"That's the pass we're heading for," Greg Olesky, our guide, said. He was pointing out a cleft in the peaks at the far end of the valley. "We'll camp in the valley on the other side tonight."
Ken, a fellow traveler, and I stared into the postcard-perfect landscape as our horses nibbled grass. Lush alpine meadows, sparkling creeks and shimmering waterfalls were bowled in by jagged, snow-dusted peaks. "No way," Ken said.
This made me feel better, because I was thinking the same thing. I was the rookie rider here, but Ken is an experienced horseman, and he knows how to judge horse distance. He comes from the flatlands of Minnesota, however, and Banff is Rocky Mountain territory.
This was our fourth day out, and I was finally feeling at home in the saddle. Lunch was an hour ago, though, and it just didn't seem possible to ride through all that dramatic landscape before nightfall.
There were seven of us on horseback here deep in the backcountry of Banff National Park, a 2,564-square-mile expanse of mountain wilderness. We were on one of Ron Warner's six-day wilderness expeditions. The brochure for this horse-packing adventure recommended experienced riders only. I figured my experience spanned about 35 years and totaled--not counting time on camels--perhaps five full hours in the saddle. I hoped it would do. Although I knew we might encounter bears or cougars, my biggest worry was whether I'd be able to sit in the saddle up to six hours a day. But if that was the price for getting into the legendary backcountry of Banff, I was willing to chance it.
Eighty miles west of Calgary, just inside Alberta near the British Columbia border, Banff was originally set aside for protection in 1885. Banff, Canada's first national park, is the most popular of this country's 40 national parks and reserves, welcoming more than 4.5 million visitors annually.
"Banff is the monumental landscape of the Canadian Rockies," Canadian historian Robert Sandford says. "And one of the finest accomplishments of ecosystem preservation in the world."
To preserve this natural habitat, there are no roads in the interior and no wheeled vehicles of any kind are permitted on the trails (mountain bike access is restricted to designated trails). The park's vast backcountry wilderness is accessible only on foot or by horseback.
Backcountry permits are required for overnight stays and, according to park statistics, less than 1% of all park visitors ever venture deeper into the backcountry than a day's hike or horse ride. Those fortunate few leave far behind every trace of the summer crowds, who can make Banff feel at times like another Yellowstone.
Hiking into the backcountry requires physical stamina and wilderness skills, but travel by horse and pack train is readily accessible to most people. In fact, heading into the backcountry on horseback for a week or more has been the preferred way for discerning visitors to enjoy the wild charms of Banff since the park opened.
Our group met at 8 a.m. in Ron Warner's Trail Rider Store in the middle of Banff, which is in the park itself. Warner, the only outfitter licensed to operate year-round within the park boundaries, has been guiding and outfitting in Banff for more than 40 years. He has a stable of 300 horses and came highly recommended by a local friend.
As we signed disclaimer forms and backcountry permits in the store, our personal gear was being driven to the trailhead, where it would be packed on the mules. A van dropped us off at a small barn and corral at the edge of the forest, where our horses were already saddled and waiting. Greg had read the questionnaire we had each filled out when we signed on. He knew our riding experience (or lack thereof), horse preference and our height and weight, and he had chosen the most suitable horses from the Warner herd.
Being the tenderfoot, I had expected a docile, maybe smaller horse. No such luck. "You get Posse here," Greg said, handing me the reins of the biggest horse there. Being the tallest rider, I got the tallest horse, whether I liked it or not.
As it turned out, my lack of riding experience didn't matter much. These were not the lazy rent-by-the-hour sloths of my childhood. These horses were born and bred for the job, knew the terrain (they "loved getting out there," Greg said), and were accustomed to the amazing feats they would be called upon to do. Many of them were Alberta-raised quarter horses, picked for their agility, sure-footedness and responsiveness to the rider. Before being assigned to trail-ride duty, each steed had been trained as a guide horse, learning to cross rivers, negotiate steep and uneven terrain, and become accustomed to wildlife scents and encounters.
We mounted up. Greg, riding Panther, with pack mule No. 77 behind him, led the way down the trail from the paddock area. Within minutes we were immersed in the dark, fragrant forest, heading for the mountainous valleys to the north.