Saddle Up to Slow Down: Dishing up Peace and Serenity Without the Campfire Beans

Ever been kicked by a horse? I have. It sucks. Ever been bucked off? I have, as a small child, and for the past 25 years I’ve remained convinced that horses are giant savage beasts, hundreds of pounds of gnashing teeth and malicious unpredictability that can smell fear and are just waiting for another shot at me. Horses are scary.


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


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By Feet Banks   ::   Photography by Todd Lawson

Cowboys, on the other hand, are the coolest. They’re easy going and minimalist – if it doesn’t fit in a saddlebag they probably don’t have much use for it. And I’ve come to realize much of the cool, calm cowboy demeanor is because of the horse, or rather the act of riding one. So last September I nutted up and saddled up and hopped on a horse named Happy for a mellow adventure up into the Callaghan Valley. (And to trick the horse into thinking I knew what I was doing, I dressed in my cowboy finest – it totally worked.)

“The Pemberton Trail was an old horse trail completed in 1877,” says Brad Sills, owner of Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures and Lodge. “That was the only link from Pemberton to Squamish before the railway pushed through in 1914. There probably wasn’t much horse activity in the Callaghan back then but they played an integral role in the development of the entire Sea to Sky.”


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


Just sitting on a horse, after categorically avoiding them most of my life, felt like a triumph. To actually ride one, a thousand pounds of living beast controlled by simple tugs and prods, is way more fun than I’d expected.

“Horses are incredibly smart,” says Copper Cayuse Outfitters co-owner Don Coggins as we clip-clop through the forest. “You take them over a trail once and they’ll remember it.”

Happy, Scrambler, Smokey, Nipper, Rusty and Max were all once reservation horses from Mount Currie, essentially wild. “We get male horses and have all female trainers,” Don explains. “It works well.”


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


It certainly seems to: the horses behave and my fears quickly fade. Experiencing the Coast Mountains on horseback is a slow and meandering adventure unlike any other method of transportation. Forget the speedy, split-second adrenaline of mountain biking or the plodding, repetitive foot placements of hiking. The horse does the work, allowing one to pass through the world at a speed that truly lets us take in the beauty of our surroundings and the subtle details of nature (accentuated with nips from the requisite flask of whiskey).


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


Horseback riding is relaxing but also dynamic. I’m quickly drawn into the rhythmic, up-down gait of traveling atop a living beast. The horse knows where to go yet the rider can still control it. Speed, direction, stop, go – it’s about developing a feel for the horse, a bond. I don’t quite feel in charge, but Happy and I seem to have agreed to coexist in harmony as we push through the forest and into the sub-alpine meadows.

Perfectly placed on the edge of an alpine meadow, Callaghan Country Lodge is an eight-bedroom haven of rustic relaxation and fine dining complete with a wood-fired sauna set beside a chilling alpine creek.


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


The Lodge electricity shuts off each night but hosts Evan Boland and Kirsti Leppanen are always on hand to ensure we are warm, happy, and at peace. The four-course dinner is the furthest thing from campfire beans.

Later the mist rolls in – a chilly, grey atmosphere that shrouds the peaks and creeps into the forest as if searching for shelter from itself. For the first time all day the horses get skittish, their ears perked up, scanning the night. It’s ideal ghost story weather. Don lights the campfire.


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


Poking at coals the way people have since the beginning of time, we listen to Brad’s tales of a T-33 fighter jet that crashed in the area in 1956, the two pilots never found, and of the Puyup, a tribe of the Squamish Nation who used to hunt goat here and collect obsidian for weapons and trade. Evan talks about encounters with wildlife, “mostly grizzlies more than anything, but also the odd wolverine. You really feel like you’re part of the forest after a few days up here alone.”


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


Tomorrow perhaps we’ll hike up to Ring Lake for more views, or take the horses for a mosey around the forest. No definitive plans are made because we are alone in the wilderness and can just take things as they come, cowboy style. Eventually the last embers burn low, the flask of whiskey long dry, and we’re left with just the dark silence of nighttime in the alpine punctuated by the occasional snort of a horse.

Staying at Callaghan Lodge is like taking a step into history and the horse is the best time travel machine going. Brad Sills has been running the Lodge for 32 years and he never tires of the spot.

“Every day is like the first time,” he says. “It’s always different up here. It’s about a reconnection to the natural world and the spirit of the quest.”


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


Regardless of what you come looking for, Callaghan Country will give you what you need. I beat my fear of horses and discovered a new way to travel and connect with the land. Evan and Kirsti found a place to work and play and meet people, every day an adventure. Brad, also head of Whistler Search & Rescue, still hasn’t found the bodies of those long-lost pilots but he’s in no rush. Some quests take a lifetime.


Horseback riding in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, BC.


As we shuffle into the Lodge to clean sheets and soft beds, Don Coggins lays a sleeping bag out on the deck. For him, this is just another night out under the stars – no tent, no bug netting. Just the gun, the dog, the horses – and the peaceful sleep that comes to a man set in his rightful path.

Cowboys are just so damn cool.

Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures offers two-day horse tours that include accommodation and meals in the Lodge.