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The Old West, Canadian Style : City Slickers Pay a Visit to British Columbia's Rough-and-Ready Sundance Guest Ranch

July 18, 1993|PAT GERBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Gerber is a copy editor with The Times' Orange County Edition. and

ASHCROFT, Canada — You can't get more Western than a herd of cow ponies, fields where buffalo roam and a ranch named Sundance.

But Butch Cassidy never made it this far north. Lots of kids have, however. And instead of saying "Howdy!" the wranglers say, "Eh?"

The Sundance Guest Ranch in British Columbia is nestled at 1,700 feet in the layers of a coastal mountain range, about a four-hour drive northeast of Vancouver. This is Big Sky Country, Canadian style. Bordered by the thundering Thompson River and its miles of rapids, the ranch covers 22,000 acres of pine forests and irrigated mountain meadows that provide lush relief from the surrounding sagebrush hills.

My husband and I came here on a summer vacation last year in search of a laid-back ranch rest where our children, then ages 6 and 2, could kick up their heels while we treated our horse fever.

During our four-day stay, we enjoyed hearty meals and engaging dinner conversation with a cosmopolitan assortment of guests. We also made an acquaintance of sorts with some of the unseen guests--the pioneer ghosts that supposedly haunt this place. And we experienced some of the most heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping rides this side of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

One of 13 guest ranches in British Columbia, the Sundance can accommodate up to 75 people. It's relatively close to Vancouver, a five-minute drive from the sleepy village of Ashcroft, and doesn't have that tony resort atmosphere that seemed to be implied in other guest ranch brochures that we consulted. What appealed to us was the authentic Western look and feel that, despite the area's British roots, could pass for any of its counterparts in Wyoming or Montana. (Some of the early pioneers staged fox hunts through the sagebrush.) Buffalo heads and Indian blankets adorn the main dining hall. Wooden floors creak when trod upon, pole-rail fences keep livestock from roaming too far, and an old wagon wheel graces the main yard.

This is a family-oriented ranch, which is evident even in the rate structure and another reason why we picked this place: The $105 daily adult fee, based on double occupancy, includes all meals, which are substantial; riding; accommodations, and use of all ranch facilities, including the swimming pool and tennis courts. The daily charge for youths 15 to 18 years old is $90; it's $75 for children 8 to 14 years old. Children under 8 are $8. And children can stay in either their parents' room or the ranch house's special kids' wing.

The ranch is stocked mainly with quarter horses, which owner Stan Rowe chooses himself; he replenishes the herd yearly. And he does his best to provide what the brochure calls "the Western experience deluxe," from the herd of buffalo to staging a square dance every Saturday night.

The day starts early at Sun- dance, with a sunrise wake-up call from the barn swallows that swoop through the rafters of the guest wings. A full-scale breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausages and cereal served in the dining room by a full-time chef fortifies us for the 9:30 ride, one of two held each day, seven days a week, rain or shine.

Guests gather in the main corral near the stables, situated in front of the guest rooms for a succinct briefing from the silver-haired Rowe on the do's and don'ts of horsemanship, followed by the pairing up of mounts and riders. Our toddler stays behind with other children too young to ride, who are cared for by baby-sitters.

The mount-rider matchmaking is prearranged: Before getting close to a horse, guests fill out a height-and-weight form and a brief description of riding experience. This ensures that an overeager Joe Greenhorn doesn't inadvertently get paired up with, say, Widowmaker.

Sundance may be the only guest ranch in Canada that enforces a weight limit for humans, said Rowe. He instituted the requirement several years ago after having one too many horses ruined by hefty dudes. The limit also sends a not-so-subtle message to guests that they should be in at least moderate shape to enjoy the stay here. If, for some reason, you and your equine partner don't get along well, there are about 80 others from which to choose.

I'm assigned Sandy, an athletic, stocky little roan gelding who, I am warned, can take off like a bullet.

On this first ride, my husband stays behind to work in the corral with our 6-year-old on a pinto named Montana--insurance restrictions keep children under 8 off the trail and in the corral.

We start out at an easy jog-walk--a blessing to muscles unused to a horse's back--through a wide meadow that climbs into dusty foothills.

The air is as clean and crisp as the river below. Billows of white thunderheads float low in the sky. I notice the blood-red petals of a lone wild lily on the side of the trail. It's a tiny contrast to the dun-colored sagebrush, but among many grand visual delights of this rugged Western terrain.

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