Trip Start Sep 03, 2002
Trip End Sep 27, 2003

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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Arriving in Vancouver we checked into a "boutique" hotel - The Metropolitan. Not quite Park Lane standards, but it was lovely to enjoy a bit of luxury for a change. However all too soon the weekend was over and with our bloodstreams now flowing with pure Starbucks, we picked up yet another hire car and headed across the Rockies to Alberta.

As soon as we hit the mountains the weather became very 'Canadian: we arrived in Calgary in the middle of a massive hailstorm - folks were having their windscreens cracked by the hail - welcome to the summer!

The object of the trip was to hit the Calgary Stampede, hooked as we now are on the whole rodeo scene. The first event we attended was the chuck wagon racing. This involves four wagons, each pulled by a team of four, which have to be loaded with kitchen equipment by four 'outriders', manouevered around a set of barrels, then raced around a track. Meanwhile the outriders have to leap on their horses and chase after the wagons - the object being for each wagon and the respective outriders to finish together. The hail storm was only just petering out, resulting in a track that was inches deep in water/mud/slime, so irrespective of the starting colours, finishing colours were uniformally khaki. Despite the conditions, the racing was very close and exciting, although not something we are likely to take up ourselves. After the races we watched the 'Grandstand Show' - not really our thing but very professionally produced and some of the acts from Cirque de Soleil were spectacular.

The following day we sat ourselves down for a day of rodeo. As well as the usual bull and bronc riding they had novelties such as wild cow milking and wild horse races, all of which were even more exiting when taking place in three feet of mud. The highlight had to be 'wild and woolly', described by the announcer as "where we strap our children to farm animals and call it entertainment" - (basically toddlers on sheep) -excellent. After that we checked out the 'Eukanuba Super Dogs' display and then an evening in 'Nashville North' listening to live C&W and chugging beers (hic).

All in all the Stampede is an excellent event and, given all the stuff on offer, excellent VFM. That said, it was almost too professional and in some ways we enjoyed our Aussie Rodeos more.

Being inspired by the professionals, it was time to do some cowboying of our own. We had booked a five day riding/camping trip out of Banff. After the 'molto turistico' trail riding experiences in the US, we were a bit concerned that the trip was going to be a bit naff and that we would be riding with a bunch of people that had never seen horse before. However these worries were quickly laid to rest when we met our fellow punters and realised we were the only folks who didn't have their own (a) ranch (b) spurs and hadn't even brought our own horses and saddles (gulp).

Despite the lead wrangler trying to liven things up by being bucked off on the first afternoon, we had a very pleasant and relaxed five days riding and camping in the backcountry north of Banff. The highlight was coming across a grizzlie just to the side of the trail - we were only about 30 metres away when our horses realised something was up. The horses looked at the bear, the bear looked at the horses. The bear then went back to digging some delicious ants out of a rotting log and ignored us. After a while one of the wranglers slowly walked his horse towards the bear, who then slowly ambled off into the bush. A fantastic encounter - and so much more enjoyable for being on a (fast) horse rather than foot/mountain bikes.

Our wranglers were lovely chaps (geddit?), they worked really hard and clearly enjoyed doing stuff like the cowboy poetry around the campfire as much as the punters (who, apart from us and a Texan family, were working ranchers anyway on a busmans holiday). The boys took everything in their stride, including the theft of Ross's clothes while he was swimming in the lake - we did leave him his hat, which fortunately was big enough for the occasion (the water was very cold!).

Overall the trip (run by the Warner guiding outfit) was very pleasant rather than gripping. We would definitely recommend it as a great way to get out into the backcountry and see some beautiful scenery.

After a couple of days chilling around Banff and Lake Louise (stunning lake, horrific hotel), we drove up the Columbia Icefields Parkway (awesome) to Jasper (yuk - don't bother). Realising our mistake we wandered back down to the Okanagan region in a meandering route up to the Cariboo country for a stay at a guest ranch.

Crystal Waters is in the heart of BC's ranching country, in a stunning location on the edge of a lake. I addition to riding there were kayaks and canoes to play with - not that they received much attention after six hours in the saddle each day. The ranch had a really relaxed atmosphere - there are private cabins, but all meals are taken together with the cowboys and other ranch staff.

It was here, at last, that Nick finally got his near death experience......

Mandy's version:

The wranglers at the Ranch, after hearing the multiple tales of my sufferings on the trip (which are becomming more epic with every re-telling), chose a lovely horse called PHANTOM for Nick to ride on the second day. After being a model of decorum in the morning, something clearly upset Phantom during our lunch break (maybe those thorns I tucked under the saddle) because there was an ongoing battle of wills between Nick and horse all afternoon. Not surprisingly it was hard to tell who was being more stubborn. Any how after an impressive amount of rodeo-esque bucking and rearing which would have landed Nick a prize in the saddle-bronc competition, Phantom finally went ballistic when we were almost back at the ranch. After several leaps and pirouettes, Phantom started spinning, lost his footing and started to go down. Fortunately, Nick was already airborne at this point, and managed to land and scramble out of the way just before Phantom hit the deck. Nick was a bit bruised and bloodied (bad gravel rash) but Florence NightingScott soon had him patched up.

Nicks version:

Horse was trying to play silly buggers. I wasn't gonna let him. I nearly made it to the buzzer, but had to make a tactical dismount. Must remind Mandy to dilute the TCP next time.

Having established that Gary (the owner) wasn't going to charge us for the broken reins and crushed steel strirrups (yes - it was quite a fall), Mandy instantly suggested that we stay on for a few extra days. Our remaining time was calm and unevenful, though as a special treat Nick was allowed to ride the owners best horse on the last day - this gave him quite an advantage in the barrel racing and other riding games that we got to play on the last morning (though there were mutterings from the cowboys about pommies who couldn't cope with a real man's event like impromptu bronc riding so wimped out for girlie barrel racing instead). Another excellent trip, and by BC standards excellent value for money.

After the had dust settled (literally), it was time to hit Vancouver Island. After a couple of days in Victoria (pleasant enough) we headed across the Island to 'Picturesque Tofino': picturesque (stunning) it certainly was, but also ridiculously busy. Tofino was the only place (in a year!) that we really struggled to find anywhere to stay - and ended up paying $200 for a really average motel room - eeeek!. Needless to stay we didn't stay long but headed back east to Campbell River. This was the starting point for a four day sea kayaking trip in Johnstone Strait - home to about 300 Killer Whales. We were dropped by motor boat right next to the Robson Bight marine reserve - and right on cue about an hour after we arrived a group of Orcas swam past the campsite.

We had four days of great weather (in a part of the world not known for its sunshine) and saw whales every day, including on our trip back to Campbell River. The best encounter was with a mother and calf who came to within about 20 metres of the kayaks - truly awesome.

The weather and whales were great. On the other hand the Strait was chokka with Salmon fishing vessels - so much for the wilderness. Also whilst the guides on the trip were fine, the operator - Coastal Spirits - was clearly trying to extract maximum dollar out for minimum input. We would definitely recomend kayaking in JS - but NOT with Coastal Spirits. This was a bit of a shame as this was the last big event of our year and really only the second 'bad trip' of the whole year. So a big 'Boo Sucks' to Coastal Spirits [OK enough, we get the point - Ed.]

On our way back from Campbell River we stayed the night with Christine and Craig, a lovely couple that we had met at Crystal Waters. Craig spoiled us with his gourmet cooking and Christine was our tour guide, taking us down to the beach at night where a special fireworks display had been laid on by the City of Comox in honour of our visit - or did she say it was for BC Day? A big highlight for Mandy was Andy the cat, who took to hiding in the garage to avoid the excess cuddles. Anyway, a big thanks to C&C for their hospitality - much enjoyed.

That was pretty much it for our time in BC. We have had a couple of weeks hanging out in Whistler, doing a bit of hiking and sorting out admin. for our return to the UK. Just a week or so to go in Vancouver and then it will be back to sweltering Blighty. I guess given our track record our return will bring torrential rain and the end of the extraordinary summer. So best get your wellies out....
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