Horses For Hire
Horses have been for hire in the Canadian Rockies for more than 125 years and we’re still tied to that particular part of our history by one little knot. This knot, the diamond hitch, is the key to the whole packing operation, a secret jealously guarded by the initiated. Variations of the wooden sawbuck saddle used by outfitters have been around since the time of Genghis Khan. Large wooden boxes are attached to each side of the saddle, packs or equipment are arranged on top, and the whole pack is lashed together with a five-metre length of rope using the diamond hitch. Famous surveyor, A. O. Wheeler wrote, “The diamond hitch, or rather a series of hitches the shape of a diamond, is the combination of rope twists by which a load is kept in position on the back of a pack animal. I am not aware of who invented it – he should have been knighted.”
[Born in Ireland, Arthur Oliver Wheeler (1860-1945) arrived in Canada in 1876 and became a land surveyor. He made photo-topographical surveys of the Selkirks and the British Columbia-Alberta boundary through the Rockies. In 1906, he and Elizabeth Parker were the principal founders of the Alpine Club of Canada.]
The outfitting, horse packing and guiding industry started in the Canadian Rockies in the late 1800s, but it grew out of an earlier era of railway exploration and construction. With the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1885, adventurous tourists, sportsmen, alpinists, and artists wished to encounter the wilderness close up. To satisfy them in Banff, the CPR called on Tom Wilson, its former survey packer, to guide them. Upon establishing horse corrals in Banff and advertising as “Guide to the CPR,” Wilson hired other guides and packers such as Jimmy Simpson and Bill Peyto to escort tourists over the rugged trails.
A similar process followed in Jasper with the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway. Fred Brewster, originally from Banff, became the Jasper outfitter who trained others such as the Otto Brothers and Curly Phillips.
Big game hunters in the southern Rockies around Waterton sought out Bert Riggall who had cut his teeth on a thousand-mile pack trip through some of the most rugged country from the southernmost corner of Alberta to Mount Robson. These outfitters shared a thirst for knowledge, a keen sense of observation, an abiding love of nature, and the ability to tell a good story.
Today, the tradition of horse outfitting lives on throughout the Canadian Rockies. This summer, I accompanied outfitter Wayne Sawchuk on an unforgettable two-week adventure in the Muskwa Kechika area of the Northern Rockies. The area we travelled is similar to the country between Banff and Jasper 100 years ago that adventurer Mary Schäffer travelled on her way to discover Maligne Lake. Now you have to fly great distances to find that kind of wilderness. I gained an intimate understanding of what it means to “travel through burnt timber,” an experience I had only read about in Mary’s accounts of her travels. And we had a chainsaw. I cannot imagine what it would have been like with only an axe.
Throughout the Muskwa trip, I was constantly reminded of my cowboy father’s words, “Don’t ever forget that horses have a mind of their own.” And boy, was he right! Just when you think you have them figured out, they decide to take off galloping through trees, branches smacking you right and left until they finally decide, again for no apparent reason, to call an abrupt halt. On the other hand, they can get you safely across a deep river, take you sure-footedly up and down steep slopes and make you feel special when they give you a nuzzle. Weird! I guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a cowgirl, but there is something magical about travelling through the mountains on horseback. It is an opportunity to experience what life was like here 100 years ago.
Many outfitters in the region offer a variety of horseback adventures, from a 20 minute ride suitable for young children, to the 14-day backcountry experience. The most popular option is probably a 2 hour trail ride, but if time permits, wouldn’t it be great to enjoy dinner in the wild cooked over an open fire!
Video and photos-
Top video; (Remember to Breathe) Prairie Palette – Courtesy of Travel Alberta
Middle photo; A. O. Wheeler – Courtesy of Alpine Club of Canada
Bottom photo; An Adventurous Woman Abroad: The Selected Lantern Slides of Mary T.S. Schäffer – Courtesy of Michale Lang
~ by Michale Lang
Michale Lang is Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. She is also the author of An Adventurous Woman Abroad: The Selected Lantern Slides of Mary T.S. Schäffer.
Buy Michale’s book here, through our Amazon Associates Book Store!
Prior to her position at the Whyte Museum, she managed the development of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. In 2008, Michale was a Woman of Vision Award recipient and in 2012 received the Consumer Choice Awards Woman of the Year, recognizing her work in the cultural sector.
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