She likes to eat,” the ranch hand said with a French-Canadian accent, “and she’s pretty fond of shortcuts,” she warned, handing me the reins.
Picturesque as it was there in the hills, there was nothing charming about the way I mounted Feline. The stirrups were set for my aspirational leg length, which made the last bit — the part where you swing your leg over the horse’s blanket-padded back — particularly gymnastic. It was a schedule-more-yoga moment for me and probably eye-opening for the horse, too.
Within minutes, I could corroborate the ranch hand’s observations: Feline caught stink eye from a gelding when she tried to jump the queue, and she treated the path leaving the stables as an all-you-can-eat buffet. (It didn’t help that my ride correctly identified me as a pushover from the moment I attempted to scale the side of her saddle.)
I came here from Toronto on a week’s getaway from concrete skyscrapers, and my cosy — yes, that’s realtor code for small — downtown loft. I wanted fresh air, big skies and trees that weren’t swinging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi. Today’s horseback ride was merely an introduction, a literal back-in-the-saddle experience to get a feel for the land.
Whitehorse, the closest city to Sky High Wilderness Ranch and surrounding Fish Lake Valley, had grown since the last time I was here six years ago; it now clocked in around 28,000 souls and was home to the most people you’ll find in one place in the Yukon. A bylaw limits buildings to four or five storeys, the core of the city is walkable and a few of the restaurants, coffee bars and shops popping up could be labelled almost hipsterish at a glance. Granted, beards and plaid here seem less ironic simply by default. Overall, there’s a feeling in Whitehorse, a city tucked among mountains and lakes, that it’s a place to rest and get a proper cup of coffee or pint before heading back out into the wild. (If that’s your plan, too, try Baked Café and Bakery for a jolt of caffeine and an artisan scone or stop in at Dirty Northern Public House — it’s north but far from dirty — for a frosty glass of Yukon Gold beer.)
It took some time before Feline and I came to an accord about the en route snacking. Ultimately, I agreed to stop sleeping at the wheel — a.k.a. nearly dropping the reins as I took jostled photos — and Feline conceded that she would give her remarkably talented lawnmower impersonation a rest for the time being. It’s anyone’s guess whether we came to this arrangement because of my improved horsemanship or because my mount was finally full. Either way, it wasn’t a perfect pact. The horse gave me her thoughts on the new let’s-go-up-this-mountain plan by aiming directly for trees (don’t think I didn’t notice, Feline … eyes on the side of your head is no excuse for that “invisible pine tree” bullshit). But as spruce branches exfoliated my jeans and my lens cap permanently decamped for life among the fireweed (Yukon 1, Canon 0), Feline was energetically sure-footed, too. I took it as a sign of affection that she cared about our combined safety. Jocelyne, the 43-year-old partner at the ranch, had paired us together based on my limited experience — the last time I’d ridden a horse I was a preteen — and while she warned me she’d enjoy some liberties as a result, she also said Feline knew the route if we fell
behind and wasn’t the sort to run off.
So far, so good.
It rained as we climbed. It cleared. It rained a little more. Then fluffy, clouded skies. Then a view over Fish Lake appeared that made my heart beat stronger in my chest. We paused on a hilltop to take it in. My fellow riders and I might as well have been painted figurines in a diorama titled The Great North; the sky appeared cartoonishly vast; the air, despite billions of years of photosynthesis in its making, as fresh as if we were the first to breath it, and the lake in the distance, ethereal and sparkling like a thin pane of glass. All of this and, of course, limited cellphone service. Nature at its finest.
With views like these, it’s easy to understand why visitors frequently become residents in the Yukon. Time and time again, travellers who venture to see this unique part of Canada return home only to pack their things for a permanent stay. I’d been here only a few hours and had already had a conversation with Air Canada about moving my return flight back a few days.
Changing weather patterns mean that Feline and her friends will enjoy an all-inclusive stay at the ranch this winter. In the past, the horses were let loose to roam in the valley, where the summer’s waist-deep grass had naturally converted to hay and provided plenty of sustenance for, presumably, their chillier but perhaps no less wild version of spring break. “What about coyotes?” I asked, convinced of Feline’s forging skills but wary that her honed ability to look disappointed in you would be enough to fend off a determined attacker. “They prefer to snack on joggers,” my guide quips. Occasionally gullible but often prudent, I make a note to cross quick movements in the woods off my to-do list.
Along with day and hourly rides, Sky High offers three-, five-, seven- and 10-day wilderness tours on horseback; perfect for riders who crave immersive experiences with experienced guides. Come winter, the ranch is a local go-to for dogsledding. Happily, one of the camp’s huskies bounded ahead of Feline on our daylong trek, and I enjoyed some frenetic puppy-cuddling at the stables after a hot chili lunch.
On the way back down the hills, I spent less time looking at the root-covered ground in front of us and more time looking at the breathtaking view across the valley toward the distant mountains. The heat of the July day had cooled a little with the rain and our altitude, but in the Yukon you don’t need perfect blue skies to enjoy the majesty of the landscape. I didn’t fuss about shortcuts or speed — and I wouldn’t have complained about snacking, either, buddy — while my steed deftly made her way down the well-trampled path toward home. Her four hoofs were far more co-ordinated than my two feet ever would have been. It wasn’t her first rodeo. Hopefully, it won’t be my last, either.
A version of this story appeared as “Ticket to Ride” in the July/August 2018 issue. This story was written pre-pandemic, prior to COVID travel restrictions.