Ticket to Ride

Back in the sad­dle and back to na­ture in the Yukon

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - IF YOU GO www.sky­high­wilder­ness.com; www.trave­lyukon.com

SHE LIKES TO EAT,” the ranch hand said with a French-Cana­dian ac­cent, “and she’s pretty fond of short­cuts,” she warned, hand­ing me the reins. Pic­turesque as it was there in the hills, there was noth­ing charm­ing about the way I mounted Fe­line. The stir­rups were set for my as­pi­ra­tional leg length, which made the last bit — the part where you swing your leg over the horse’s blan­ket-padded back — par­tic­u­larly gym­nas­tic. It was a sched­ule-more-yoga mo­ment for me and prob­a­bly eye-open­ing for the horse, too.

Within min­utes, I could cor­rob­o­rate the ranch hand’s ob­ser­va­tions: Fe­line caught stink eye from a geld­ing when she tried to jump the queue, and she treated the path leav­ing the sta­bles as an all-you-can-eat buf­fet. (It didn’t help that my ride cor­rectly iden­ti­fied me as a pushover from the mo­ment I at­tempted to scale the side of her sad­dle.)

I came here from Toronto on a week’s getaway from con­crete sky­scrapers, and my cosy — yes, that’s re­al­tor code for small — down­town loft. I wanted fresh air, big skies and trees that weren’t swing­ing from the rear-view mir­ror of a taxi. To­day’s horse­back ride was merely an in­tro­duc­tion, a lit­eral back-in-the-sad­dle ex­pe­ri­ence to get a feel for the land. White­horse, the clos­est city to Sky High Wilder­ness Ranch and sur­round­ing Fish Lake Val­ley, had grown since the last time I was here six years ago; it now clocked in around 28,000 souls and was home to the most peo­ple you’ll find in one place in the Yukon. A by­law lim­its build­ings to four or five storeys, the core of the city is walk­a­ble and a few of the restau­rants, cof­fee bars and shops pop­ping up could be la­belled al­most hip­ster­ish at a glance. Granted, beards and plaid here seem less ironic sim­ply by de­fault. Over­all, there’s a feel­ing in White­horse, a city tucked among moun­tains and lakes, that it’s a place to rest and get a proper cup of cof­fee or pint be­fore head­ing back out into the wild. (If that’s your plan, too, try Baked Café and Bak­ery for a jolt of caf­feine and an ar­ti­san scone or stop in at Dirty North­ern Pub­lic House — it’s north but far from dirty — for a frosty glass of Yukon Gold beer.)

It took some time be­fore Fe­line and I came to an ac­cord about the en route snack­ing. Ul­ti­mately, I agreed to stop sleep­ing at the wheel — a.k.a. nearly drop­ping the reins as I took jos­tled pho­tos — and Fe­line con­ceded that she would give her re­mark­ably tal­ented lawn­mower im­per­son­ation a rest for the time be­ing. It’s any­one’s guess whether we came to this ar­range­ment be­cause of my im­proved horse­man­ship or be­cause my mount was fi­nally full. Ei­ther way, it wasn’t a per­fect pact. The horse gave me her thoughts on the new let’s-go-up-this-moun­tain plan by aim­ing di­rectly for trees (don’t think I didn’t no­tice, Fe­line ... eyes on the side of your head is no ex­cuse for that “in­vis­i­ble pine tree” bull­shit). But as spruce branches ex­fo­li­ated my jeans and my lens cap per­ma­nently de­camped for life among the fire­weed (Yukon 1, Canon 0), Fe­line was en­er­get­i­cally sure-footed, too. I took it as a sign of af­fec­tion that she cared about our com­bined safety. Jo­ce­lyne, the 43-year-old part­ner at the ranch, had paired us to­gether based on my limited ex­pe­ri­ence — the last time I’d rid­den a horse I was a pre­teen—and while she warned me she’d en­joy some lib­er­ties as a re­sult, she also said Fe­line knew the route if we fell be­hind and wasn’t the sort to run off. So far, so good. It rained as we climbed. It cleared. It rained a lit­tle more. Then fluffy, clouded skies. Then a view over Fish Lake ap­peared that made my heart beat stronger in my chest. We paused on a hill­top to take it in. My fel­low rid­ers and I might as well have been painted fig­urines in a dio­rama ti­tled The Great North; the sky ap­peared car­toon­ishly vast; the air, de­spite bil­lions of years of pho­to­syn­the­sis in its mak­ing, as fresh as if we were the first to breath it, and the lake in the dis­tance, ethe­real and sparkling like a thin pane of glass. All of this and, of course, limited

cell­phone ser­vice. Na­ture at its finest.

With views like th­ese, it’s easy to un­der­stand why vis­i­tors fre­quently be­come res­i­dents in the Yukon. Time and time again, trav­ellers who ven­ture to see this unique part of Canada re­turn home only to pack their things for a per­ma­nent stay. I’d been here only a few hours and had al­ready had a con­ver­sa­tion with Air Canada about mov­ing my re­turn flight back a few days.

Chang­ing weather pat­terns mean that Fe­line and her friends will en­joy an all-in­clu­sive stay at the ranch this win­ter. In the past, the horses were let loose to roam in the val­ley, where the sum­mer’s waist-deep grass had nat­u­rally con­verted to hay and pro­vided plenty of sus­te­nance for, pre­sum­ably, their chill­ier but per­haps no less wild ver­sion of spring break. “What about coy­otes?” I asked, con­vinced of Fe­line’s forg­ing skills but wary that her honed abil­ity to look dis­ap­pointed in you would be enough to fend off a de­ter­mined at­tacker. “They pre­fer to snack on jog­gers,” my guide quips. Oc­ca­sion­ally gullible but of­ten pru­dent, I make a note to cross quick move­ments in the woods off my to-do list.

Along with day and hourly rides, Sky High of­fers three-, five-, seven- and 10-day wilder­ness tours on horse­back; per­fect for rid­ers who crave im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences with ex­pe­ri­enced guides. Come win­ter, the ranch is a lo­cal go-to for dogsled­ding. Hap­pily, one of the camp’s huskies bounded ahead of Fe­line on our day­long trek, and I en­joyed some fre­netic puppy-cud­dling at the sta­bles after a hot chili lunch.

On the way back down the hills, I spent less time look­ing at the root-cov­ered ground in front of us and more time look­ing at the breath­tak­ing view across the val­ley to­ward the dis­tant moun­tains. The heat of the July day had cooled a lit­tle with the rain and our al­ti­tude, but in the Yukon you don’t need per­fect blue skies to en­joy the majesty of the land­scape. I didn’t fuss about short­cuts or speed — and I wouldn’t have com­plained about snack­ing, ei­ther, buddy — while my steed deftly made her way down the well-tram­pled path to­ward home. Her four hoofs were far more co-or­di­nated than my two feet ever would have been. It wasn’t her first rodeo. Hope­fully, it won’t be my last, ei­ther.

The horse gave me her thoughts on the new let’s-go-up­this-moun­tain plan by aim­ing di­rectly for trees

Fish Lake Val­ley

Fe­line, the au­thor’s re­luc­tant but sure-footed com­pan­ion

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