on February 17, 2009
It seemed so romantic: a private sleigh ride in the mountains at sunset, the two of us tucked under a warm blanket, sipping liqueurs, and gazing at the purple mountains and red skies. Both of us were attracted by that winter vision, imaging the stillness as horse and driver took us along the edges of rivers, lakes, woods and ridges, the quiet broken only by the jingling of bells and the shushing of runners on snow. That wasn’t quite the way it worked out. I first read about sleigh rides at the website for the Chateau Lake Louise, where we initially booked a three-night stay but then canceled after fiscally-inspired second thoughts. Options there were to join one of the large 15-passenger sleds for an hour’s ride ($28/person), or take a private, two-seater cutter sleigh at (gulp) $375/hour (both operated by Brewster, the original tour company in the Rockies). As perfect as its seemed to circle Lake Louise in our own sleigh, neither of us could see parting with $400 for the privilege.Then I found Warner’s Holiday on Horseback, whose stables are on the banks of the Bow River, across from the center of Banff. They offered the same options, but the private cutter ride was $175. We booked one for 4pm on the afternoon of our anniversary, hoping that the skies would give us a nice sunset on the mountains.That morning was crystal clear, and the skies stayed blue for the whole day. We crossed the river from Banff and turned west towards the stables, which are on the same road as the Cave and Basin site. As we drove north towards the barns, we saw one of the larger sleighs returning, and our cutter tied up and waiting for us, attached to a big, brown horse.We entered the ticket area to ask about our reservation, and the group of hands debated who should take us. The youngest one present volunteered for our ride and took us out to the sled, giving us a little gift pack of four Bernard Callebaut chocolates and two small liqueurs with plastic glasses. We snuggled in under the buffalo skin, our guide shook the rains, and we were off.The Warner property sits along the south bank of the Bow River, but the trail we followed never got very close to the river’s edge. And the ride was a touch bumpy: as our friendly young guide explained, echoing what we heard from a lot of folks that week, Banff’s snowfall to date was way below average. It didn’t really look that way in most places, but we definitely felt the effects as we criss-crossed through the property. It’s hard to have a bad experience amidst the mountains, and for the most part, the scenery was spectacular—as long as you kept your gaze up. For much of the ride, we were in the rather non-descript flatlands along the river, where the grass was still poking through the light winter snow, and the effects of having cut, farmed and grazed this area were still visible. Only part of the ride took us through any section of woods, and since I’d formed this picture of coming in and out of pine forest for long vistas along the river or the mountain ridges, it wasn’t what I was expecting.Our driver, a pleasant young man in his early twenties, had grown up in the plains of southern Alberta. I’d expected a quiet, taciturn cowboy who would handle the horse and leave his passengers to enjoy some quiet moments together. But while in the office, the available staff basically cast lots to decide who would take us, and we ended up with this talkative and likable guide, who would have made a great leader for the backcountry pack trips he leads during the summers. We learned a lot about horses, about the business, and about his other customers, but again, it wasn’t what either us envisioned for our romantic anniversary trip. After 45 minutes, our loop returned us back to the Warner Stables. We thanked him, patted our horse, and headed back into town. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but I think both of us would have been happier piling into the larger sleigh with a dozen strangers, forgoing the liqueurs, and saving $125.
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