How to sleep under the prairie stars at Prince Albert National Park

I met Gord from Sturgeon River Ranch back in June, during a conference in Saskatoon. He was a real Saskatchewan cowboy, and easily discernable thanks to the black cowboy hat he always wore. A few days later, I joined Gord on an overnight horseback trek into Prince Albert National Park.

Like in the previous year when I had visited La Reata Ranch, Gord paired me with a gingery appaloosa thoroughbred named Applejack. And just like Gus, Applejack was bit of a saucy, flatulent mare. But I stroked his coat and nuzzled his neck, whispered into his ear that I’d be kind to him, and he seemed to understand.

Gord is currently the only tour operator running overnight horseback tours through the park. The area is home to a herd of free-ranging bison, and so regulations are tight. Our tipi campground would be as rustic as it gets: no electricity, no bathrooms, and no running water.

There was a large crew of us going, including a handful of other journalists, two camp hands named Becky and Kristen, Gord’s son Jake, our tourism guide Jackie, and another cowboy named Glenn. We loaded up a pioneer wagon with all our gear, and Glenn led the way, pulled by two stunning large Percheron crosses.

The foot of our route was carved out by wagons and other traffic, thus making the first leg an easy ride. We picked our way down the trail flanked by tall mature white spruces before veering left into the dense brush.

I asked Gord if he had bushwacked his way through these trails often.

“Actually,” he said. “It’s the bison that carve out these routes.”

And then Gord’s horse Jackson, directly in front of me, leapt back in terror and turned head-on into Applejack.

“Bison!” Gord shouted.

Gord quickly managed to control Jackson. As I directed Applejack back onto the trail, I caught sight of a bison crashing through the undergrowth. It happened in seconds.

Laughing, we moved on and out into the open plains partially submerged in water thanks to recent storms. Along the way, Gord pointed out wolf tracks, hawks swooping across the sky, and an old bison skull picked clean. Then he stopped and motioned for us all to be quiet. He pointed out into the field.

From the protection of the forest came several bison bounding across the plains. I struggled to take photos from my horse, but kept laughing and falling sideways. I had expected the bison to charge forth in their herd; instead, they each bounced their way along like little rabbits. The whole thing looked ridiculous.

When we reached our campsite about six hours later, we unloaded our gear and started setting up. Becky, our resident chef, began expertly unloading the camp kitchen and pulling out Tupperware containers filled with food and appliances. A fire was started. Cans of Old Style Pilsner were popped open, and we pulled our chairs around for a rest. My inner thighs were on fire from having rode so far.

I remember thinking how lucky our hosts were, for this to be part of their routine. Your life can be somebody else’s adventure.

Gord and Glenn joked about the time they tricked some burly male tree planters.

“We told them if they wore lipstick, it’d keep the bugs away,” said Glenn. “So they did.”

My one big mistake of the trip was thinking a thin pair of long leggings would fend back the mosquito attacks. Every time I had looked down during my ride, another hoard of them had attached themselves to my leg. By the time dinner was served, I had more than 50 bites scarring calves and thighs. I learned why cowboys wear jeans.

As the sun set and the moon began its ascent, we finished our meal of stew and cobbler and started making bedtime preparations. The journalists eventually headed towards the tipi.

“I want to sleep out here, but only if you guys are nearby,” I said to the guides.

Nobody argued. I pulled up a cot and positioned it next to the wagon, where Glenn had wrapped himself up in a tarp underneath. Becky and Kristen had laid out their horse blankets next to the wagon as well, huddling up together for warmth. Even Gord’s young son seemed to have no problem with the idea of sleeping out in the wild.

I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag with my flashlight tucked into my armpit. I readied myself for a night of tossing and turning as I lay on my back looking up at the stars. Sleep has never been my strongpoint. I wondered at the fireflies that drifted by, not having experienced them on the east coast. Coyotes howled above the crackling of the fire.

I fought to stay awake, wanting to take it all in as the fire’s final moments popped and crackled. I fell asleep in minutes.

I awoke well after the fire died out, just before dawn. A soft mist had snaked its way across the plains, and had draped around the horses off in the field. One of the horses lay silent in the grass, only its head visible above the fog.

I fell asleep again.

The next time I awoke, Jackie was leading Applejack to the edge of the campsite. She looked alarmed.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

“There were wolves circling the site,” she said. “The horses got nervous.”

I jumped out of bed as Jackie went to wake Gord up, and we each started scouting the area. There was nothing to worry about – I simply had never seen wolves before. Off in the distance, three giant grey dogs disappeared into the forest. They were close enough for me to see the markings on their fur.

I stretched my arms over my head, extended my fingers to the sky, and yawned. I hadn’t felt so well rested in weeks.

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