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Charles Dickens nailed the situation I’m in right now with his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ Dickens, interestingly, wrote his classics in installments, published weekly in Victorian England’s penny press – the whole books only were published in their entirety after the final chapter ‘installment’ went out to avid readers waiting for the finale. From genteel ladies’ reading circles to anyone who could read at all relishing audience reaction at street corners and public houses, awaiting the spell-binding final conclusion.
Two weeks ago I was riding out in glorious backcountry and it was exactly that…”the best of times.” That is, as the Buddhists so emphasize – and horses do too! – if one could live entirely in the moment. Hard, brilliant sunshine, shirt-sleeved with a down vest atop, two knockout backcountry horses of many seasons’ experience behind them, lunches and water aboard and world-class views all around, every single moment.
“The worst of times,” was knowing what was about to happen – a landscape changing forever. Around 11,000 years after the last Ice Ages and receding glaciers began grinding back up into the Continental Divide, resolute plants and trees fought to establish an amazing eco-diversity on this wafer-thin soil matting a scant ½ inch thick, that could cope with crazy temperature extremes on top of that, sometimes 40 degree swings, of Chinook, the ‘snow-eating’ winds unique to these areas.
These thousands of years later, right here in the high wild steep sided slopes of the Ghost – an area NW of Calgary and nestled up into the foothills at the baseline of the Rockies, the ‘shining mountains,’ my outfitting friend and I were seeing a landscape flagged just everywhere with orange (cut-block edgings) and pink striped (access road routes being sliced in), due for clear cut logging.
I’m not against sustainable logging, but clear cut is ’60s mind-think when forests and ‘resources’ as the government departments so detail – along with that ghastly word – ‘harvesting,’ is so old, so out-dated. It’s a brutal rape that exposes and bleaches and kills off the forest’s understory (all the plants madly interconnecting, rather well, beneath the tree canopy), before the sun relentlessly bleaches and dries out the soil. Eco-diversity dies, going, going gone.
On these headwater areas upstream of Calgary, the trees and the native grasses slow down, absorb the snow-melt, moisture seeping deep into groundwaters that can stretch right across two-mile wide glacier valleys. These aspens, poplars, pine and spruce, even two rare Douglas fir this far east, their roots and eco-systems of ferns, mosses, lichens, mushrooms and incredible fungi spores absorb, too, the spring rains, providing diverse habitat for migrating birds, wildlife that’s been documented to even keep on providing sustainable moisture release up to six years into serious drought.
I’d been tipped off it might be good to have a photographic record, so that day I had three cameras aboard, one of them super-expensive. I’d asked Dave Richards, third generation outfitter who is so part of the Ghost and its secret hidden places, to take me onto where I’d seen maps of an area I simply couldn’t believe it was even being considered for clear cut. It’s high, steep sided, invaluable water holding abilities (Easterners may not remember Calgary’s epic 2013 flood but it wiped out the city’s basements and electrical circuits, and caused billions of dollars of damage and insurance claims.) These headaters feed into the Ghost River, which feeds into the Bow, and provide roughly 30 per cent of Calgary’s water. Or floodwaters.
Richards set up Saddle-Peak Outfitting in ’78, an undertaking aged 21. Over the years he and his family have provided hospitality and lifetime memory moments, day rides and backcountry pack trips. His mother is still spoken with reverence as a force of nature, cooking, organizing, on film sets providing background gear and unbelievably appreciated food for famous film stars, Marilyn Monroe even. This day he’s riding Huckle, a 20-year-old roan, skipping up some trails a mountain goat would think twice about. What Dave and Jacquie Richards provide, in these modern times, is a real connect for town and city people, what Richard Louv calls the nature-deficit child in his best-selling books, of the small daily miracles this planet dishes out, adapts to. With the Canadian dollar trading disastrously on the world market, their business, consistently over the years, has pulled in repeat visitors worldwide.
As The Fox stands, puffing (we’ve come up a more direct route, steep and deep), at the lunch spot used for all those years, and not a sign to be seen of any previous use even and certainly not even a candy wrapper left behind – I’m spell-bound. It’s why, when I can’t wrap my head around the next day, or a writing project, I come again and again to these backcountry places. When I finished researching the guidebook, more and more riding on my own, layered up by November that year, I can remember the very last ride back into a full harvest moon to the Blue Rock trailhead, surrounded by such mountains. I realized I’d become so much part of them I didn’t want, even, to come home, let alone ever drive into a city ever again.
Today, though, I’m working on angles to photograph, trying to get perspective on slope steepness (this is a sod to capture on images, always), and marking on GPS fixes where each photograph originates. At one point I get off, thinking of several thousand dollars’ worth of camera, as we slither down the north side. I sit on my butt three times, it’s that steep, and The Fox is sliding, sliding, reading my body language and always a side-step away. When I get home, he has twigs in his tail, and grass stains on his rump – not quite ‘The Man From Snowy River,’ but if we’d speeded up, yeah, roll on the sequel!
Dave is devastated. He cut some of these trails 20 years ago, working out mild angles for his guests, safety conscious always. He’s visibly distraught when we find the first access road tapes, sharp into a hillside that, having photographed other areas of clear cut back in 2011, I know will erode like crazy. Wildlife will avoid these areas – they’re a death sentence for a cloven footed animal fleeing a predator. It’ll stress those animals out, to find new grazing habitat, establish new game trails other than the ones they’ve used for thousands of years. Wincing, I snap a photograph of a bird’s nest, knowing no birds will return for decades now.
It’s a day I’ll remember forever, for the unbelievable beauty and peace of these places, which so gift in ways that scientists, health experts and biologists are just beginning to get a handle on. I know I’m chronicling something, perhaps hoping somehow to campaign, to somehow save at least part of this area’s marginal areas, the steep and deep and their underground aquifers and springs. I know I will go and see the native medicine people and ask them for prayers and ceremony. I know the Castle Wilderness down by Crowsnest Pass way down south has been given, after years of hard campaigning, a more protected status. I know too in-between these two areas are more proposed clear cut areas, that have other action groups swinging into action – Canada now outstrips Brazil, as an acknowledged leader in deforestation.
Today, though, as I unsaddle The Fox hours later, the skin’s tightening across my cheekbones from hours of late fall sunshine. My lungs are full of fresh pine-scented air. The Fox, sweat sluiced off, noses a pocket, knowing there are carrots there. He loves the backcountry – together we’ve seen wolves, bears, cougars – right now the eagle migration is in full swing and today was a gift of a sighting far overhead of a golden circling southwards.
Today was the best of times; later tonight, I will weep. But not now, not yet.