Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
Bookmark and Share

Cowtown Cowboys

An Alberta guest ranch gives city slickers a taste of the good life, out home on the range

When I was five, I wore my fringed Dale Evans cowgirl outfit to my best friend's birthday party. The highlight was sitting on a pony and being led around her front lawn for about two minutes. That pretty much sums up my experience in the saddle.

But I think there's a wannabe cowpoke in all of us, so last summer I packed my Wrangler jeans and headed to cattle country. My destination was Willow Lane Ranch, a 518-hectare working cattle and horse ranch about a two-hour drive south of Calgary, in the shadow of the Porcupine Hills.

Ranch owner LeAnne Lane had arranged to meet me at the entrance to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Now a World Heritage Site, it is where the Blackfeet once staged their annual buffalo hunt by stampeding the herd over steep sandstone cliffs.

I followed LeAnne down a winding dusty road to the cow camp, a comfortable set-up with canvas tents on wooden platforms furnished with foam mattresses, a shower tent with a water bag hanging from a tree branch and a Johnny-on-the-Spot. There, sitting around a picnic table, I met my fellow cowhands -- Lori, a newsprint maker from Thunder Bay; Evelyne, a medical researcher from Brussels; Inka, a physician from Düsseldorf; Louie, a warehouse manager from Hertfordshire; and Johnny, a Vancouver photographer. The three gals were seasoned riders; Johnny and Louie had taken riding lessons all winter to prepare for their western adventure. For five days they'd been helping Steve, the wrangler, and the Boss (LeAnne's husband Keith) with looking for strays, driving cattle and administering antibiotics for foot rot or other ailments.

"We don't get on a horse out here just for the heck of it. This is a real working ranch," the Boss informed me as he fired up the charcoal grill and threw on some sizable T-bones. Inside the kitchen tent we piled our plates with thick cheese toast, Caesar salad and baked spuds. By the time we tucked into Saskatoon berry pie, the sun had set. Keith's horse, Jigs, was whinnying in his corral and Steve was stoking the campfire. Keith brought out his guitar and we sat under the big sky singing old classics like "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

I heard about my cohorts' adventures: cutting trails, attempted roping, traversing steep gullies and ravines, sighting bear, moose and deer, getting lost... Part of me was getting into the spirit, the other part was dreading tomorrow's ride.

"Don't worry," LeAnne assured me when she deposited me at my log cabin around midnight (no cow camp for this greenhorn!). "The Porcupine Hills Western Cow Camp Adventure that your buddies signed up for is for experienced riders who want long hours in the saddle and lots of challenge. We'll see how you look on a horse tomorrow and take it from there."

Saddling up
"This is Lightning," said Keith, as he introduced me to my steed next morning. "Don't worry, he's an old pro. You should meet his sidekick, Catastrophe!" I slipped Lightning a carrot bribe and tried to look useful while Keith, Inka and Evelyne saddled up the horses. Inka told me that the movie City Slickers had inspired her to search the Internet for the quintessential western adventure. This was it.

Keith gave me some mounting tips and the four of us rode off in search of three lost cows. "Hang on and squeeze with your legs," Keith said. "And let go of that horn." Right. I tried to let go and hold the reins in my left hand while leaving my right free, but as we jostled along the range I found myself hanging onto the horn for dear life.

After about an hour we'd crossed a few creeks, ridden among the grazing bovines and spotted plenty of mule deer, but no strays. I was starting to relax, even letting go of the horn long enough to take a few photos. Inka and Evelyne were probably dying to dig in their spurs and gallop off into the wild blue yonder, but Keith rode slowly and Lightning -- bless his heart -- kept pace.

Three hours later we decided to postpone the search until tomorrow. What had started out as terrifying was beginning to feel pretty good -- until I dismounted. My knees and ankles were aching. Not to mention my butt. But it was nothing a hot shower, a cold beer and a swing on the porch with Mick the dog and Fuzzy the cat couldn't rectify.

The aroma of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was wafting from LeAnne's kitchen. I was ravenous. LeAnne laughs about guests who complain about gaining weight while taking a third helping of her chocolate icebox cake.

"Most of our guests suffer from what I call oxygen poison," she says. "/All the exercise and fresh air gives them hearty appetites, and they certainly don't suffer from insomnia. I swear you could hang most of them in trees and they'd fall right asleep."

This oxygenated city slicker was ready to hit the sack. I had learned how to make Lightning go right and left and stop. Tomorrow we'd work on reverse. Plus, we had to find those cows and mend some fences.

I said my good nights and headed off to my cozy log cabin with some recommended bedtime reading, Don't Squat with Your Spurs On.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Post a comment