On August 17, just 30 kilometers before arriving in Toad River, the rain which had fallen for days increased, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped drastically. After yet another long day in the saddle, I decided to put blankets on the horses, afraid of what the night would bring.
Mac stood perfectly still while I fastened his blanket but when it came time to put Smokey’s on, we had a rodeo. He ran. He bucked. He trampled the video camera and broke my tripod. But after an hour, a lot of sweat, and a few drops of blood—my blood—he paced, ears flattened pointing towards his back end, with the blanket covering his body.
Just after dinner, what I was hoping wouldn’t happen, happened—it started to snow.
“Welcome to a typical Canadian summer,” I said to Davel trying to lighten the heavy mood.
Just before climbing into bed, we heard a terrible explosion, followed by another, before the deafening sound of metal scraping on asphalt left horses and humans wide eyed and in a panic.
When the world went silent again I ran outside to see what had happened while Clara tended to our petrified horses. I found a truck hauling a trailer, 50 yards down the highway, with two blown tires.
“Are you okay,” I asked a blond haired young man in his early 20’s.
“Yes, yes I’m fine,” he responded with both his hands on his head in disbelief.
After the young man drove off with two rims raising sparks on the dark night, the snow piling up atop the grass, Clara and I tried to fall asleep.
The next morning we awoke to a winter wonderland. More than a foot of snow blanketed the world around us. Mac and Smokey stood under tall spruce trees, nice and cozy thanks to their blankets.
With the thermometer reading -4 degrees Celsius and my cowboy boots buried deep in the snow, I saddled up Mac and started the most painful day of this third and final long ride.
Large flakes of wet snow, carried by the strong headwinds, slapped me in the face with tremendous force. I had to tip my cowboy hat down in order to protect my eyes. Acting on instinct, my recently wild horses just wanted to stop and turn their back ends to the snow. They could not understand why we were riding straight into this terrible storm.
“Common boys, we need to get down from this mountain,” I said to them, before looking back to see if any cars or trucks were coming.
I was frozen in that saddle. Stiff, with my hands and feet burning in pain, I wondered what I was doing with my life—questioning my decision to ever leave Calgary 7 years back. Never mind Alaska a few months ago.
“Not a very nice day to ride a horse,” a woman yelled out of a white truck, slowly driving south next to me.
“No ma’m, but I am riding for a Children’s Cancer Hospital in Brazil, I can’t stop,” I said to her.
She took a photo of me from the truck and drove off. A few meters down the road I saw the red brake lights come on and watched the truck reverse towards me.
“This is all we have, good luck,” the Alaskan said passing me a crumpled $20 bill.
At that moment I was transported thousands of kilometers south to my home country. To that hospital where I have met so many children who are fighting for their lives with a smile on their faces.
I straightened my back and trotted my horses up.
A few kilometers before arriving in Toad River a snowplow driver stopped to check if Clara, parked on the side of the road waiting for me, was okay. After she explained to him what we were up to on that snowy morning, he offered a place for us to stay and a corral for the boys.
Just an hour later, we were inside his mother’s home with his entire family eating a warm bowl of soup.
“Toad River has a population of about 40 people and more than 200 horses,” said Nathaniel Steward from the other side of the table.
Due to its proximity to some of the best hunting areas in North America, Toad River is home to several large outfitters. Located in a gorgeous valley, surrounded by dramatic mountains, there are pastures filled with horses on both sides of the highway.
We enjoyed a day off with Steward’s family while the snow slowly melted away. When we told them about how Clara was trying to slow down traffic on the tight stretches of highway without much luck, they helped us spray paint a sign for the back of the motorhome that read, “Caution Horses,” and even gave us a slow/stop sign.
“This should help you guys down the road,” said Steward’s father Mark.
With the snow nearly all gone we began our final push to cross the northern Rocky Mountains. But before we left, we received a warning from Steward.
“There are two grizzlies just after summit lake… They are right on the side of the highway eating roots and are not moving,” he said before we bid farewell.