My Riding Vacation at Wild Deuce Women’s Retreat
Relaxation, camaraderie, and spectacular scenery.
By Shawn Hamilton
There is a place high in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta at an elevation of 5,500 feet, tucked in amongst the towering pines where complete strangers become lifelong friends, share their deepest thoughts and fears, and are free to be themselves in a supporting environment. Into the mix, throw a mountainous ride to a glacial lake, gallops through grassy meadows, delicious meals followed by music and laughs around the campfire, and you get one of the most unique, fun, and character-building riding vacations in the west. Wild Deuce Women’s Retreat is more than an adventure – it is an experience that breeds lasting positive change through self-awareness.
Along with my travel mates Ali and Heather, I leave the Calgary airport in our rental car, stock up with snacks and refreshments, and head to The Grandview Stage Inn just outside of Rocky Mountain House, AB, where we bed in for the night.
Photo: Clix Photography
The next morning, we start off for the Cutoff Creek Staging area in the Bighorn Backcountry. The herd of wild horses grazing in a small clearing at the side of the road is so complacent with our presence that the foals remain lying down as we snap photos. Upon arrival, we spot a group of women gathered in the staging area, their gear laid out on the grass. Introductions reveal that our fellow riders are from Manitoba, Winnipeg, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, and as far as Australia and New Zealand. Most are new to Wild Deuce Outfitters, and a few are repeat visitors like me, although it was eight years ago.
A chuck wagon powered by two large Belgians, Ben and Fred, comes around the bend and driver Ted pulls up and greets us. Husband and wife hosts, Terri and Chuck McKinney, arrive on their mounts, leading a string of horses. Terri dismounts and gives me a wonderful welcoming hug that brushes eight years completely away. Once our gear is loaded into the wagon, we are paired up with our horses, pack our lunches and water into the saddle bags, and mount up for our ride up the mountain to base camp where we will stay for five nights.
Chuck and Terry McKinney of Wild Deuce Outfitters. Photo: Clix Photography
The chuck wagon, pulled by Ben and Fred, and driven by Ted and his wife, Deb. Photo: Clix Photography
One of the hardworking horses poses for a photo op before heading down the trail. Photo: Clix Photography
Chuck and Terri have been operating Wild Deuce Outfitters since 2003, starting with only three rides a year. Due to demand, they now have four rides a season. “We wanted it to be more fun than a business,” Terri explains.
Their main concern is raising and training outstanding working ranch and trail horses, complimented by clinics all over the continent. Their goal is to teach horse enthusiasts how their equine partners think, to allow for better communication, trust, and respect. The rides are their passion.
My first mount is Rusty, a Percheron-Quarter Horse cross. Ali has been paired with Mr. Jones, an interestingly-coloured paint she will soon grow to love, and Heather is on Sugar, another paint.
One of the many river crossings during the five-day trip. Photo: Clix Photography
One would think that years of riding vacation experience would result in expert packing, but breaking rule number one when packing for the mountains – to expect all types of weather even in the summer months – I had forgotten rain gear. I quickly discover that suede chaps do not protect me from the constant drizzle falling from the grey sky. My jacket, not waterproof, also allows the wet through. Not long into the five-hour ride I am soaked to the bone. The sun comes out briefly while we sit beside a small river eating our supplied lunches, but the rain continues throughout the day.
Finally the mountains come into view, and I know that dry clothes and a roaring fire are not far away. Just before we reach base camp I am asked to dismount from Rusty, as he is the “check the water levels guy” for the river crossing. I certainly don’t mind jumping into the chuck wagon, crawling under a plastic tarp, and cozying up to driver Ted and his wife, Deb.
Chuck hops on Rusty and wades into the rushing rapids. A successful crossing beckons the wagon, and the two lovely Belgians pound through the current. The wagon starts tipping to the side that I happen to be sitting on. Envisioning myself floating downstream with cameras attached, I hold on tight. Once across the river, the sun breaks through the clouds, displaying the rugged mountains backdropped by a deep blue sky – my reward for hanging in.
Photo: Clix Photography
Base camp features a cook area, protected from animals by a solar powered electric wire fence next to the dining/bar tent, which has a large wood stove inside. The smaller canvas tents are dotted around the towering trees and separated from the rest of the camp by a small paddock and the covered tack area. Once our bags are unloaded from the wagon, we dart to our tent to change into dry clothes. The large canvas draped over a wood frame, which is handmade from branches and small trees, holds three decent-size cots spaced around the circumference of the interior with a small stove near the door. Once in dry clothes, we make a fire, rig up a makeshift clothesline, hang our wet gear up to dry, and head to the dining tent where we are greeted by a welcoming fire and Terri holding a tray of warming shots.
After we all toast, she explains the camp rules:
Rule #1: There is no time other than daytime or nighttime. She encourages everyone to take off their watches and ditch their cell phones.
Rule #2: There is no saying sorry, anyone caught saying sorry three times will have to drink a shot. Apparently it annoys Terri that we Canadians apologise for pretty much everything. Still a bit chilly, I feel like blurting it out three times just to get another shot of warm Southern Comfort into my chilled body.
Rule #3: Don’t lift a finger – this is your time. I remember being reprimanded for attempting to untack my horse the last time I was with them.
Terri continues with a tour of the camp and a briefing on how to use the outdoor toilet. A tin can and a Hawaiian lei act as the occupied sign. The tin can on the branch and no lei signals the toilet is being used. Forgetting to return the lei leaves someone desperately in need in the waiting area.
We take a stroll along the winding creek just behind camp. The mountains reflecting off the water are breathtaking. The sound of the dinner bell coaxes us back to camp where we feast on pasta and Caesar salad created by our cook, Brian, affectionately called “Cookie.” After a moonlight walk to see the stars, I crawl into my sleeping bag for a welcome sleep.
The morning breakfast bell beckons us to head for the cook tent for sausage and eggs, accompanied by mimosas served by the guys!
“I can get used to this,” I whisper to Ali.
Terri gives each of us our own personal lei to wear and tells us that if any of the staff successfully steal our lei we will be subject to a penalty! I put mine around my neck but slide it under my shirt and tuck it into my bra strap for extra protection.
We mount up and head to Harrison Flats, a wide-open valley with long grass swaying in the breeze and a spectacular view in every direction. Wild larkspur and delphinium dot the path, along with an abundance of bearberry bushes. Terri points out some wild horse stud piles, a large wolf den, and flattened grassy areas where Indigenous Peoples once lived. The chuck wagon joins us for a collective rejuvenating gallop through the open meadow.
Back at camp I head to my tent for a nap and sleep right through the dinner bell, waking to the sound of music. Cookie, who was in a “big hair” band in the eighties and nineties, is strumming his guitar and singing old country tunes. I help myself to a glass of red wine and join in the festivities.
The next morning I head to the river to wash, accompanied by one of the three black camp cats: Tyler, Molly, and Anna. After yoga at riverside, a few moments of meditation, and a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, we head out for a ride. Today I am on Grace, an elegant chestnut Quarter Horse mare with her lovely unnamed foal by her side. Grace has a gentle demeanour and is extremely smooth; her baby stays close and is a real trooper at crossing the river and climbing steep muddy slopes. We head up to a trapper’s lodge for a view of the valley below. I dismount from Grace to eat my lunch and baby takes advantage of the mobile snack bar and nurses. During our return ride, a beautiful rainbow dresses the sky in an array of colours.
The beautiful Lost Guide Lake was worth the uphill climb to get there. Photo: Clix Photography
Wild Deuce Outfitters holds four rides each season, and their goal is to give guests a fun, relaxing vacation. Photo: Clix Photography
Grace’s colt was an old hand at crossing the river and negotiating steep, muddy slopes. Photo: Clix Photography
At camp there is a flurry of activity. Chuck had felled a large tree that morning, and the chain saws are whirring. Chuck is hauling large logs into camp with Rusty, and Tim is using the Belgian team. Hired hands Sky and Joshua are cutting firewood.
With trick riders Sky and Josh on the trail, we learned to expect the unexpected. Photo: Clix Photography
Around the campfire after a yummy chicken dinner, we start to really get to know each other. Maureen Enns is an artist and author who has written a book called Wild Horses, Wild Wolves – Legends at Risk at the Foot of the Canadian Rockies. She has also worked with elephants in Kenya and is a wealth of information. Sky and Josh from Australia and New Zealand were trick riders who have come to Canada to work for various farms. They had just finished working in the chuck wagon racing industry before hooking up with Wild Deuce Outfitters. At any given point on a ride we find them hanging upside down on their horses, standing in the saddle, or stepping from horse’s rump to horse’s rump behind us as we are lined up for a group photo.
At the fire, Chuck uses a pipe to get the fire going – it is a long, slender piece of hollow metal that is placed at the base of the fire. He blows into the pipe causing airflow into the coals, and calls the wonderful tool the FBS for “fire blow stick.” Fire candles have also been made as a result of etching their brand “W2” into the stumps of wood using a chainsaw.
I finally crawl into bed and get some rest for our next and most spectacular day of riding. The long haul to Lost Guide Lake is uphill and crosses the river a dozen times, each offering a different view. We ride through a burn – a forest of blackened trees with a new generation of life at their feet. Once we reach the top, the turquoise glow of the glacial lake comes into view with the sun’s rays dancing like diamonds on the water’s surface.
On the way up, Terri asks us to think of our strongest and most prominent fears in life. We dismount for lunch at lakeside, then huddle together for an honest and enlightening powwow session of exploring our life’s fears. Everyone opens up and it is illuminating to discover how so many of us share the same fears and thoughts; it is reassuring that we are never alone in our fears. Terri tells us to leave our fears here at the lake.
A walk to the waterfall on the other side of the lake rewards us with the most spectacular view. Breathing in the crisp, clean mountain air, we understand how lucky we are to be in this secluded, pristine location. It is hard to leave, but the ride back is just as spectacular as the ride up.
The days are filled with wonderful rides and camaraderie around camp. I learn many things, such as the use of turmeric on equine sarcoids, and how to act if you spot a bear. When we regretfully have to pack up and leave base camp, we are serenaded by the makeshift band and have a parting toast. Terri gives us all t-shirts to put on and puts permanent markers in our hands. We are to sum up in one or two words the character of each person and write it on the back of their shirt. One rule, you are not allowed to look at your shirt until you return home. At this moment we realize how much we got to know not only each other, but ourselves as well. Terri has a way of putting you in touch with your personal feelings and where you are at that particular time of your life. She gives each of us a small rock that resembles us in some way, along with words of wisdom and advice for moving forward in our lives.
The sun stayed out for the entire ride back to the staging area. During our goodbyes, I ask everyone to tell me what they thought of the ride. I will share some of those comments here:
“It was the most relaxing, welcoming, revitalizing trip I have been on in quite a while. It was so great for me to come out of my element and do something for myself and meet new ladies from all over! The staff went over and above to accommodate everyone to make them feel welcome – weather was great and the food was excellent!”
“It’s hard to put into words how the trips with Wild Deuce make me feel. I do know that with every step the horses take away from the staging area, I feel myself breathing. I can finally relax.
Life gets back into perspective – I get to be me again.”
I am looking forward to returning to Wild Deuce Outfitters this coming summer to try out my first destination photo workshop. Please look on my Clix Photography website for further details.
The author, Shawn Hamilton. Photo courtesy of Clix Photography
To learn more about Wild Deuce Outfitters, find them on Facebook.
Shawn Hamilton is a freelance equine photojournalist based in Ontario, Canada.
Main article photo: Clix Photography
This article was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.