The image of a lone cowboy riding the plains is as alluring and mythical today as it was when writers peddled western romances to the 19th-century urban masses. Rail networks and new farming techniques may have put an end to the cowboys of the past, but modern ranch vacations offer the chance to put on a hat, strap on some boots, and sort fact from fiction.
The Moynihan's Skyline Ranch has about 300 head of healthy Angus cattle, several dozen horses, a Victorian-era ranch house and rustic cabins that accommodate guests from around the world. Situated on 48 hectares of land in the southern Alberta's Porcupine Hills, it's easy to see why director Ang Lee chose this region as a setting for Brokeback Mountain. Evergreen pine forests roll away into the hills - it's romantic, even for cowboys.
The patriarch is 74-year old Bill Moynihan, looking like he stepped out of a Hollywood western. A former police officer, professional boxer, hunter and bush pilot, Bill was also a competitive rodeo cowboy and mountain guide. Bill looks like he chewed on Jack Palance and spat out Sam Elliott. His children, Reid and Erin, have won numerous horse titles at the Calgary Stampede. For more than 30 years, the family ranch, set up with Bill's wife Ann (now deceased), has been attracting tourists drawn to the landscape and a wide range of classic western adventures.
Joined by Erin and Reid, I select a white stallion named Barry and gallop toward my first round up. Weighing up to 600 kilograms, the cows are unnerving - and occasionally buck forward or act belligerent. Our "cutting" horses can handle the challenge. They are trained to turn, stop and handle faster than typical farm horses.
Guests at the ranch can participate in horse treks, fishing, mountain biking to hiking, and, of course, helping with the chores. I'm here for the genuine farm experience. Once the cows have been rounded into their wooden pen, my next job is to feed the heifers a mix of organic grains. The cows fed, I assist in tagging a young calf, help out with another feed and dispense hay from a large tractor. It's tough work, but for someone accustomed to highway traffic and shopping malls, it's exhilarating too.
I try my hand at lasso, after watching Bill's young grandkids use a tough, wiry rope to string up wayward cattle. Swinging it above my head, it takes me a dozen tries before I manage to snag the end on the plastic horns of a practice steer.
But then comes a job that pushes my limits. A heavily pregnant cow needs examining to ensure the calf is in the correct birthing position. I put my arm in a plastic sleeve (an "arm condom"), scrunch my face and suck up the nerves as I push my hand into the cow's uterus. Restrained by a gate harness, the huge cow indicated her displeasure at my violation. Eventually I am able to feel the calf's head and hooves, and confirm to Bill that all is in order. It's the kind of ordeal a suburbanite will tell stories about for years. For Bill, it's Wednesday morning.
Shortly after sunrise on my final morning, we take our horses into the foothills, checking the fences, looking for signs of the bears, wolves and mountain lions that occasionally patrol these parts. A strong, icy wind blows across the plains, with the Rockies framing the western horizon. Bill tells me the biggest thing you can do in life is pass on the thing you love to somebody else. As his family continues the cowboy tradition for generations to come, urbanites can appreciate the sentiment.
Skyline Ranch, a 90-minute drive from Calgary, is open year-round. For more information, go to skylineranching.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail