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Off the beaten path

Discovering southern Alberta’s natural wonders like a local

Cree/Métis medicine tour guide Brenda Holder wants you to get to know the land

Brenda Holder has a unique relationship with the landscape and wildlife of southern Alberta. She's the Cree/Métis owner and operator of Mahikan Trails, a guided plant medicine walking tour operation based north of Sundre, outside of Banff National Park.

On any given week, she can be found hiking, caving, hosting Indigenous-focused team-building programs, teaching Indigenous Bushcraft and survival skills or hide tanning. And all of this work is deeply informed by traditional practices: Holder draws on lessons about her culture from Elders and other family members in order to pass on teachings about plant medicine and the land.

“It is a deep part of my teachings to respect the land, and to love the land. The wilder the better for me,” Holder says. “I was born and raised in the mountains and the [Banff/Canmore] area will always hold a piece of my soul. The sheer beauty of the space and the raw power the mountains hold over me is exquisite.”

If you’re looking for opportunities to hone your skills in navigating the outdoors while taking in the breathtaking views of the region, Holder has a few ideas of where you might start.

For off-the-grid excursions, Holder relies on Hunter Valley Adventures

Water Valley, AB

Hunter Valley Adventures offers visitors the authentic, back-to-nature experiences they’re looking for.

Candice Ward

Kelly and Shea Beaton have built this adventure enterprise on the foundation of deep passion and respect for the land.

Candice Ward

This rafting and adventure outlet in Cochrane offers visitors the opportunity to go off the grid and get back to basics on seven acres of land in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.

To Holder, the best part of this experience isn’t the activities it offers, it’s the duo behind them: Owners Kelly and Shea Beaton, who’ve been leading visitors through the region for decades.

“They're super knowledgeable, relaxed and very people-oriented, and they have a huge passion for the Red Deer River and the land, but also for giving their guests their whole authentic selves,” Holder says.

Hunter Valley Adventures’ emphasis on reconnecting with nature applies to more than its trips. There's no running water in the outlet's rustic lodging, save for the Red Deer River, and the cabins are electricity-free, so evenings are illuminated by the moon and stars in the night sky. Groups can gather over meals or campfires at an outdoor cook house.

There’s nothing quite like a trip through the Lower Bighorn Falls Loop, Holder says

Sundre, AB

Take an easy hike, walk or run through spruce and poplar trees on this eight-kilometre trail in Sundre. The Lower Bighorn Falls Loop, which Holder has been hiking since childhood, winds through a canyon filled with unique rock formations and ends with spectacular views of Bighorn Falls, which cascade down rock slabs into a serene little pool. The hike is lauded as a photographer’s dream, with intricate block-shaped rocks and prairie grassland lining the walking path.

“The Lower Bighorn Falls Loop is outstanding,” Holder says. “It's an easy hike, and it's a moderate distance.”

While the whole trail is a good distance, there isn’t a large elevation gain, so it’s accessible for visitors of any experience level. A tip from Holder: There's a lot of horse droppings around, so watch your step.

The Lower Bighorn Falls Loop is a great trail for beginners.

Candice Ward

Holder stands nose to nose with a friendly mare.

Candice Ward

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It is a deep part of my teachings to respect the land, and to love the land. The wilder the better for me.

To learn about the Siksika First Nation, Holder recommends the River Ranche Lodge

Siksika, AB

Inside the cozy, rustic main room of River Ranche Lodge.

Candice Ward

Dion Red Gun stands tall on the land near River Ranche Lodge, where he and his family teach visitors about the Siksika First Nation.

Candice Ward

River Ranche Lodge offers a rich Indigenous tourism experience, where warm hosts Dion Red Gun and his family teach visitors about the Siksika First Nation and the incredible landscape they are the stewards of.

Part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika First Nation is situated on very rich land, home to the scenic Bow River and the Canadian Badlands, which Red Gun calls the “Siksika Badlands,” with its characteristic eroded sandstone structures, hoodoos, ravines, gullies and cliffs.

“It’s a very ancient landscape, almost like you’re on the moon,” Holder says.

“The Siksika people are from the Blackfoot Confederacy, and so there's a lot of the Blackfoot tales,” Holder says.

Red Gun and his family are focused on connecting people to their environment through deep Blackfoot cultural knowledge. Fly fishing on the Bow River comes with stories of the fish, water and the land. And no visit to River Ranche is complete without checking out the lodge that Red Gun built – and rebuilt – by hand after floods devastated the area in 2013.

“He believes in tourism and what he does so strongly, that he completely rebuilt everything,” Holder says. “His lodge is stunning, warm and cozy, and they serve traditional foods.”

“Dion, in my opinion, is the attraction,” Holder adds. “He is what draws people there.”

Holder cherishes walking with wolves at Discovery Wildlife Park

5400 42 Ave, Innisfail, AB

Holder calls Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail a “must see,” rich in rare chances to interact with animals and go behind-the-scenes with lions, tigers and cougars.

One of those unique experiences is the Wolf Walk, where visitors can join the keepers on a 15-minute walk with a timber wolf, in an enclosed space. It’s a short walk, alongside the wolf and guides, as they share its story.

“The wolf is a pack animal that requires that interaction,” Holder says. “Just like a dog, they start getting attached to you.”

Operated by Doug Bos and Debbie Rowland, the aim is to give people a better understanding of wildlife, while giving sanctuary to animals that had once faced trouble in the wild.

Visitors can also catch lessons on animal safety and conservation or enjoy an overnight stay on the property. Bring your own camper van or stake out one of the park’s cabins and spend the evening.

A wolf licks its nose playfully at Discovery Wildlife Park.

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There are so many things that the land gifts me with its teachings, almost on a daily basis.

Holder poses near a fire pit on the campgrounds at Painted Warriors.

Candice Ward

On a free afternoon, Ram Falls is the way to go

The spectacular cascades appear a bright turquoise blue at Ram Falls.

Brendan Van Son / Travel Alberta

If you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of Bighorn Sheep on your way into Ram Falls Provincial Park in Nordegg, Holder says. This provincial park is home to a kilometre-long scenic hiking trail that ends at the massive Ram Falls – a spectacular sight, where water plunges 20 metres down into the sandstone below.

“There's some really interesting rock formations, in ways similar to the hoodoos, but more sandy cliffs that you will see along the way,” she says.

This is a shorter, easier trail, with breathtaking mountain views and rock formations you can take in from the walkway or from a platform lookout point above. When you’re done, settle in for lunch at a picnic area or firepit.

A chestnut horse stands out in the rain with others grazing behind.

Candice Ward

Wild Horses of Alberta Society serves as a refuge for horses all over southern Alberta.

Candice Ward

Even Holder takes notes from the Wild Horses of Alberta Society

The non-profit society aims to rescue and rehabilitate wild horses that have been abandoned or rescued. A visit to their sanctuary in Olds offers the chance to see the horses in the barn or in herds in the field. Even Holder, who comes equipped with her existing expertise on the natural world, takes something away each time she visits the society.

“It’s fascinating, learning about the behaviour of the animals and watching how they move from place to place, how they interact as a unit,” Holder says. “It’s just beautiful to see wild horses out there.”

At Painted Warriors and Holder’s own Mahikan Trails, lessons on foraging and traditional medicine are aplenty

Inside the canvas tent accommodations available at Painted Warriors.

Candice Ward

At night, visitors gather around the campfire to eat and share stories the traditional way.

Candice Ward

Co-owned by husband-and-wife duo Tracey Klettl (Holder’s sister) and Tim Meams, Painted Warriors Ranch brings visitors outdoor experiences through an Ojibway, Métis and Cree lens.

This 80-acre property in Mountain View County is nestled near the stunning Canadian Rockies. The scenery is rich in foliage, with a mix of spruce and poplar trees.

Painted Warriors offers accommodations in canvas tents, which sit alongside lit pathways near a gazebo with a massive wood stove at the centre. Experience traditional cooking and enjoy Indigenous dishes like bannock on a stick or pemmican.

Staff are there to teach lessons on animal tracking or how to light a fire with traditional methods.

“They like to teach stories from the forest itself,” Holder says. “They've got amazingly beautiful trappers tents that are some of the cushiest camping you will ever get.”

Holder often takes people on medicine walking tours through this region of Alberta with her tour company, Mahikan Trails. For a few hours at a time, she wanders with groups through the Alberta wilderness, teaching visitors to identify plants, harvest them and cultivate medicines using recipes she shares. It’s an act that feels personal – both as a way for her to pass on her knowledge and to honour her family.

She was first introduced to the trails she now takes visitors to by her mum, who Holder says loved to wander through southern Alberta, spontaneously finding new pockets to explore.

"I created my own company, guided some folks and realized that I had a skill set that others did not have,” she says. “I began to expand what I did in terms of being a guide and taking people out to share my knowledge.”

Even after years of taking groups through the bush, Holder says she’s still learning about the wildlife around Banff.

“There are so many things that the land gifts me with its teachings, almost on a daily basis,” she says.

“[I’ve learned that] I am capable of sharing my culture and my knowledge, preserving it for generations to come.”

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio on behalf of Travel Alberta. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

CREDITS: Concept and oversight by JESSICA ROBINSON; Editing by AUDREY CARLETON; Art direction, design and development by JEANINE BRITO; Original photography and audio by CANDICE WARD; Project management by CHRISTINA LIPPA

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