In the early hours of August 30, a crisp and foggy morning, we rode out of Fort Nelson on route to Fort St. John.
After crossing the small town of 3,366 people we immediately encountered our first hurdle. The long bridge that crosses over the Muskwa River was covered with thick fog. Riding over it with Mac and Smokey was way too dangerous as the cars would not be able to see us until the last second.
I hobbled the boys in a field right before the bridge started and waited for the fog to lift. While Clara and I sipped on a warm cup of coffee, an elderly gentleman from town came to chat and take photos.
“I saw you riding by this morning and was too curious to find out what was going on,” he said before using his Canon camera to snap a few photos of the horses.
Like everyone we meet, he could not believe I had ridden to his town from Fairbanks, Alaska. And when I told him I had already travelled from Calgary to Ushuaia he nearly had a heart attack.
“I can’t believe it son… You are so young and have already seen so much,” he said.
When the way was finally clear, I jumped on Smokey and, ponying Mac, began making my way onto the bridge. I was still nervous as the traffic was heavier than we had encountered so far. Luckily, right before we stepped onto the long structure, a police officer arrived to save the day.
“Where are you headed cowboy,” he asked after slowing down his vehicle to a crawl.
“I’m riding to Calgary sir. Do you mind helping us cross this bridge,” I asked.
He was a little hesitant at first then asked why I was riding. Once I told him it was for the Barretos Children’s Cancer Hospital in Brazil, he turned his lights on and got us across safely.
During this stretch of our journey we saw the largest number of black bears in the entire trip! Some days we encountered as many as 3, leaving the horses and myself feeling uneasy.
In the bountiful heart of the northern autumn we found ourselves on the banks of Buckinghorse River, just under 200 kilometers south of Fort Nelson, surrounded by bright yellow balsam poplar trees. Clara and I watched the horses graze while the river flowed rapidly next to us.
“This is too beautiful,” said Davel glowing like the trees all around us.
Enjoying the crisp and refreshing air we rode towards the town of Wonowon, falling leaves dancing in the wind like hundreds of butterflies. It was all too beautiful… too perfect… until we entered the civilized world once again.
As we got closer to Fort St. John, the quiet and serene Alaska Highway transitioned into a chaotic array of pick-up trucks, transport trucks, tractors, oil tankers. The roads became extremely dangerous!
When we arrived in Wonowon I learned how the town obtained its peculiar name. Formerly known as Blueberry, British Columbia, they changed its name in 1954 to avoid conflict with another similarly named community in the province. Since the town sits on Mile 101 – “one-oh-one” – of the Alaska Highway, it became Wonowon.
“We used to be a sleepy little town years back, but now with the oil and gas traffic it feels more like a big city,” said Wendy Fraser our host in Wonowon.
Her husband Ted Friesen used to be a chuck wagon driver – chuck wagon racing is a popular sport at rodeos – and we spent hours chatting about the sport he loves dearly and looking at old photos.
“What people don’t understand is that these horses are retired racehorses. Chuck wagon drivers give them an opportunity to continue running… what they love to do,” said Friesen, speaking about the perception that the sport just “kills horses.”
According to him, if it weren’t for the chucks, these horses would be euthanized much earlier.
“I loved taking care of my horses and feeling the ground shake when I let them out in the pasture after a race… they always took off running and bucking,” said the 61-year-old man looking out the window as if his herd were still there.
Clara and I had a wonderful time getting to know Ted and Wendy. But like always we had to say goodbye and continue our journey south.
After trekking 381 kilometers with only 1 day off, we rode into Fort St. John. With a population of 20,000 people, it was no easy task to cross the bustling city. Luckily, Mac and Smokey were champs and we arrived at the Light Horse Association where we would finally enjoy a few days off.