By Crai Bower
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast remains cowboy and cowgirl country. From Lillooet to Barkerville to the Inside Passage, the region offers numerous opportunities to brush off your spurs and spend a few hours or days on horseback. Not surprisingly, rodeo remains a favourite event throughout the region, be it a small town event or the Williams Lake Stampede. From traversing the trails for a day with a trusted border collie by your side to horse packing for 14 days into the Itcha Ilgachuz Provincial Park, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is calling all riders.
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region is home to half of BC’s guest ranches, each rich in lodging nuances and equine immersion. Many of the ranches offer resort-quality amenities such as swimming pools, hot tubs and full-service spas. The Free Rein Guest Ranch sets guests up with horse handling and horsemanship instruction as well as day rides throughout the 285-acre ranch and beyond. Kids are welcome to participate in all equine activities or can choose from mountain biking, canoeing and many other outdoor activities. With only twelve guests at a time, the Free Rein staff customizes every experience for every guest.
First-time visitors to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast ranches often arrive with preconceived ideas of a trail ride, based on rides elsewhere where the horses have been trained to follow the leader to such an extreme that you would imagine riding backwards wouldn’t make much difference. These “automated” ride chains couldn’t be farther from the equine experience here. At Big Creek Lodge, for example, every guest is fitted with a horse that matches his or her riding experience and style.
Ideal for families and mixed-ability groups, a novice rider is paired with a gentle horse that prefers a steady gait. An experienced rider is matched with a more responsive horse that lives to trot and gallop. Which is not to say every rider can’t transition in skills. Big Creek Lodge’s 7-night adventure package is designed to introduce every facet of horsemanship, from grooming and saddling to ring work, trail rides and the popular spring and fall cattle drives.
A visit to a ranch should be unique for everyone. Guests who wish to maximize time in the saddle certainly have the opportunity to ride for the majority of their stay. However, like fishing lodges, guest ranches have broadened their amenities so that every guest can customize his or her experience. Siwash Lake Wilderness Resort was among the first luxury ranches to add adventures such as mountain biking and heli-hiking to their roster of options.
A National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, the Siwash guides have added a fascinating fire ecology component to their day rides, hikes and heli experiences. The immersive SiwashSynergy & Horses program is a coveted Canadian Signature Experience. This program offers a holistic approach where every element of horsemanship from ring work to horse whispering techniques are explored. One departs from Siwash a more accomplished and knowledgeable rider.
Several BC guest ranches alter our perception of what horse-based holidays can be. Nowhere is this truer than at Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, a sublime fusion of Western Canada culture and Thai-influenced wellness and cuisine. Situated in British Columbia’s “Four Corners,” a mosaic of high-altitude conifer forest, chaparral ridges, grasslands and the mighty Fraser Canyon; riding or hiking through each of these dynamic ecosystems reveals unique flora and fauna.
Echo Valley’s aesthetic is equally impressive, beginning with the Baan Thai: a magnificent wellness center constructed in the Thai style out of local cedar and fir and drafted by the king of Thailand’s personal architect. Renowned artist Theo Mahood’s mural, comprised of resident animals and landscapes, graces the main lodge entrance. Gitxsan sculptor Michael Blackstone has “released” the faces by carving several living yellow spruce trunks just down the path from the lodge. Trail rides depart each morning and afternoon, and anglers can cast into Big Bar Creek for rainbow, and bull trout or salmon from the Fraser River for a dinner that blends western and eastern cuisine. After receiving a signature 4-hands spa treatment or walking with several of the ranch’s border collie companions, one leaves Echo Valley Ranch rejuvenated physically and mentally.
Many of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast guest ranches exist as working cattle and horse operations, a tradition that has seen few changes in the past 100 years. Cowhands still round up the cattle during spring and fall, which means sleeping under the stars before returning to the bunkhouse. These same cowboys and cowgirls practice roping, bronc riding and barrel racing at every opportunity, the same way any craftsperson hones skills to keep professional standards sharp.
The rodeo was first created to give working ranch hands an opportunity to come together and demonstrate their pragmatic skills for prizes and recognition. Not surprisingly, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast calendar features several rodeos throughout the year. The Williams Lake Stampede is the granddaddy of local rodeos, a Canadian Professional Rodeo Association Event. Athletes take part in all the traditional events such as bull riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing, among others.
The Bella Coola Rodeo also focuses on juniors and peewees with events in junior steer riding, pee wee goat tying and wild cow milking. Roe Lake’s Interlakes Rodeo takes place the first weekend in August: a BC Rodeo Association that draws amateurs and juniors to compete in all the traditional disciplines. There are several other rodeos scheduled throughout the summer, so always check out the local schedules before you embark to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast.
Like the untamed bronco, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is wild at heart. Visitors come to play within these exciting environments, habitat for iconic wildlife observed by riders during spectacular trail rides. Numerous guest ranches combine equine experiences with wilderness exploration and wildlife observation. Bracewell’s Alpine Wilderness Adventures leads numerous trips into the backcountry, including a 6-day trip through wildflower meadows, across rivers and close to the Chilcotin’s storied wildlife.
A visit to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is more of a sojourn than ‘just another roadtrip’. Visitor after visitor returns home with a new perspective about Canada’s cowboy country, the vast wilderness and the wildlife. For many visitors, at least a few hours on horseback are a requisite component of their holiday itinerary. Others prefer to experience additional activities such as fly fishing and bear viewing to complement trail riding and horse packing tours. Whatever itinerary they may choose, visitors to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast soon discover the joy of exploring a land without limits.