Home-grown local lad with enough trail skills to fill Maligne Lake. Outfitting is a way of life, horses his constant companions.
Ex-PC wrangler who’s seen Jasper’s wild country from his skis, bike, crampons and from the back of many a horse. The man knows his studs because, well, he is one.
Tough as leather, strong as cowboy coffee and capable of pulling together three meals a day for 15 hungry mouths, no matter how foul the weather and how bad the bugs.
Daughter of a local legend, bred on fresh mountain air, this Swiss miss is creating her own chapter in Jasper’s horse history.
When short notice calls, he’s your man. Up at 6 a.m. to light the fire and last to bed after washing the last whiskey mug.
When 10 Swiss clients want to experience life on the trail in Jasper National Park’s seldom-visited wilderness, Astoria Outfitting is there to lead the way. For 12 days and 170 kilometres, 26 horses and five wranglers will ensure the clients’ needs are catered to, their toils are token, their expectations are exceeded. Outfitters know the first trip of the season will reveal many surprises: how unfit the horses are, how overgrown the alders are and how washed out the trails are.
“The whole route has seen many horse parties and hikers over the years but not so many these days,” Sean says.
Ten days before the trip is due to launch, Gunner is working a new colt. The young horse has just had its wolf teeth pulled and it’s hot, bothered and sore. When it gives a mighty buck, Gunner goes down. The verdict: a broken back.
“Could have been worse,” he says.
Hobbling through downtown Jasper with a permanent collection of hardware (two rods and four screws are now holding his lumbar 12 in place), Gunner is now desperate to get the trip organized, even if he can’t be on it. On the outfitting front, a living has to be made in three short, intense summer months. As such, the news of Gunner’s ordeal flies ‘round the cowboy hotline with remarkable speed. Horse travel folk stick together, after all, and here they have quite a Stetson-scratcher.
The Long Shot
As cowboy luck would have it, Brent, a fellow dude in the closely-tied wrangling community is available to help. Sean will take over Gunner’s lead and Brent will fill in for Sean at the front of the pack-string. A trail-smart veteran who can shoe, wrangle, pack, set up camp and rally even when the chips are down, Brent’s last minute addition means the trip can proceed as planned. Assists from B.D. Wilson, Big John, Garfield, Gib and Fred ensure the horses are transported to the trailhead and picked up on the other side, 12 days later.
(Cue foreboding music)
The Call to Adventure
The party plans to head out from Mile 45 (Sunwapta Warden Station) on the South Boundary Trail and move towards the Cairn River hiker camp, 76 kilometres northeast. From there, the trip will move off the SBT toward Southesk Lake. Southesk Lake is tucked away in the park’s southeast wilderness; Canadian Rockies Trail Guide authors Brian Patton and Bart Robinson note that “if Southesk Lake isn’t the most remote spot in Jasper Park, it certainly feels like it.” From Southesk Lake, the group will climb over Glacier Pass to Rocky Forks, finishing over Rocky Pass to the Cardinal Divide (across the provincial boundary), where the trailers will meet them, hopefully with everybody still in one piece.
A Plan is Formed
All food tents, personnel duffels and equipment have to be rigged on the backs of 10 packhorses. Planning of meals is herculean, brilliant and cannot be messed with. Gear and food for 15 people for 12 days are weighed, loaded in pack boxes, tied down and tarped. Horse packing is an art form unto itself; the simplistic necessity of a solid pack string, loaded well, with no re-packs needed is the key to a good day on the trail.
(Steady pan across horses)
The first few days are rough on man, woman and beast until everyone settles into the rhythm and routine of the journey. Working horses have a smell—a heady, pungent smell—but after four days, according to the dudes, “it goes away.” Camp help is up early, kitchen attendants make coffee and breakfast while the wranglers round up the herd (besides Two Socks, more than two dozen beasts are difficult to keep track of). Water is a precious commodity, especially for the person who has to haul it, for dirty dishes, pots and pans generated by 15 hungry trail breakers quickly becomes overwhelming. The guests have the entire day to ride to their next destination, meanwhile back at camp, the work begins anew. Four hours later, the string is saddled, packed and nose bags are on—ready to troop another 18-30 km. There is no rest for the hired help; once in camp they have to attend to the horses, unpack, set up camp, make dinner, clean up and fall into bed.
The days and kilometres blend into a wilderness blur, many spectacular mountain passes followed by agonizing, long kilometres of bog, bush, blow downs and washouts. Following Sean and his trusty horse, the group travels straight ahead, around and over terrain features, through rivers and creeks and up high ridges. The rugged travel is guaranteed to impress the Swiss guests—and blissfully exhaust the hired help and horses.
Life on the trail gives the horses a chance to shine, with all their different personalities, quirks and needs. It takes time to sort out what bridle, saddle, halter and pack saddle fits which horse, and they’re not always comfortable with it all. Horses are herd animals, meaning they like to be together, but there is a pecking order—one which has to be understood, lest the pack string blow up.
And they do have personality. Two Socks is a friendly, “I want to be in the kitchen” kind of horse. Instead of wandering off he hangs around, perfectly content to be part human, part horse, using the campfire smoke as an antidote against horseflies and even taking part in the card games, much to the amusement of the Swiss guests.
Outlaw, Cordell’s horse, on the other hand, is half blind and fully unlucky; the poor bugger manages to cut his hind leg in a bog, then get his saddle rolled, leading to a major freak out. To top things off one of the fjord ponies (small, strong breed well suited to packing) nearly strangles Outlaw with a halter engagement.
(Fast motion time lapse)
What is so unique about horse outfitting in Jasper National Park is how little has changed in the man/beast trail travel union since the days of David Thompson, in the 1800s. A long, cold, wet day out on the trail can be pretty miserable then, and it can be pretty miserable now. After being in the saddle in icy rain for nine hours, even the trail hardened Sean admitted he was “pretty much done.” This terse statement speaks volumes about life as an outfitter, because even though he was pretty much done, he wasn’t quite done. Those involved aren’t in it for the money or the glory, they’re in it because they love it, and because they live it. The simple pleasure of chugging along in the saddle for hours, days and even weeks at a time is something known only to this small but vital community. As Sean says, it’s incredible to witness just what horses are capable of “when they’re happy and get in their groove.”
Outfitting is alive and well in Jasper. Gunner has been bucked off for the time being, but his broken back is healing. In this most recent rendition of the South Boundary Trail Campfire Story, the audience sees that is is indeed high theatre.
The stars, supporting performers, guest cameos and extras once again all step up, for in this timeless classic—and other romances, comedies, westerns and dramas played out on Jasper's trails—there are no small parts.