© Gary Crallé
Little ranch on the Prairie
A working cattle farm for wannabe cowboys and cowgirls
“This ain't no pony ride in the park,” La Reata Ranch’s website warns. I gulped as visions of stampeding cattle raced through my overactive mind. Through the swirl of dust and pounding hooves, I saw myself jumping from back to back over a heaving mass of dust, hide and horns until I finally reached the lead cow and wrestled it to a halt.
La Reata is a working cattle ranch, but I was prepared to concede that my imagination was carrying me away. In reality, La Reata turned out to be great fun and nowhere near as demanding as I had envisioned.
The 2000-hectare property has plenty of space to roam — runaway herds or not. It sits two hours southwest of Saskatoon on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker, which is actually a 225-kilometre-long reservoir that was created in 1967. Named after the Canadian Prime Minister who hailed from the province, it’s fed by the South Saskatchewan River. It blends into the landscape, creating a unique facet to this particular dude-ranch experience.
Home on the range
“I’ve heard all about you,” cowboss and owner George Gaber said with a smile as we shook hands. My mouth opened wide enough to catch a country fly. George winked. Evidently a friend who had stayed at the ranch a week earlier had told some devilish stories. None of them true, of course.
George’s friendly, casual demeanor was as open and genuine as the rolling Saskatchewan hills on which he built his ranch. It puts everyone at ease — and keeps ‘em coming back. One guest has faithfully returned for the past nine years. Originally from Germany, George realized a dream when he created La Reata in 1996. He’s been sharing it with others ever since.
I stowed my bag in my bunkhouse cabin before moseying over to the saloon for a beer. Wilton, a Rhodesian ridgeback and the biggest dog on the ranch, followed me. Although twice the size of Ginger, an equally good-natured mutt, he was a sweetheart. The old-fashioned saloon sign warned cowboys to leave their guns at the bar. Lunch was served family-style at long tables in the cookhouse.
The conversation flowed as plates full of home cooking were passed around. Five large bowls came heaped with summer salads. Baked beans weighed down a separate container. Grilled hamburgers were the main that day with cheese slices, onion rings, relishes, mustard and ketchup to slather on according to taste. There were pickles, too. Nothing fancy — unless you count the dog-bone-shaped cookies with good wishes from Wilton and Ginger to “Dad” (George) as part of the Father’s Day dessert. Diets are for city slickers.
Lasso practice was taking place outside and some Swiss visitors were trying their hands at roping a tree stump. Other guests hiked up the hills surrounding the property. Soon they were a dot on the horizon. This is big sky country, coulee grasslands, not as pancake flat as parts of the province where a common joke is that you can see your dog run away for three days.
La Reata sits on the east shore of Lake Diefenbaker and it’s an ideal spot for watching the sunset. The surrounding landscape has remained pretty much unchanged for millennia. It’s a place to lose yourself, or maybe find yourself, as the sun and clouds paint moving patterns on the terrain.
Depending on the season, your time at La Reata might also include some ranch chores. During the first week of the season, there are daily horseback trips to the pastures to check the cattle, and treat or ear tag newborns if necessary. Fences also need to be fixed.
Horseback riding is the big draw, of course, and it’s generally a soothing trot or gallop across wide-open grassland separated by coulees (small gullies). With no defined path, riders tend to form a loose group, riding at their own pace when on a trail ride.
It’s easy to relax amid the vast silence of the prairies. When the breeze blows across your face, your thoughts float carefree as the clouds and nothing matters. The gentle squeak of the leather saddle blends with the clip clop of hooves in a mesmerizing cadence that carries you far from daily concerns — until your horse breaks into a run to reach the top of a knoll, interrupting your reverie with a jolt.
I learned that photographing from a moving horse can be a challenge of balance and judgment. There were more than a few instances when my mount broke into a trot just as I raised camera to eye. With arms, legs, camera vest and hat flailing in every direction, I felt like Don Quixote of the Wild West. More than once an experienced colleague retrieved my hat for me.
Part way through the ride, we dismounted for a break. George put a coffeepot on the campfire he started. Riders found spots in the sun or shade to kick back for a snooze in the grass, hats tilted over their eyes, grass stems in their mouths, cowboy style. By late afternoon we arrived at a steep hill overlooking the ranch house directly below, the green hills rolling into the distance with the lake stretched out to the right. It felt as though we were in a movie scene. George urged his mount slowly down the path to the corral and we followed. The horses knew the way and they were anxious for their oats.
At trail’s end we unsaddled and headed to the saloon for a cool one. We played cards for pennies and had a tabletop football match. There was music — country, of course. The lake was always available for a myriad of activities from swimming to fishing; some guests preferred to drain any residual cares in the hot tub.
George and staff “ranch hands” prepared chow at the cookhouse that evening for a dozen hungry dudes and dudettes. Barbequed steaks never tasted so good. Communal dining without pretence. And not a cell phone, radio or TV in sight.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.