With Buddy safely back among the pack string, our party continues south, travelling against the grain of the land, rising and falling as we cross the rumpled foothills of the front ranges. The desolate alpine grasslands are spotted with the purple and white of spring – lupines and avens that our horses greedily nibble. Far to the west, snow-capped peaks crowd the horizon. Aspens cloak closer hillsides like summer grass, their leaves rippling in waves with every passing gust.
The rivers draining these peaks – impossibly clear and the colour of Bombay Sapphire gin – have carved narrow canyons through limestone bedrock and beg exploration. I find myself guzzling litre after litre, the water tastes that good.
We follow whispers of ancient trails, carved by outfitters, guides, explorers and first nations long before us. Some wind through ghost forests of burnt spruce, others beneath sheer rock faces, thousands of feet tall. The pack string acts like a rototiller, 80 hooves pounding into the soft earth, exposing rich brown soil – the aroma mixing with the scent of our horses. In places where the trail has been dug into a trench, the horses prefer to balance on the edge, perched (perilously it feels to the rider) on the narrow ribbon between gulch and forest.
One of the grand luxuries of horse travel is not having to perpetually stare at your feet, or “push bush.” This lends itself to constant observation – a good thing, as there is plenty to see in this so-called Serengeti of the North. One day alone we spot 160 elk, 35 caribou, a dozen stone sheep, two moose and a black bear. And as hunters have long known, wildlife that would flee a walking human doesn’t vanish at the appearance of a mounted rider. The mountain caribou are particularly curious, running toward our horses, sniffing the air, sprinting away, then returning to tail us.
“I want to show you something,” Sawchuk says after dinner, rising from the campfire on one of my last nights in the Muskwa-Kechika. We set off together down a faint game trail near camp. A night hawk calls, and to the east, a waxing moon rises in a purple sky. After several hundred metres, Sawchuk drops to his knees and combs the gravel.
Then he finds it – a tiny piece of black chert, or stone, no larger than a dime. I turn the piece in my hand, and the smooth face of a colloidal fracture glistens in the fading light.
“That was napped by someone hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago,” he explains.
A tingle passes over me as I ponder the history of the flake. Chert doesn’t naturally occur in the area, and whoever brought it here almost surely was shaping a weapon where I now stand. My eyes stray over the land. Little if anything has changed in the centuries since the flake landed amid the river-smoothed gravel.
“Why do you leave it here?” I ask.
“Why would I take it away?” Sawchuk counters. “I worry a horse may step on it one of these years, but this is where it belongs.”