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Mount up for the Rockies

Trail Riders organization promises a true western experience, spectacular sights

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Canadian Rockies trail rides start at Ya-Ha Tinda Ranch in western Alberta.

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Canadian Rockies trail rides start at Ya-Ha Tinda Ranch in western Alberta.

For more than 90 years, the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies have preserved the cowboy way of life in the backcountry -- with a few modern conveniences.

No need to worry about planning or cooking meals, navigating, or setting up camp on these trips -- cooks, packers and guides are all part of the package.

This summer, the non-profit organization's six-day professionally guided trail rides (10 in total) will start at the historic Ya-Ha-Tinda Ranch in western Alberta. Guests will travel across the ranch's property and over provincial land to base camp and set up east of the headwaters of the Red Deer River in Banff National Park. From there, the group heads out on different rides every day -- to a lake, pass or canyon for a picnic lunch. By week's end, riders will log about 120 kilometres.

The first Trail Riders started clomping through the bush in 1923. Back then, about 65 riders came out every summer for the annual events. The trips were sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a way of attracting tourists and promoting its hotels in Banff and Lake Louise, says Stuart Watkins, the Trail Riders' current volunteer president.

In 1962, the club nearly folded when CP Rail stopped sponsoring. A group of Calgarians, led by Stuart's father, Howard Watkins, banded together to keep it alive as an independent, non-profit organization. They started with $50 in their bank account and stored the camping and kitchen equipment in Howard's basement.

While today the actual camping experience -- with raised cots and hot showers -- is more comfortable than the club's founders encountered back in the '20s, the club's aim remains to provide riders with "a western cultural experience."

"We educate them, we train them, we teach them how to ride, we bring them out, we show them the western experience and we do things in a very cultural way," Watkins said.

This year will be no different -- count on scenic rides, square dancing and a three-course meal at the end of each day -- if the organization can get at least 120 people to register and pay a $500 deposit by April 1 to secure its contract with its outfitter.

Like his father before him, Watkins' mission is to keep the club alive.

Faced with economic and cultural changes in recent years, and restrictions from Parks Canada on where the Trail Riders can go and how many clients can come, the association is fighting to keep up in a competitive tourism market.

"We have a whole generation of people who've never been camping before and they don't realize how much fun it is," Watkins said. "They get to be 20 or 30 and they've got good jobs and they've got money, but their idea of a vacation is to jump on the WestJet and go sit on a beach in the Dominican and drink mai tais."

The club can take 35 people on each of its rides this summer, including eight staff, as stipulated by Parks Canada. Some years, depending on where in the mountain parks they go, it can be as few as 15, Watkins said.

"Some years we do financially really, really well. Some years we lose our shirt. It all balances out. We haven't gone broke yet; we've come close a couple of times, but we're still here," he said.

Parks Canada limits the number of riders in large groups to diminish the impact on the environment and other park users.

"Horse parties staying overnight in a stationary camp have additional impacts because of their need for corrals and grazing," Mark Merchant, a spokesman for Banff National Park, said in an email.

Watkins is not sweating the April 1 deadline yet, because the Trail Riders have a 60 per cent return rate.

He's relying on regulars such as Gary Sandbeck, 60, a construction supervisor from Calgary, to come back for more. Some riders have been on as many as 30 to 40 trips, Watkins says.

This summer will be Sandbeck's sixth time. Last summer, he brought his 29-year-old daughter along.

"I've lived in bush and wilderness almost all my life, but now I live in Calgary, so I get back to where I feel really comfortable. I get back to where I really don't worry about what's needed to be done at work. What I get back, too, are the open skies and the starlit nights," Sandbeck said.

As an added perk this year, there will be two themed rides, including one with a landscape and wildlife photographer and an amateur astronomer. They will give lectures and workshops throughout the week.

"I've got the greatest product in the world -- I have the Canadian Rockies," Watkins said. "For me to take somebody from Nova Scotia or New Zealand, Vancouver or even Calgary and take them back there and show it to them, that gives me more Canadian pride than anything I can possibly feel."

Rides run from June 30 to Sept. 6 and cost about $2,000. That includes the guides, accommodation in tents and teepees, meals and a horse.

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-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 E3

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