From Ashcroft in the south to north of Quesnel and west into the Chilcotin wilderness, B.C.’s “Land without Limits” is the province’s go-to destination for rodeos, rustic guest ranches and resort-style luxury. It’s also cattle country, real cattle country, where riding enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the local cowboy culture in unique ways – guided by experienced cowhands who are more than happy to share their appreciation of this iconic way of life. Travellers in the Cariboo Chilcotin can bunk at a working ranch as an aspiring cowhand and experience hands-on riding and roping, branding and herding, or sign up for a horse-whispering workshop and practise “horse language” to forge the ultimate bond between man and animal. A 14-day expedition into the mountains of Itcha Ilgachuz Provincial Park leads to an archaeological site near an obsidian quarry of special significance to the Carrier people. Other treks include guiding herds from winter feedlots to summer pastures (or back again in the fall), and days spent riding the Tchaikazan-Yohetta Valley Loop or the Chilcotin’s Potato Range that morph into trailside lake retreats by dusk, with tents pitched in secluded meadows and fat trout reeled in for the supper fry pan.
In fact the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is home to more than half of the province’s guest ranches, ranging from those that provide gourmet restaurants, swimming pools, hot tubs, full-service spas and the full glamping experience (“designer” camping) to those offering a more rustic, traditional Canadian experience featuring the stuff cowboy dreams are made of: guitars, cowboy songs and tall tales around a campfire, bunking down in an old-fashioned log cabin or sleeping under the stars in a snug bedroll, waking at dawn to the howl of a distant coyote and the aroma of coffee, baked beans and bacon crisping over an open flame. Or, here’s your chance to relax with a massage after a long day’s ride, to catch a rodeo, to videotape the skills and courage of both riders and animals – to treat your sweetheart to a distinctively western glamping experience. No matter what your wild west dream is, the region’s ranch hands are experts at matching horse to rider, at ensuring both novices and experts are fitted with the ‘right’ in-the-saddle getaway – from family friendly, low-impact trail rides through aspen and jack-pine forests to multi-hour saddle treks featuring arid, sagebrush- covered vistas stretching as far as the eye can see.
For those keen to learn more about cowboy history, a visit to the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin in Williams Lake is another must. Exhibits here are dedicated to preserving and honouring B.C. cowboys and cowgirls of the past and present, including how cowboys and cattlemen tamed B.C.’s Wild West. The museum also houses the B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame, and its annual Hall of Fame inauguration (held at the Williams Lake Indoor Rodeo in April) is an opportunity to meet B.C.’s ranching and rodeo pioneers. For a more current take on cowboy culture, the big, outdoor Williams Lake Stampede in July is a sanctioned ProRodeo event showcasing bareback, B.C. Rodeo Association-sponsored events can also be found throughout the region, including local rodeos staged in Clinton, Bella Coola, Williams Lake, Anahim Lake, Alkali Lake, Interlakes, Redstone and Quesnel – with each rodeo reflecting the spirit of that community, and offering its own special twist on the traditional rodeo format. The Quesnel rodeo is an example of this, complemented by the city’s Billy Barker Days, for which townsfolk parade about in their nest 1860s garb while enjoying festival activities. Bella Coola’s annual attraction tempts all comers to try their luck at cow patty bingo. The communities of Anahim Lake, Nemiah and Redstone champion a series of First Nations rodeo events. Children are the stars of spring’s Little Britches Rodeo in 100 Mile House (featuring such entertaining highlights as mutton busting, goat tying and dummy roping). Clinton’s May extravaganza features a full-on Western Heritage Week, with cowboy poetry readings and western musical performances and an old-time ball.
The rodeo season kicks off in Williams Lake in April with indoor events and wraps up in September as Quesnel hosts the year-end B.C. Rodeo Association Finals. All season long, rodeo dances are also alive and well throughout the region, showcasing traditional western music and those famous cowboy manners. Rest assured the fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down.