City slicker Michael Gebicki shrugs off a lack of riding experience to discover his inner cowboy on a six-day trek through Canada's Banff National Park.
BLIND and naked, I'm dancing on the edge of a small and freezing stream that comes fresh from the melting snow above me. Naked because I'm lathering myself after a long day in the saddle; blind because I have soap in my eyes; and dancing because small, sharp pebbles are torturing my frozen feet.
When I stagger back to the water and sluice my eyes clear, I have been inserted into a postcard. The silver stream at my feet slithers into thick spruce forests that rise to grey mountains with inverted screen funnels etched into their flanks. Even though it's July - high summer here - the peaks are iced with snow. Glorious as it is, it's only a little above par for what I've become accustomed to.
It's day four of a six-day horse ride through Banff National Park, 6500 square kilometres of moose marshes, bear woods, elk meadows, mountains, glaciers and chilly rivers in Canada's Rocky Mountains. Four days of watching the rising sun chase purple clouds from the mountaintops, drinking cowboy coffee from a hissing pot just off the fire, splashing across rivers and drinking from the streams in which we water our horses.
We're also alone. Since we left, we've seen not a soul. Apart from a horse or a helicopter, there is no practical way to get into Banff National Park's backcountry. You could walk but the distance, the isolation, the amount of gear required, the steep terrain and the number of river crossings put it off limits to any but the toughest of hardcore hikers.
We started out from the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, where Parks Canada raises the horses its wardens still use on patrol, picked up the trail along the Red Deer River past Warden Rock and camped among spruce trees and buffalo berry bushes on the edge of Tyrrell Creek. Next morning, after a late start thanks to a mule that kicked up and wouldn't take its load, we crossed the river and climbed the steep slope on the far side to the 2200-metre pass at Elkhorn Lake, where we stopped for lunch amid the shed antlers from which the pass takes its name.
This is billed as an adventure expedition by Holiday on Horseback, which has been operating horse treks through the national park for almost 50 years. It's for keen riders who want to camp and spend seven hours a day riding along game trails with spruce branches grabbing at their legs. Previous riding experience is a basic requirement. Three of the four of us score "F" for fail in this department.
I last threw a leg over a horse's back for a half-day trail ride five years ago. Ryder - despite his name - has never sat on a horse before but he earned a green beret serving with a British commando regiment and nothing less than limb loss is going to cause him anxiety. Renate, his young partner, is a Scot, as is Ryder, and nothing dents her sunny disposition. Dave is 74, a farmer from Cornwall, and, despite creaking joints that bend him over in the morning, he's owned horses all his life and still rides with the local hunt.
We're in expert company. Our guide, Greg, has been riding trails in these parts for almost 20 years. Words might not get past his lips without a struggle but he sings cowboy songs and plays guitar when we sit around the fire in the evenings, which goes down well with the whisky that Ryder has brought along. Greg can shoe a horse in the time it takes us to have coffee and put up our tents.
There's Mel, tall and willowy, another Scot, who cooks delicious breakfasts with eggs and sausages and porridge, and charms us all with her infectious good spirits. Troy, an ex-bull rider and the complete cowboy right down to the tips of his spurs, takes care of the mules.
Our string of half a dozen mules does the heavy lifting and we're packing some serious gear. As well as a small mountain of food and a camp kitchen, we have shovels, axes, a chainsaw and a complete farrier's kit, with an anvil for shaping horseshoes. Should one of us need a boot repaired or an appendectomy, I feel sure we are equipped.
Our horses are all big, solid fellows. Quarter horse with a touch of draught horse about them, Greg tells us. Mine goes by the name of Sailor, a handsome chestnut gelding with a touch of henna in his coat and a white stripe down his nose. Sailor likes to snack. He's continually pointy-end down in the grass chomping at tasty herbivore treats. We're in no great hurry, so I indulge him in this, but Sailor, being a sociable animal, will suddenly realise he is being left behind and trot to catch up. Our progress is like driving in rush-hour traffic. This is fine with me when the trail is flat but when we're heading downhill and Sailor brakes from a spirited trot to a dead halt that nearly pitches me over his ears, harsh words ensue.
Once, we part company. We're crossing a creek at the end of a steep ravine when Sailor slips as he steps on a slanting rock. His back legs slide and, when he makes a mighty heave to regain his footing, my saddle slips. I grab the pommel and try to pull it back upright but it's already gone too far to one side.
"Greg, my saddle's come loose," are my final words as I disappear over Sailor's hindquarters. With the saddle flopping around his nether regions, Sailor is a horse transformed. He does a wild, bucking circle, hooves slashing the air, until he sees the other horses disappearing over the ravine, bolts to join them and smacks into the rear of Renate's horse, Fuzzy, who gallops off in a panic.
"Grab your reins tight," I hear Greg yell over the pounding of hooves. By the time I reach the top, order has been restored and Sailor is panting and slightly shamefaced.
The toughest day's ride comes when we leave the bowl of the Dormer River and head upstream until it narrows to a trickle and we wade the horses across and head up the Dormer Pass.
In less than a kilometre, the trail rises more than 350 metres in a series of switchbacks that take us past the tree line and into drifts of late-summer snow.
Every couple of minutes, Greg, riding at the front, stops us to rest our panting horses. Dave, the Cornish farmer, says nobody in England would believe he'd ridden up such a steep hill and claims there isn't a horse in England that would do it.
At the top, a cold wind funnels through the pass. Bighorn sheep are watching us from the ridge above, silhouetted against the sky. The corridor of the pass takes us across a 500 metre-wide landslide, where shale has cascaded down the mountain. It's loose and steep and the bottom is a long way down with nothing to stop you on the way.
The trail is less than hand-to-elbow wide but our horses carry us across as if they were on rails and into meadows tinted blue and yellow with wildflowers. Dave hums the theme song from the Marlboro cigarette ads and we all laugh.
We're riding high. The pass is close to 2400 metres and it's cold. The first day of our ride was hot enough for T-shirts but every day since the thermometer has taken another big step down.
The last day of our ride is colder still. "Better put your rain gear on," says Greg as we saddle up at the grassy meadow where we've spent the night. It's dry at first but as we begin the long climb alongside the cascading creek that will take us to Elk Pass a fine, soaking rain is falling. By the time we reach the pass it has turned to snow and we shiver over lunch.
We are all transformed by this. Something happens to you when you spend six days outdoors and don't complain too much. Freed from the essential decisions - what to cook, where to camp, when to stop - a kind of serenity descends.
We are also free from the nagging bleat of urban life - mobile phones, newspapers, television, telephones, radio, email and traffic. Stress levels sink as the mountains rise around us. Whether we have fresh socks for the morning becomes the limit of our anxieties. The physical effects are miraculous. Hips and backs that spend far too long hunched in chairs unkink; finger joints sore from pounding keyboards stop hurting. Appetites sharpen, legs wind back the years. Jokes become sillier. When I accidentally pour the washing-up water down a gopher hole instead of the dirty-water hole, we laugh fit to bust.
It's more than three hours from lunch until we get to the ski slopes above Banff, where a truck will meet us. We tie our horses among spruce trees and it's over. The driver who takes us back to town has the heater up full blast. "Figured you guys could use it," he says.
We collect our gear at the Trail Rider Store in Banff. It's a short walk back to Brewster's Mountain Lodge and I'm walking a little stiffly because my knees hurt and are reluctant to come together. I probably have a faraway gaze in my eyes, too, and to anyone who might look me over - riding cape swishing around my ankles, hat brim dripping, stained jeans, scuffed riding boots, in need of a shave, smelling of woodsmoke - yep, plain to see, there goes a cowboy.
Air Canada flies daily between Sydney and Vancouver, with frequent connections to Calgary. Fares Sydney-Calgary are priced from $1496. 1300 655 767, aircanada.com. The Brewster Airport Shuttle operates between Calgary and Banff.
One-way bus fare is $C51 ($53). (403) 762 6700, brewster.ca. Banff is about a one-hour drive from Calgary.
Brewster's Mountain Lodge, 208 Caribou Street, Banff, has rooms priced from $C179. (403) 762 2900, brewstermountainlodge.com.
Fox Hotel & Suites, 461 Banff Avenue, Banff, has rooms priced from $C169. (403) 760 8500, bestofbanff.com.
See + do
Holiday on Horseback hosts treks in the Rocky Mountains between late June and late September. The six-day Adventure Expedition is priced from $C1858 a person. Six-day lodge-based trips are priced from $C1406 a person. Other lodge-based horse adventures are available from two to five days. (403) 762 4551, horseback.com.
With the kids
Horse trekking is ideal for horse-loving families, although a lodge-based trip would probably be less demanding and more comfortable than the full wilderness camping experience. You can expect simple but atmospheric accommodation in Holiday on Horseback's two lodges, which offer modest but precious comforts such as a limited supply of hot water for washing. A sleeping bag is not required for lodge-based trips.
What to take
WHATEVER the weather throws your way, the right gear makes the difference between happiness and misery. A wide-brimmed hat is essential, preferably one that sheds water and has a chin strap. Riding boots are a must. You need several layers: a thermal underlayer, jeans, cotton or synthetic shirts and a waterproof top layer. A riding cape is best but a waterproof synthetic jacket and trousers are fine. A fleece or insulated windproof jacket is also required for evenings. Ditto for a small torch, mosquito repellent, sun block, water bottle and a small bum bag if you plan to carry a camera. Do not rely on the sleeping bags supplied by local outfitters. Mine was thin as gauze and I ended up bunking down under horse blankets. The gear you'll need can be bought at the Trail Rider Store in Banff, where Holiday on Horseback has its office and prices are reasonable.