GRANDE PRAIRIE, ALTA.—It took 11,000 soldiers and 16,000 civilians eight months to build the original Alaska Highway in 1942.
Nearly a century later Smokey, Mac and I travelled the 2,237-kilometre highway in half that time.
Exactly four months, to the day, after departing Fairbanks, Alaska, I rode my mighty mustangs into Dawson Creek, B.C., with a special guest. Karen Hardy, my American mom, who helped me tremendously during my first long ride from Calgary to Brazil, drove from Washington state to ride with me. She gave me Dude, a mustang from the Taos Pueblo tribe that she trained herself, and she even met us at the finish line in the Barretos rodeo in Brazil.
Having her by my side to finish the northern portion of my last long ride was comforting and her quarter horse Blue helped keep my wild boys calm in the middle of bustling cities.
But the real heroine of this journey was there carrying hay, water and feed every single day for the horses. Slowing down traffic around blind curves to keep us safe. Keeping me company through those long stretches of nothing and always bathing me with love. The truth is, without my Argentine girlfriend (and support driver) Clara Davel, I may not have survived the North.
This was by far the hardest stretch of land I have covered in all of the Americas. There were so many hurdles to cross that at times if felt like I was a character in an action-adventure video game.
Except I only had one life.
The obstacles were beyond a gamer’s imagination: fanged bears, endless bison, territorial moose, hungry wolves, giant mountains, metal-grate-deck bridges, summer snowstorms, clouds of black flies, horse flies and mosquitoes and … two Canadian teen serial killers.
When I passed one level, there was another just as arduous waiting for us to navigate through.
In the bountiful heart of the northern autumn we found ourselves on the banks of Buckinghorse River, just under 200 kilometres south of Fort Nelson, surrounded by bright yellow balsam poplar trees. Clara and I watched the horses graze while the river flowed rapidly next to us.
“This is too beautiful,” said Davel, glowing like the trees all around us.
Enjoying the crisp and refreshing air we rode towards the town of Wonowon, falling leaves dancing in the wind like hundreds of butterflies. It was all too beautiful … too perfect … until we entered the final level of this long-ride video game.
The quiet and serene Alaska Highway transitioned into a chaotic array of bad smells and loud sounds, pickup trucks, transport trucks, tractors, oil tankers. The roads became extremely dangerous and the air reeked of petroleum.
When we arrived in Wonowon I learned how the town obtained its peculiar name. Formerly known as Blueberry, B.C., they changed its name in 1954 to avoid conflict with another similarly named community in the province. Since the town sits on Mile 101 — “one-oh-one” — of the Alaska Highway, it became Wonowon.
“We used to be a sleepy little town years back, but now with the oil and gas traffic it feels more like a big city,” said Wendy Fraser, our host in Wonowon.
Her husband, Ted Friesen, used to be a chuckwagon driver, and we spent hours chatting about the sport he loves and looking at old photos.
“What people don’t understand is that these horses are retired racehorses. Chuck wagon drivers give them an opportunity to continue running … what they love to do,” said Friesen, speaking about the perception that the sport just “kills horses.”
According to him, if it weren’t for the chucks, these horses would be euthanized much earlier.
“I loved taking care of my horses and feeling the ground shake when I let them out in the pasture after a race … they always took off running and bucking,” said the 61-year-old man looking out the window as if his herd were still there.
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Due to his poor health, Friesen has retired from the sport and nowadays the only time he feels the ground shake is when there is an earthquake. Something that according to his wife, Wendy, is becoming more common.
“We never felt an earthquake in our lives … until they started with all of this fracking business,” said the special ed teacher. “Now it’s a normal thing.”
Riding out of Wonowon we saw first hand how the oil and gas industry can change the face of a place. Just a few kilometres south of town we rode by a ruptured sour gas pipeline. The smell was horrendous — like a million rotten eggs — and the number of workers and amount of machinery on hand were formidable.
After thousands of kilometres of serene wilderness, we had entered the civilized world once again. Nature always pays the price of development. I talked to many people about the struggle between preserving nature and developing resources. Everybody wants a better world for their children, but there are many opinions about what that world looks like.
Luckily, we got through this final stage of our journey with no scratches. But like always, there were close calls. The horses took off twice during this stretch due to the loud trucks and roaring traffic.
On the final days of the ride, Mac was startled by a flying leaf that made him want to run onto the highway. I managed to stop him just short of the asphalt but the wind blew my hat off my head and right under a monster of a transport truck. I swear this thing had 100 wheels and my white-straw cowboy hat was squashed by every single one of them.
My hat was now a pancake, although I considered wearing it anyway. Clara made no comment and passed me my felt one. No eulogy for a flat hat.
Four days after arriving in Dawson Creek and finishing the Alaska Highway, Clara, Karen Hardy and I rode into Grande Prairie, Alta., my final destination for 2019. Sitting atop Mac, watching Clara ride Smokey and letting the light but freezing rain wash my soul, I couldn’t help but reflect on these past few months.
I felt so proud of my horses. Mac and Smokey came a long way from when we started this adventure and having Clara ride into a major city on Smokey was a clear example of how much they have matured.
“I can’t believe I’m riding the wild horse I watched you worked with in Osoyoos before the ride … he was so unpredictable, I thought I would never get on his back,” said Clara with a wide smile.
She and Smokey had a connection that I loved watching grow.
Now we will rest during the winter and continue our ride May 3, 2020. We have 717 kilometres left to reach the Calgary Stampede and finish this dream of crossing the Americas on horseback.
I know something special is waiting for me at the greatest outdoor show on earth. I just don’t know what.