Belle and Sundance after being discovered. Photo credit Birgit Stutz.

Belle and Sundance after being discovered. Photo credit Birgit Stutz.

McBride, BC, population 660, is located almost nine hours north of Vancouver in the Robson Valley. This is mountain country and access via route 16 is bordered by places like Mt. Quanstrom, Mt Sir Wilfred Laurier and Chevron Peak. Majestic towering peaks beckon from the town’s horizon and in summer it is a hunting, hiking and fishing playground. In winter snowmobiles and cross country skiers abound in McBride and nearby Valemount and snowfalls average 170.4 centimetres or 67.01 inches.

In 2008, volunteers from this quiet, friendly town rescued two abandoned horses from formidable Mt Renshaw despite insurmountable odds. This is the true story of Belle, a three year old mare, and Sundance, a fourteen year old gelding and how a small town’s rescue efforts made news around the globe.

Local horse owners denied knowing or owning the two strange horses seen by hiking enthusiasts and hunters on Mt. Renshaw in the fall of 2008. But word spread fast and early in December Monika and Tim Brown rented a snowmobile and scoured the mountains looking for the horses. They didn’t see them and assumed that they had died. However, a week later Logan Jeck and Leif Gunster were helping two Albertans recover machinery from a tree well when they felt that something or somebody was watching them. Looking up they saw the two horses watching them intently, but with the temperatures dipping to minus 25 they had to leave the area.

The following day a larger group including Logan, Leif, Matt Elliot and Logan’s sister Toni, an experienced horsewoman, made the trip to check on the horses. With a bale of hay on the back of the snowmobile, they knew that there were only two options available: feed them and try to save them, or shoot them if they were past help and hope. Toni checked the horses and decided that they were still well enough to save. “There’s life in them. Sundance looks like a big strong horse. They’ve still got spirit.”

The group knew that the horses needed some shelter and they dug a path for the horses so that they could be in the tree line where they dug out a small area for them to stand in.

News travels fast in a small town and word of the two horses spread like wildfire throughout the region. Without any doubts or hesitation, people rallied to the cause and the rescue operation moved ahead full tilt. Sledders brought up shovels, blankets, hay, and equipment to melt snow into water, all moved by the plight and sight of these two horses left to die. They had suffered frostbite, patches of hair were gone, had lost half of their body weight and their tails were sparse as they had chewed each other’s tails in a desperate search for nutrition.

Just getting to the horses every day and leaving every afternoon was an exercise in determination tinged with danger. From the car parking area it took an hour to negotiate the 30 kilometre ride up a logging road to a hut where the volunteers could warm up. From there they had to negotiate a 2-3 kilometre traverse along a mountain ridge and then descend two steep hills to reach the horses who neighed whenever they heard the sounds of the sled engines.

Word of the two horses spread further and further afield and people donated time, money and equipment to the cause. Others handled emails, phone calls, and the media requests. With Christmas just around the bend others came home for the holidays to find that there were two horses that needed help, and they jumped at the chance to help out in any way they could.

However, feeding the horses and caring for them was just the start of the challenges that lay ahead. The question was, once the rescue could move to the next stage, how would they get the horses out of their snow bound jail?

The Rescue: Eight Days of Dogged Determined Shovelling

While there were various ways and options on how to get the two horses down the mountain, none of them were obvious solutions and they all held a lot of risk. Could the horses be sedated and flown out in a helicopter? Doubtful as the horses were still weak. Could the snowmobiles drive over the snow to create a hard packed path? Again this solution was shelved as the snow was six or seven feet deep. Could they be put in an oversized sleigh and be pulled by the sleds. No, that wouldn’t be safe or practical. It finally became clear that the only solution would require back breaking labour, determination and hours and hours of shovelling a path a kilometre long through the snow so that the horses could walk out to the logging trail. But even that solution required some exploration before it could even begin and Dave Jeck and a small group put on their snowshoes and explored the area looking for the best route. There were steep drop offs, sheer cliffs and deep gullies: this would not be an easy job but the original group along with many volunteers were not giving up on the two horses. They had come too far to turn their backs on the equines who needed their help.

Because the snow was six to seven feet deep, it was never a question of just shovelling as most of us know it. It had to be done in layers like slicing a cake horizontally in three: two people shovelled the top of the snow down about two feet and moved ahead. Then two others cleared the middle section followed by the last pair who cleared the snow to the ground. Then the heavy artillery came out, and with axes and chainsaw the fallen trees, broken limbs and roots were removed from the path.

Homeward bound: Belle and Sundance on the logging trail. Photo by Birgit Stutz

Homeward bound: Belle and Sundance on the logging trail. Photo by Birgit Stutz

The shovelling took eight straight days and the teams worked four to five hours each day, meeting at 10 am with hay and supplies. It was cold, damp and exhausting work. People got frostbite and the cold made some of the equipment break. However, while the frigid temperatures made the task tough, it would have been much harder if warmer weather had turned the snowy path into a muddy quagmire, or if a heavy snowfall had filled in the path. The length of time it took to dig the trench may have been tough on the rescue team but it was a blessing for the horses as they had time to rest, stay warm and eat to gain their strength.

The story of the Belle and Sundance rescue was going around Canada and around the world at warp speed. After a long day of shovelling there was still work to do on the home front and emails and phone calls had to be answered. People really cared about these two horses and the unusual rescue had piqued people’s curiosity and interest.
Two S.P.C.A. officers and a vet from Kamloops made the trip up to see the horses on December 19th and they agreed that while the horses only got a two out of a possible ten on the Body Condition Score system, Toni Jeck had made a good call in trying to rescue the horses instead of putting them down.

Now, a new face became part of the story but it was not one that garnered the positive recognition of the rescue team. A lawyer Frank Mackay from Edmonton saw the newspaper accounts and realized that the two horses were part of his group of three that he had taken to McBride for a friend Karen Hage for her pack trip in September along the Continental Divide. He claims that he got lost and bogged down and when he finally freed them from the muskeg, he hoped they would follow him down the mountain but while one horse was lost, Belle and Sundance had bonded and refused to move.

He reported the horses to the McBride police in September saying he would return in two weeks which he failed to do. He went back in October and December when he found them in ten feet of snow. He gave them some Gatorade, thirty pounds of oats and some alfalfa pellets. Later when he was asked why he didn’t ask the locals in McBride for help he replied: “I doubt people would have helped a stranger.” Not only were the townspeople furious at this remark, it clearly shows how little he knew about small town attitudes, or how horse and animal lovers could be counted on when the chips are down. He never did report the horses to the S.P.C.A.

December 20th was not a great day for the rescue team. With temperatures falling to forty below many of the vehicles would not even start, however, those who could get to the dig site arrived, and more and more showed up every day. On December 23rd, there were 24 people willing to do whatever they could. Finally the stretch of path was cleared and the two horses walked out of their icy prison down to the logging road where there was still a 27 kilometre walk ahead of them.

At 2:45 p.m. Belle and Sundance emerged from the trench to the cheers of countless volunteers. Then the long walk along the logging trail began in temperatures ranging from minus 25-32 degrees as the winter afternoon turned to night. The people weren’t the only ones who felt elated: Belle and Sundance were perky and bright probably delighted to be free from their snowy jail. There were snowmobile escorts in front and behind the horses and Birgit Stutz, a key member of the rescue team and co-author (with Lawrence Scanlan) of the book “The Rescue of Belle and Sundance” walked the full 27 kilometres to the parking lot which they reached at 10:00pm after seven hours. The horses were loaded into a trailer and taken to an S.P.C.A. foster farm.

“The Rescue of Belle and Sundance.”

“The Rescue of Belle and Sundance.”

Is this the end? Not at all. The story by now had reached epic proportions and Birgit Stutz went home to calls for interviews, news and photos as the media from around the world came knocking on the door of McBride, BC. Even the China Daily was so moved that it ran the story on December 29th. The small town of McBride, BC was firmly on the map and yet it was not a political or sporting event that launched them into fame. It was the caring attitude of a group of townspeople who leapt at the chance to help two horses. As one man said: “Humans got those horses up there on the mountain, it should be humans who get them off.”

The Aftermath

Frank Mackay thought he would be able to get his two horses back after their rescue but he was sorely mistaken. In the end he pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty in a McBride courtroom on Dec. 4, 2009 he was fined $1,000 and had to pay $5,910 in restitution to the British Columbia S.P.C.A. He was prohibited from owning animals in British Columbia for the next two years and had to undergo psychological counselling. He also had to publish an apology in the Valemount Valley-Sentinal.

Belle and Sundance have both been adopted and Belle lives on a ranch near Prince George while Sundance is at a ranch near Kamloops.

Birgit Stutz and Lawrence Scanlan, well known author of “Riding High” about Ian Millar and Big Ben, teamed up to write a book about the two horses in: “The Rescue of Belle and Sundance.”

Check out Birgit Stutz’s youtube slideshow of Belle and Sundance’s rescue.