispatch at any given time, anywhere. Wardens are peace officers and Bischoff has made several arrests.
Some other illegal activities they keep an eye on in the parks are somewhat less threatening. “Collecting artifacts, mushroom picking after a fire where morel mushrooms come up rather quickly—there’s quite a market for those,” says Bischoff. “We are involved in monitoring any resource extraction, including fishing, butterflies, cultural artifacts. There are many First Nations cultural sites that are important to Canadians.”
When the snow starts to stick to the trails after hunting season, trail wardens get caught up on reporting, courses and paperwork. They’re ready to sprint to any emergency, but for the most part outdoor activity in the short winter days is spent practicing avalanche rescue techniques, mountaineering training, and snowshoeing or skiing into the backcountry to do things like sensitive species surveys, which can entail watching and counting wolves, coyotes, cougars, etc.
In the meantime, back at the ranch, wintertime is time for the horses to relax. Off come the shoes, and no more saddles for six months. Smith shows me the old blacksmith barn at the ranch; interior blackened by the original coal forge, a pile of worn horseshoes nearby. Shiny new shoes are neatly stacked according to size against a wall. It’s winter at Ya Ha Tinda now, and the wind blasts off the foothills, keeping wild grass pastures free of snow. Smith rides almost every day to check on the herd of over 100—counting them, looking for injuries and making sure the junior horses aren’t being bullied. Often his wife Jean or one of his two trainers will ride along.
Come summer, he’ll be teaching greenhorn park wardens how to replace a shoe on the trail, how to pack and how to deal with different horse personalities. To maintain the flow of new horses into the service, starting in 2005, he and the barn bosses—who run the horse barns for each park during the active season—will look for six to eight new four- or five-year-olds, expecting to pay between $2,000 and $2,500 each.
The new mounts likely won’t be accustomed to trail life, though. Bought horses will need to be taught “how to be hobbled, how to deal with bears, cougars etc.,” says Smith. Things that will already be old hat for Quill and Quigley.