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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

Cowboys need nothin' more than a hat, horse, and the will to ride

Updated: May 5, 2021

Okotoks to Bar U Ranch

We leave the Okotoks Erratic and drive through Longview. This is the prairie land of Alberta. The wheatfields dance in time with the soft breeze. It is a perfect day and it is becoming warmer.

As we walk through the Visitor's Centre of the Bar U Ranch Historical Site, an amazing vista unfolds in front of us. Red painted buildings stretch along a narrow gravel road whilst the Rocky Mountains extend far into the distance. Today's grey-clouded sky brings drama into the picture.

Bar U Ranch, Alberta

In 1881, before Alberta was extensively fenced, cattle was driven across the province. Mobile chuck wagons accompanied the cowboys, setting up camps, and providing huge numbers of meals whilst cattle grazed nearby.

Bar U Ranch was a permanent cowboy camp. It consisted of a number of buildings; barns, a saddlery, blacksmiths, and abattoirs. But more importantly, it had provided a place where cowboys could bathe, eat in a real dining room, and sleep under a roof, even if it was cramped. Bar U Ranch's importance in the expansion of the railways in Canada was huge, as it was responsible for feeding people working on the railway, soldiers during the two World Wars, and the Canadian people during the Great Depression. Additionally, its Percheron horses were bred here and used as work horses in the fields, and in the cities to pull wagons and trams.

We visit the saddlery and are surprised to see a real cowboy intricately carving a leather belt. He had some other things he had worked on, including a magnificent saddle. The saddle was particularly beautiful; practical items but lovingly and beautifully tooled. The cowboy, Lewis Pederson III is a well-known Canadian country singer and poet. He proudly shows us his works, whilst at the same time, reciting poetry. Although it brings back memories of visits to Sovereign Hill and other heritage parks, this guy is authentic, not jsut an actor doing a job. The smell of leather sits on top of all the other old wood and oily tool odours, making it is a very homely place to visit. I really enjoy talking to Lewis, and reluctantly pull myself away to visit some of the other buildings.

Lewis Pederson III

The combined kitchen, dining room, and bunk house is surprisingly compact. We climb the stairs to view the sleeping quarters and are told that the cowboys would roll their bedrolls out on a sawdust-covered floor. There would be little space between each of the cowboys as up to fifty would sleep in this loft.

We munch on the offered molasses biscuits as we wander down to the campfire, where a cowgirl is making cowboy coffee over the open fire. Whilst we sit on a log and enjoy our fragrant coffee over the pungent open fire, we listen to stories of yesteryear. The life of a cowboy working for Bar U Ranch was one of hard work, long hours, and sleeping under the stars, even when it was cold, wet, snowing, and hot.

In 1906, many of the ranches in Alberta fenced in their respective properties, reducing the need for so many cattle to be driven across the province. Some of the shareholders sold out, and were instrumental in starting the Calgary Stampede, a rodeo and agricultural fair designed to provide access to country life for city people.

Reluctantly we leave this beautiful ranch and return to Longview, before branching off onto another road, which leads to the mountains. Calgary is located on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, and isn't very far from Banff and Jasper. We begin to climb into the mountain range as Pat scans the landscape for bears. Not just black ones, but grizzlies.

I do explain that I've lost interest in getting too close and personal with bears after my one-on-one encounter with a baby black bear in Aspen in 2017.

The scenery, on the other hand, is beautiful. I think I'll always love visiting the mountains. Deep down, I know they hold many secrets of the earth; sime of which they share.

As we climb higher into the mountains, the trees grow closer together and are much taller. Some of the mountains are covered in trees, whilst others, live up to their name; they are pure rock and glacier.

Our trip to the mountains isn't completely wasted. We see bighorn sheep. They are looking quite mangy as they are still losing their winter coats. But I'm wary. I'm not going to get out of the car like I did that time in Colorado, when I was actually chased by one, just because I looked it in the eye. I wind down the window of the car and stare at the closest one to me. It stares back. I keep staring at it, and it unblinkingly stares back. So far, it hasn't charged, instead, it returns to grazing the sparse clumps of grass along the side of the road.

I stare at a bighorn sheep

Today, we've driven through lush farmland, semi-arid prairie land, and the mountains. This province of Alberta, close to the city of Calgary is one of many contrasts.

It is important to stay with locals to see the best parts of a city and the surrounding areas.


TITLE QUOTE: Anonymous


DAY TRIP INCLUDED: Pat's family farm visit, Okotoks Erratics/Big Rock visit, Bar U Ranch, and Highwood Pass. We ate in Longview on the way back to Calgary.

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