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  Trail Ride to Yesterday

by Paul Yanko
- courtesy Joan Eloyfson Cadham
More than anything else, it's the camaraderie of the trail that makes the Heritage Wagon Trek such a popular annual event.

A small sea of blue jeans and cowboy hats is shifting within a shoreline of tents, horses and wagons as I arrive at the base camp of the annual Heritage Wagon Trek.

It's a sunny, summer morning in east-central Saskatchewan. Some folks are sipping coffee or eating breakfast, while others are visiting or preparing horses for this second day of the trek. The smell of bacon is strong in the still, morning air.

Despite the crowd, it doesn't take me long to find my friend Lois Horvath, who has kindly agreed to lend me a horse for the morning's portion of the ride.

As Lois and her son Lindsay, who's in his 20s, attend to the horses, I meander to a nearby campsite where I'm warmly greeted by Matt Zuchkan, an older farmer from nearby Parkerview. Zuchkan is taking part in his tenth trek, and he shares his campsite with a number of his children and grandchildren. The latter, he points out, like to ride with him in his John-Deere-green wagon.

"This is quite an educational experience for the young people," says Zuchkan. "It helps them come to know what their great-great grandparents had to go through.

"When my grandparents came to Canada the Ukraine from, this is the kind of life they had -- the country was undeveloped and the only transportation they had were oxen and horses."

Jovial trail boss Dan Thorsteinson came up with the idea to re-enact the old mail run from Sheho to Foam Lake.

The trek is the brainchild of Dan Thorsteinson, of Foam Lake.

"Many years ago, the mail used to come out of Sheho," says Thorsteinson. "I suggested we re-enact this by picking up some mail and bringing it back to Foam Lake."

"That day, someone asked me what we're going to do the next year. And we've been holding the trek ever since."

The four-day trek, now (1997)in its 14th year, re-enacts a mail delivery route by looping out into a different region each day and returning to base camp at night. It's become one of the most popular events in the area, and it draws participants from all three prairie provinces and beyond.

Sixty or 70 people took part the first year. That number has swollen to nearly 500 horse and wagon riders for the '97 edition.

This is a great opportunity to see what the settlers went through," says 18-year-old Hayden McAleese of Auckland, New Zealand. "We have similar wagon treks in New Zealand, but not on this scale -- this is huge!"

The horses are now ready to go. Saddles, hats, sunscreen and mosquito repellent in place, we climb atop our mounts and join a compact line of horses and wagons that extends 200 yards towards the edge of the field. There's no dramatic shouting of "Move 'em out!". Over time, the line simply stretches out in an easterly direction. My first trail ride is underway.

The trek weaves its way through the gently-rolling terrain known as the Beaver Hills. Much of today's ride is spent on pasture land, where we wind our way around and through many stands of aspen that dot the landscape.

The sun is now high in the sky and the temperature is in the mid 20s -- we pass a pond that looks particularly inviting. With our horses strolling leisurely side by side, Lindsay and I talk about the trek.

Typical trail attire: cowboy hats and denim (chaps optional).

"I just love riding horses," he says. "The trek is also a chance to get away and meet different people from all over and have a good time. It kinda makes you think a bit, too. About what the west must have been like a hundred years ago."

The string of wagons and horse riders has now stretched to several kilometres in length. Position within the line changes constantly as some people stop for a drink and others gallop back and forth to socialize with fellow trekkers.

I'm beginning to look at my watch, wondering when the lunch break will come. I'm hungry and, though my horse is an exceptionally smooth ride, the saddle's beginning to take its toll on my behind. As we saunter along the edge of a carpet of immature winter wheat, I spy riders a half kilometre ahead dismounting for lunch beside a grid road.

Lunch is a simple break for most of the trekkers, but it's the culmination of a whole morning of work for trek caterers Joan and Orest Malinowski, of Foam Lake.

This year alone, the Malinowskis will go through more than 100 dozen eggs, 250 pounds of potatoes, 230 pounds of beef, 75 pounds of bacon, nearly 2,000 perogies and 1,200 cans of pop. And at $3.50 (Cdn) for a delicious lunch of hot roast beef smothered in gravy with mashed potatoes and home-made bread, delivered right to the trekkers in the middle of the countryside, they're certainly not in it for the money.

"We like the outdoor atmosphere and the challenge of getting everything done on time," Joan says during a brief moment away from the "kitchen". "We see many of the same folks over and over again and it's nice to socialize."

After half an hour of vigorous effort, riders freed the wagon from the muddy slough.

Over the lunch hour I hook up with Dennis and Theresa Keyowski, who farm near Wishart, SK. This afternoon I'll ride in their home-built, covered wagon, pulled through the scenic countryside by two hulking Belgian horses named Jed and Jim.

The wagon has automobile wheels and is outfitted with two, old school bus seats. There are no shock absorbers, so the ride occasionally is a jarring one.

The Belgians, Dennis tells me, were bred during medieval times to carry armor-clad knights into battle. They're comparable in size to the better-known Clydesdales and weigh anywhere from 700 to 900 kilograms.

My fellow passengers are Theresa's 11-year-old son Kyle, and her 74-year-old mother Elsie Siganski.

"I was born on a farm, so this sort of thing is very nostalgic for me," Elsie says as we bounce along through a pasture. "I like the fresh air and the nature, but for us, it's also a family thing. It's nice to be together with your family and meet people of all ages from all over."

As we rise to the crest of a hill we spot below us a wagon stuck in a slough. The team and occupants have waded to shore, but the vehicle remains locked in the quagmire despite strenuous efforts of four horsemen with ropes.

Our entire procession -- about 25 wagons and 350 riders -- gathers on a hillside and waits for the wagon to be freed. Its wheels and undercarriage have disappeared in two feet of water and soft mud - the wagon appears to be floating in the water.

With ropes attached to wagon and saddle horns, the rescue unit is attempting to coordinate among four horses and riders a rhythmic rocking motion aimed at freeing the wagon. In unison, the cowboys throw their bodies forward and spur their steeds with boot and holler, creating a flurry of splashing and churning. But the stubborn wagon isn't budging.

Just plain tuckered after a long day on the trail.

It goes on like this for about half an hour, with the cowboys varying their strategy through different combinations of push and pull. Finally, they free the wagon, and hundreds of us are whooping, whistling and applauding as the tired cowboys tow the wagon out of the slough.

"You never know what's going to happen next," observes Dennis. "Life is never dull with horses."

There's more to his comment than the little saga we just witnessed.

Dennis, in his 40s, came within an inch of losing his life during the 1991 trek. He was leading his Belgians back from the watering truck when a portion of a halter brushed against one of the Belgian's legs.

"She kicked me square in the face," says Dennis. "Broke my nose and gave me 42 stitches. But the horse didn't kick at me -- I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

His wife Theresa adds Dennis remains "horse-crazy" in spite of his brush with death, and the wagon trek is part of his passion.

"I enjoy the companionship of all the people we've met over the years," says Dennis. "It's nice to be outside, sharing the experience with fellow horsemen."

It's nearing 3:30 now, and we're passing through pasture land filled with the sweet smell of "wolf willow". Shortly thereafter, we weave our way through an opening in a barbed-wire fence and turn into a farmyard. Across the road is the base camp.

We've been on the trail seven hours we've covered about 25 kilometres. But when you're out on the prairie surrounded by horses and wagons, it's easy to believe you've actually travelled much further. About a hundred years further.

The Heritage Wagon Trek each year runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday over the last weekend in June. The cost is $15 (Cdn, 1997 prices) per rider (whether you ride in a wagon or on a horse). Meals are not included. Dances, featuring live bands, are held Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. You need not have your own horse or wagon to take part. Call (306) 306-554-3235 for further information.

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