The Alberta prairie is a beautiful place. I loved the peaceful endlessness about it. A kind of cleansing of the soul. I could, in a small way, relate to how the native people loved their home. Even in the harshness of winter.
It was February and Ray, my hunting pal, and I walked the edge of a coulee, keeping a sharp eye out for the elusive and magnificent prong horn antelope. The coulees, deep groves cut into the flat prairie by giant ice flows thousand of years ago, ran for miles. When walking on the bottom for a while a person would be lost in an elusion that they were looking up at mountains instead of trekking through a deep valley.
This day I walked the bottom while Ray hunted along the top. Though six-foot he looked like a little kid way up there. At thirty years old Ray was five years my senior but keeping up with him was a real chore. At least down in the coulee I was out of that blasted frigid Alberta wind that never stopped blowing.
As I came to a bend with a breeze in my face I spotted a coyote. I froze, he couldn’t smell me but he saw Ray and was studying that hunter intently. First he dropped to his belly, then slowly crept to a few boulders that lay on the side of the coulee. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Our hunting club awards points for certain game, quail and prairie dogs earned one point, an antelope 50 points, a coyote, a whopping 60 points. To stalk the coyote or bush wolf was almost impossible. This was a once in a life time opportunity for me.
I raised my 303 Lee-Enfield rifle and took a bead. He wasn’t close but still not a difficult shot. Instead of fleeing , like they mostly do, this guy crawled on his belly until he was almost under the group of rocks. That smart animal knew Ray couldn’t see him and was just going to wait until the danger walked on by. Made me wonder how often this might have happened before. We would never have known he was there.
Seeing how intelligent this critter was I changed my mind about gathering 60 points and being the hero for a day. Instead I took a few steps ahead. The coyote picked up on the movement and froze, staring right into my eyes. He didn’t try to run, just stared. I climbed up the coulee towards Ray , hollering for him to wait up, and giving the bush wolf an escape route. We were hunting antelope anyway, I reasoned to myself.
I never mentioned it to Ray because I would certainly get a wallop of a knuckle buster on the top of the head. And they hurt. In fact, I never ever came clean to him about that.
A few miles ahead we thought we spotted a herd of antelope. It’s very hard to stalk these speedy animals so we let their curiosity do the work. We would tie a white cloth on a stick or the rifle barrel and lay down , then slowly wave the white flag about. Sometimes they’d just wonder further off but often they would venture close enough to get off a shot.
This bunch started toward us at an unusually fast rate. And after twenty minutes of laying on the cold prairie ground, I was very pleased that something was happening. Ray always said that cowboys never complained so I didn’t, but I’ll tell you, my prairie oysters were like ice cubes.
As they got close we could clearly see that this was a herd of semi wild horses and not prong horns at all. The ranchers or Native people would turn them loose for the winter. They survived fine on the sparse but nutritional grasses.
We had a little laugh then headed out to greet them. They were a little nervous but both Ray and I knew horses and moving slow and talking softly we were able to walk right into the herd of about 15 shaggy prairie toughen horses.
I found a snow free spot to put my rifle down and made my way to a huge black gelding. His comrades moved off a bit but the black allowed me to pat his massive neck. Ray sat on a boulder, that are everywhere on the prairie, they get spit up from the earth every spring. He rolled a smoke with one hand, he liked to show off knowing that I never did acquire that talent. Then dared me to mount up.
So , not one to back off on a dare, I took a good handful of thick mane and in one graceful leap, if I don’t say so myself, I swung up and landed neatly onto the geldings back. I readied for some bucking but nope, there was none. The big guy just walked off a bit toward the others. Ray was grinning from ear to ear, so I decided to put on a show for him. I hollered, and waved my free hand and yahooed it up. This was a mistake.
The black wasn’t too concerned but the others were spooked and took off running. The gelding was not about to be left behind so he burst into a gallop right behind them. The more I yelled whoooaa, the fasted the herd went. In minutes we were traveling way to fast to consider dismounting without bouncing off some of them prairie rocks. I held on for dear life. I didn’t really have time to be scared but I did know that I was in a pickle here. I could clearly hear my partners laugh echoing off the coulee walls.
Every time the black caught up to the herd the others would panic, could have been all the yelling, and run faster. Then they collectively decided to drop down into a coulee. This was like going almost straight down on a roller coaster, with no seat belt. As they hit the flats they speeded up and I squeezed my legs so tight I could feel my knees popping. There was nothing to do except wait it out. Soon, thank God, the herd headed up the other side and it was so steep that they had to slow down. Time for me to exit. I threw my leg over the geldings head and plopped belly down onto the frozen ground. I believe I rolled a few times before coming to a stop against a fox burrow. What are the odds I thought as I brushed myself off and searched the other side of the coulee for Ray.
Ray was still sitting on the boulder, and though quite a distance away , I could tell he was laughing. Took me almost half an hour to make my way back. Ray tossed me my lunch, a made in Canada chocolate bar. As I looked over my bruises Ray then asked me where I’ve been. Said he turned away and the next thing he knew I was gone. Very funny, I told him.
We never got an antelope that day and didn’t win any team points at the Foremost , Alberta, hunting club (could have had sixty, shsssssh) so, as losers, we had to do the dishes back at the community centre.
My bruised body and ego healed quick, as they do with the young and soon after Ray and I were off on another adventure, branding 90 calfs for a local rancher when no-one else would. I’ll tell you why on my next blog. Thanks for reading, like if you like, say nothing if you don’t. Jack
Remember friends, keep the faith, it gets better, it always does.