At a small airfield in Williams Lake, BC, a chariot awaits me in the guise of a pick-up truck covered with a thin layer of dust. Travis Baldwin, the head wrangler at Elkin Creek Guest Ranch, greets me with a smile, explains that he’s not one of those Baldwin brothers, and places my bags in the back of the truck for the long drive ahead to our destination, where I’m taking part in a cowgirl bootcamp retreat. For the next two hours, in the company of fellow cowgirls-in-training Elizabeth and Erin, we wind ever deeper along dirt roads into the heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin region and Canada’s historic Gold Rush Trail, stopping once to allow a herd of wild horses native to the Brittany Triangle to pass in front of us.
The closer we get to the ranch, the further away we are from distractions. We pass a First Nations reserve, a community occupied by the Xeni Gwe’tin. Here and there, scattered among the forested slopes and wide valleys, a cattle ranch reveals itself by the edge of a fence line, or a chimney silhouetted against the blue sky. By the time we can see the cabins and ranch buildings of Elkin, we’ve passed nothing for long, sweet miles.
In the morning, after dragging ourselves out of the deep beds in our separate cozy cabins, we head back to the main guesthouse, with its fieldstone fireplace and Western-themed lounge, and join the other women participants in the dining room for breakfast. Besides the three of us, the mix includes a doctor from England, a housewife, a British social worker, and a dental hygienist—each with varying degrees of horseback riding experience.
Lodge Coordinator Kerrie Robinson is already busy at the main building when we sit down at the long wooden table. The ranch chef, Greg Bubar, cooks each of us a breakfast to order, smiling when he says we’ll need the extra calories for the day ahead. And it turns out he’s right. There’s a quick, but thorough, safety and saddling demonstration at the barn, during which we get to meet the horses that will be our companions for the duration of the retreat. Mine is a beautiful mare called Cheech, who tolerantly sighs as I heave the Western saddle onto her back. Although I spent over 20 years training and showing dressage horses and jumpers, the English-style equipment I used was a whole lot lighter and easier to maneuver than its Western counterpart. In the interest of cowgirls everywhere, I decide to refrain from complaining, and vow to add more shoulder and bicep work to my weightlifting routine once home.
Erin and I head out in the company of Travis, who turns out to be an experienced wilderness guide trained in medical rescue, which alleviates all of our fears about being pursued by (or chewed on) by bears. For about three hours, we explore the surrounding landscape, from impressively large sections of beaver-felled trees, to paths climbing steep slopes that descend suddenly into small valleys. The fir and pine trees are interspersed with thick copses of silver-barked aspens, their fluttering leaves just beginning to turn gold.
After lunch, neighboring rancher (neighboring being a relative term in this wilderness) George Colgate arrives to induct us into the world of roping. Since squirming, mobile calves are definitely beyond our current skill level, we get to practice on extremely docile bales of hay. Within an hour or so—and thanks largely to George’s patient tutelage—we’re all capturing our hay bales with no problem. He decides we’re ready for a slightly bigger challenge, and leads us back to the barn to collect our horses. Once we’re all mounted, George takes us to a large fenced paddock, where a dozen cows and their offspring are milling about. One by one, we try our hand at cutting—cowgirl-speak for separating—a cow from the herd and guiding her into an adjacent paddock. It’s much harder than it seemed when George was giving his demonstration, but a huge amount of fun.
Starry, Starry Night
Exhausted, and in high spirits, we take our horses back to the barn to unsaddle and groom them, and make them comfortable for the night before heading back to our cabins to clean ourselves up for dinner. I manage to fit in a shower and an hour of yoga on my cabin’s front deck before joining the other women for Chef Bubar’s fabulous grilled salmon feast. Afterwards, a small group of us opt for a moonlight kayaking trip across the vast stretch of William’s Lake, while the rest of the group settles into the hot tubs and sauna on the lake’s edge.
The kayaks slip quietly across the dark surface. Soon, there’s no visible light at all, except for the stars. As night deepens, it’s no longer possible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins—the stars are everywhere, surrounding us completely, reflected so clearly in the water that there’s a strong sensation of drifting through them.
I sleep deeply that night, and wake feeling energetic. Today, George is going to let us rope calves, though we’re going to do it on foot rather than from the backs of our horses. The ropes are special “break-away” ropes that will release the calves as soon as we pull them taut. We work in teams of two, while George times us and shouts encouragement, things like “Don’t let him drag you into the fence.” In no time, we’re all covered with mud and perspiration, and have worked up impressive appetites for lunch.
Later, Erin, Elizabeth and I are heading back to the city, but the other cowgirls are gearing up for an afternoon of Iron Chef-styled competition, with each team being given a bag of cooking ingredients and their own campfire to create their own masterpieces in time for dinner. Never having been a Girl Scout, I can’t help but think it’s a good thing I’m leaving before being left in charge of a campfire.
We retrace our path, winding up by dinnertime at the Four Seasons in downtown Vancouver, which is immersed in readying itself for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games. Convinced we’ve earned a few day’s worth of indulgence, our plan includes getting our glam back on with manicures at Holt Renfrew’s spa—located in the swish,140-store shopping center beneath the hotel—followed by dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Yew.
Nails and champagne levels properly restored, we head back up the elevator to Yew. Mirroring the stunning beauty the Pacific Coastal regions, wood panels stretch 40 feet toward the ceiling, matched by a magnificent sandstone fireplace. Chef Oliver Beckert has received multiple accolades for his menu, and it’s difficult to make a choice. I finally settle on the Soy Glazed Black Cod.
It’s served with sea asparagus, leeks, wood ear mushrooms and yuzu butter (made with the juices from the Asian citrus fruit). After breakfast the next morning (and yes, mimosas are involved), we head out with Chef Eric Pateman, owner of the culinary-based tour company Edible BC, offering wonderful themed culinary excursions and hands-on cooking experiences in and around Vancouver. He takes us first to Granville Island to visit the Public Market located on the waterfront. Here, farmers, artisan food makers, and creators of local products have stalls and cafes displaying their goods, much like an enormous indoor farmer’s market. We mingle with local residents and area restaurant kitchen staffs as they stock up on the best of the region’s food offerings, then wander over to Granville Island Tea for refreshment.
Next, Pateman escorts us to Vancouver’s Chinatown, where we hook up with Stephanie Yuen, a local guide, chef, food author, and Chinatown expert. Stephanie takes us for a walk through the marketplace, where I’m immediately distracted by the contents of a bin located outside of a Chinese herbal shop. In it, hundreds of dried geckos are attached to the ends of long sticks, their hand-sized bodies splayed and stiff. Yuen tells me that this is a popular traditional treatment for arthritis, and the sticks allow sufferers to position the geckos exactly where pain relief is needed.
Food & Fashion
Unable to entirely erase the image of the geckos from my mind, I follow Stephanie and the others to Jade Dynasty Restaurant on East Pender St. for an authentic Dim Sum lunch. As we enjoy a selection of delicacies, she explains that dim sum translates to “touch your heart,” and was originally limited to royalty who could afford to have their own chefs create delicate dumplings from the freshest seasonal ingredients. China’s version of tapas, dim sum is meant to be a teaser rather than a full meal. Stephanie also tells us a little about the area’s rich history, dating back to the turn of the century when Chinese immigrants began to settle an area that became known as Shanghai Alley. A huge theater was constructed, which became a central gathering place for the Asian community. A short time later, in 1904, the courtyard area at Canton Alley was constructed, and the surrounding area quickly developed into a lively cultural and social center.
We head back to the Four Seasons for an afternoon of luxury—and to make sure we’re harboring no last vestiges of ranch dust. We enjoy blow-outs at Blo, located in the lobby of the hotel’s reception level. The salon offers absolutely nothing but blow-outs, and we have fun selecting from the style menu. Afterwards, it’s back to Holt Renfrew for a professional make-up application, during which I discover the Chantecaille product line, a company with a strong and active commitment to philanthropic efforts focused on environmental preservation. Products boast a high concentration of natural botanicals, including a line of divinely-scented flower waters and flower-infused cleansers.
Looking nothing at all like the three women who chased calves around a muddy paddock just a few short days ago, we head to one of the city’s hottest dining spots, Coast, for fresh, elegantly prepared seafood. The restaurant is so popular, it recently changed location to its current, considerably larger address.
Still feeling fabulous in the morning, we have a light breakfast downstairs at Yew Coffee Culture Bar, then lace up our walking shoes to put in a few miles along the waterfront with Lois Tomlinson of Natural Trekking, who teaches us the finer points of walking with Nordic poles. The city is bustling, and the air is crisp and fresh. When it’s time to make our way to the airport, we opt for the city’s new rapid rail SkyTrain line, linking Metro Vancouver’s downtown area with the airport. The train is spotless, and every bit as fast as it’s advertised to be, making the trek to the airport effortless (no parking or traffic-weaving taxi drivers!) and extremely pleasant.
However, if someone had offered us horses as transportation instead of a fast train, we were absolutely ready to say yes.
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