Our Trav­els: Band on the Run

Pho­tograph­ing ‘the wildies’ of Al­berta is ex­hil­a­rat­ing— and ad­dic­tive

Our Canada - - Contents - By Sandy Sharkey, Man­otick, Ont.

One ded­i­cated pho­tog­ra­pher heads west to cap­ture the “Wildies” of Al­berta in all their nat­u­ral equine glory.

The wild stal­lion ap­peared at the edge of the for­est, his thick bay coat glis­ten­ing in the sun­shine. Ears perked up, eyes alert, he watched me as in­tently as I watched him. A twig was tan­gled in his fore­lock. It ei­ther added to his wild ap­pear­ance or gave him a com­i­cal look. Be­fore I could de­cide, I re­al­ized that I, too, had a twig stuck in my hair. I felt a kin­dred con­nec­tion with this horse. This is what hap­pens when you spend a lot of time in the bush.

Ninety min­utes north of Cal­gary, the small town of Sun­dre (pop­u­la­tion 2,729) is con­sid­ered the gate­way to Al­berta's Rocky Moun­tain foothills, home to the wild horses that have sur­vived here for more than two and a half cen­turies. A large mu­ral stretch­ing across the Sun­dre Mu­seum proudly dis­plays a pic­to­rial his­tory of the area’s wild horses. They are tough, sturdy an­i­mals that roam the forests, bogs and grass­lands in closeknit fam­ily bands.

Just af­ter sun­rise on a crisp Jan­uary morn­ing, I joined my ex­pert guides, Dar­rell Glover and Duane Starr, who founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion Help Al­berta Wildies in Jan­uary 2014.

Both re­tired, Dar­rell and Duane work tire­lessly to in­crease aware­ness of, and pro­tec­tion for, these wild horses. On any given day, they fill the role of guardian an­gels. Dar­rell reg­u­larly flies his Cessna air­plane over the range land to en­sure that the fam­ily bands are healthy, safe and doc­u­mented. Duane is by his side, us­ing his in­stincts and ex­per­tise as a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher to cap­ture wild horse im­ages that are as much an art form as they are a source of doc­u­men­ta­tion. On this day, the three of us set out in a 4x4 truck, headed for the back roads of the Al­berta foothills. Within min­utes, a cow moose ap­peared, stop­ping for a quick glance around be­fore lum­ber­ing on. As we con­tin­ued our climb through ma­jes­tic forests with sweep­ing views of the Rocky Moun­tains, a red fox popped out of the snow. A tasty ro­dent had eluded him this time, but he went right back to work, bury­ing his nose into a snow­drift.

Horses! Dar­rell spot­ted them first. A small fam­ily band of Al­berta wild horses stood knee-deep in snow on the edge of a for­est. Three mares and a stal­lion with a twig stuck in his fore­lock. We qui­etly got out of the truck, step­ping through thick brush to get a bet­ter view, but keep­ing a re­spect­ful dis­tance.

The time spent with a wild horse band can vary. Some horses keep

their dis­tance and upon spot­ting you, dis­ap­pear into the for­est. Oth­ers look at you with cu­rios­ity, then go right back to graz­ing. It is im­por­tant to stay calm when you are in their pres­ence. Once the stal­lion or lead mare de­ter­mines you are noth­ing to fear, you can spend a lot of time with them.

The wild horses we first spot­ted had thick win­ter coats that glis­tened in the sun, and manes the colour of mid­night. I was struck by their beauty. The mares ig­nored our pres­ence, for­ag­ing be­neath the snow. The stal­lion, how­ever, re­mained cu­ri­ous and watch­ful. Then with a toss of his mane, he gave his mares the sig­nal and they gal­loped through the deep snow and dis­ap­peared into the for­est.

We con­tin­ued on, and found more bands of wild horses at the for­est’s edge, as well as in clear­ings and bogs, each sight­ing dif­fer­ent from the rest but equally ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Last spring’s foals were now al­most as tall as their moth­ers, pranc­ing about and kick­ing their heels in the fresh moun­tain air.

Our drive through the foothills was an easy loop. My mind kept re­peat­ing the same thought, that most peo­ple have never seen a wild horse.

There is a be­lief among some First Na­tions Peo­ples that a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion ex­ists be­tween hu­mans and wild horses: If wild horses come to you in your dreams, it means you are blessed with cer­tain pow­ers.

You don’t have to search far to find the wild horses of Al­berta. Stal­lions tend to keep their fam­ily bands in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ries. With the Rocky Moun­tains as a spec­tac­u­lar back­drop, a wild horse sight­ing is pure gold for a na­ture lover.

We spent ap­prox­i­mately seven hours in the foothills that day, and at the end of our loop, the sun had be­gun to set. Duane, Dar­rell and I headed for home, or in my case, my mo­tel room, but not be­fore the day de­liv­ered one fi­nal gift—a large band of wild horses on the edge of a bog, with two du­elling stal­lions in a spar­ring match. Kick­ing up their heels, kick­ing up snow; it can be very dra­matic when it hap­pens, but these stal­lions are only fo­cused on each other in or­der to as­sert dom­i­nance. Their ul­ti­mate prize is win­ning over a mare.

For your next wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence, the wild horses of Al­berta will leave you breath­less.

In fact, if you con­tact Help Al­berta Wildies, Duane or Dar­rell will be glad to tell you where they are. And maybe they’ll even es­cort you to see the horses, since they will likely be go­ing out to see them that day any­way.

The wild horses of Al­berta have earned their place as one of the star at­tractions in this pris­tine wilder­ness.

I have trav­elled to pho­to­graph horses in Mon­go­lia, France and most of the south­ern United States. This past June, I re­turned to Al­berta to spend an­other great day pho­tograph­ing wild horses with Dar­rell. I guess you could say I am ded­i­cated! n

Con­tact Help Al­berta Wildies at www. face­book.com/hel­pal­bertaw­ildies.

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