Book Review: The Green Horse

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My Early Years in the Canadian Rockies - A Park Warden’s Story

By Dale Portman

Rocky Mountain Books, 2017; Memoir; 368 pages; ISBN 9781771602266; Paperback, Kindle

Reviewed by Tania Millen, BSc, MJ

“When you work in the wild, there evolves a relationship between you and nature, a harmony and balance that is ever developing, that spiritual connection that many of us seek in solitude and wilderness,” writes Dale Portman.

Portman worked for Canada’s Rocky Mountain warden service for almost 30 years, at a time when backcountry travel and living was an adventure-filled reality. “I had no practical experience that would help me get a job as a guide or wrangler at one of the riding stables in the Banff/Lake Louise area…,” he writes of his teens in the 1960s. However, Portman quickly learned the horse business and tourist trade, leading one-hour trail rides at Brewster Riding Stables on the shores of Lake Louise. 

With an eye for adventure, Portman parlayed this experience into working for well-known outfitters in Banff National Park, guiding commercial horse pack trips, packing supplies into fall hunting camps, and galloping hell-bent on spring horse roundups through the mountains. Portman writes, “We had a lot of variety in our working day, but one thing you could be assured of was being up at five in the morning, jingling horses.”

Needing winter work but with minimal avalanche understanding, Portman writes, “…winter guiding was something I hadn’t counted on, and it was intimidating.” But guiding helped him secure a position with the avalanche safety program in Roger’s Pass when the legendary Peter Schaerer began Canada’s now internationally recognized avalanche research program. “Everyone working in Rogers Pass at one time or another had a close call with avalanches. Everyone had stories…”

With these experiences under his belt, Portman started his almost 30-year career with the warden service in 1969 – spending spring through fall in the mountains with horses, much of it assigned to backcountry areas of Jasper National Park. 

Portman’s humorous yarns from the 1960s through the 1990s, about renowned individuals and backcountry life in Canada’s wild Rocky Mountains, bring history and geography alive. His stories are filled with the realities of mountain life, such as, “We were forced to cross the north fork of the Brazeau River in the dark. I could only put faith in my saddle horse to know the way.”

In another tale, Portman relates, “I had a minor role in a major rescue that occurred on Mount Edith Cavell that winter,” and he subsequently describes how the rescue included “…the first search of an avalanche with a dog team in Canada…” and that subsequently search and rescue dogs became “…an integral part of search and rescue in the Canadian Rockies… in large part due to this team’s early successes.”

Through this and many other stories, Portman does a masterful job of bringing Canada’s character-filled mountain culture to life and provides a fascinating view of the warden service lifestyle during some of the best years in our national parks.

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Book Review: The Green Horse