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Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)
Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)

Ride through the ‘Serengeti of the North’ Add to ...

“Did you hear that?” Wayne Sawchuk whispers, freezing mid-stride. For the past 24 hours we have tracked a lost horse through dense woods cloaking British Columbia’s northern Rocky Mountains.

Well, more accurately, Sawchuk has tracked the young horse, and I have followed Sawchuk, who is making me feel like a neophyte in the wilderness for the first time in decades. The logger-turned-cowboy-turned-conservationist stoops often, finding clues that I would have missed, running his hand over blades of bent grass and scuffs on rocks, changing direction, retracing his steps, muttering, and all the while deciphering the mystery of the horse’s flight. Scars in alder bark show where the frantic mare smashed the panniers. Prints of elk, moose, deer, caribou and galloping horse litter the thick carpet of moss underfoot, and Sawchuk patiently points out the differences. Despite such tutelage, they all look the same to me, as if a drunkard hopped through the forest on a pogo stick.

Every summer since 1989, Sawchuk has mounted gruelling (upward of 90 days) horse journeys through this vast and virtually forgotten corner of Canada – and brought commercial clients with him. These are no run-of-the-mill eco-tours. “Participatory expeditions” is how Sawchuk describes the experience. The guests who join him for two-week stints – flying in and out on float planes while the pack string continues its march over the rumbled landscape – are expected (and desperately needed) to pitch in with saddling horses, loading packs, cooking meals, gathering wood and setting camp.

Two days earlier, an 18-wheel transporter unloaded 20 of Sawchuk’s horses at Summit Lake on the Alaska highway; eight for riding, 12 for packing. After a fitful sleep under the midnight sun, our nascent team of strangers leaped atop saddles, and the excited pack string thundered up a steep trail leading to alpine tablelands.

Sawchuk’s string is made up of proven, trusty mounts. Hazel, the patriarch, is the veteran of 27 expeditions. But each year, a handful of new horses are broken in. It was after a lazy lunch on the banks of a clear creek that Buddy, one of three novice pack horses, panicked and bolted. By the time we realized something was amiss, Buddy had vanished into the tangled choke of trees that rise steeply above the north fork of the Tetsa River.

Dismounting, we followed on foot, retracing Buddy’s trail through a maze of trunks and fallen trees. “Poor horse was out of his mind with panic,” Sawchuk noted. “It will be a miracle if we find him alive.” Every bash and bang of his hard plastic panniers would have added to Buddy’s terror, and his continuing full-out gallop was evident in his wake. Tent poles, cans of beans and fluorescent jackets were strewn through the forest, leading us in an enormous loop. Eventually we found ourselves lost in a confusion of hoof prints going every which way. Riding our horses to the top of the mountain, we scoured the upper limits of the forest to ensure he had not crossed into the next valley, but found nothing.

“He is still down there somewhere,” Sawchuk declared at day’s end, “and we’ll find him.” I did not share such confidence. We were travelling at a snail’s pace, trying to find a charging horse with a full day’s lead on us, amid a wilderness so large that Ireland could fit within its borders. It felt like the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack.

The next morning, as we prepared to resume the search, Sawchuk slipped a lever-action .308 Browning rifle into his backpack. (This rifle, along with a mirror-polished ax, are always slung from Sawchuk’s saddle, within arm’s reach.) It was a reminder of the grim reality: If we could not find Buddy – who might already be dead, or lying stricken with a broken leg – he would surely perish in the days ahead. Sawchuk’s packhorses are fitted with a muzzle each morning, to prevent grazing on the trail. If bears and wolves didn’t get him, starvation would.

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