If you are looking for an authentic cowboy experience, Southern Alberta is the place for you. That’s only natural, since our recent cowboy tour took us from Calgary, home to the the Calgary Stampede, and followed the Cowboy Trail all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
I have connections to the Calgary Stampede since my dad used to be a rodeo cowboy and he and my mom worked on the Bar U Ranch, which is now a national historic site commemorating the history of ranching. It was Bar U Ranch owner George Lane who financed the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 and it’s been going strong ever since. A visit to Bar U Ranch is a great way to learn about cowboy history, with much of the ranch still intact, allowing you to walk through the 27 buildings to see what life used to be like on the range.
At one point, we sat down in the shade, sipping strong cowboy coffee as a storyteller, Miriam, told us the history of round-up camps. Home on the Range was a camp of six cowboys (and one camp cook) sleeping in tents around the chuck wagon. They spent their time rounding up the 60,000 heads of cattle spanning 160,000 acres. Bar U supplied beef to three nations and played an important role in the old Wild West. It also attracted many colorful characters, including Harry Longabaugh, who spent two years breaking in horses here before moving on to a more infamous line of work as the Sundance Kid with Butch Cassidy.
Roping them in at the Bar U Ranch
Dave and I like to immerse ourselves in culture, so after seeing what the life of a cowboy was like at Bar U, it was time to be a cowboy at an actual working ranch. So it was off to Anchor D Ranch in the town of Black Diamond. Anchor D has several ranch hands taking care of the 115+ horses owned and operated by Dewey Matthews, a true cowboy through and through. It’s a family feel here and we soon discovered that not much has changed since the 19th century.
The bell rings to let everyone know that it’s chow time and within minutes, disheveled ranch hands come in from the range. A happy cowboy is a well-fed cowboy, and huge and delicious meals awaited us. We felt like a couple of city slickers and have to admit, we were intimidated. That all went away though as everyone had an Albertan hospitality that instantly put us at ease.
After dinner we were invited to see the foals that were roaming in the pasture with their moms. They were about five months old and already getting frisky, trying to chomp at our boots and nuzzle up to our bellies. They were as cute as a button.
Getting friendly with the Foals
That first night was an early night since 6 a.m. comes fast. The ranch hands are out at the crack of dawn rounding up horses and the cooks are busy making a hearty breakfast to get everyone through the day. We had a big day ahead of ourselves since we were taking a high mountain trail ride. Dewey himself was leading us. He may be the ranch owner but he leads rides every day.
Viewfinder Tip: Take a dog with you on the trail. They’re used as early warning signs for moose, bears, or cats, scaring or fending them off.
We started slow, getting comfortable in our saddles and within a few minutes on the trail, a cougar crossed our path. Even still, we felt completely confident with Dewey’s years of experience, not to mention his sure-footed horses that showed great skill as we clung to the side of the mountain at 7,200 feet. We bushwhacked through evergreens, went up and down rocky slopes, and followed narrow trails at high elevation. If you have a fear of heights, I’d suggest you don’t look down.
Getting comfy in our saddles
By this time we were feeling comfortable and confident and couldn’t believe that we actually had the skills to ride. This isn’t your flat Caribbean tourist trail ride, but rather the Canadian Rockies, making it something you won’t soon forget. We only wished that we had a few more days to ride, but with a full day on the horse, our butts and thighs would be thanking us. However, Anchor D Ranch also offers weekend trips and seven-day tours.
The night ended with Dewey playing the accordion and piano as we sat in the main lodge. I could feel my emotions rise as I thought to myself that I couldn’t have hoped for a better day. Cowboys are alive and well in Alberta and it was a privilege to get a taste of what it’s like to have a home-on-the-range experience in the 21st century.
A trip to Southern Alberta is something we’ll never forget. As Dewey said to us on the ranch, “When on a trip to Banff or Jasper, you’re passing through for a look, when traveling in cowboy country, you become a part of it.” We agree. We felt a part of Alberta during our short time there and we can’t wait to go back to find that part of ourselves again.
Have you ever ridden a horse and where?