I had no idea that there was such a thing as an orange horse.
Now I’m no expert when it comes to horses and their hues. I mean, I know that horses come in all kinds of different colours — hence the old cliché — and that there’s a tremendous amount of variation among all the different breeds. And I can tell a buckskin from a bay and a palomino from a roan.
But I had never before laid eyes on an orange horse.
The day had started out chilly but not particularly cold, the sky clear and the sun bright in the sky, and as I’d driven north and west from the city I could see the mountains etched against the western horizon.
There wasn’t much snow on the ground but there was enough frost to make the landscape sparkle as I drove through Cremona and cut west toward Bergen. I saw deer out in the fields and rough-legged hawks perched in the trees and on power poles as they got set for their morning hunt.
The frost got heavier the more I headed west until finally, just east of Bergen, I had to stop. The crystals were so heavy they were bending down the roadside grass and coating the trees and fences with big, multifaceted jewels of ice. Stopping to photograph them, I could hear flocks of redpolls chittering away, chickadees chatting and bluejays and ravens just making noise.
It was so pretty that I could have spent the entire morning there.
But I really wanted to go have a look the Red Deer River valley out to the west of Sundre.
Southern Alberta is really blessed to have truly distinct river valleys, all with similarities but each with their own unique characteristics. The Waterton River down south drains from big, deep lakes, the Crowsnest runs short and fast through a slash in the mountains, the Oldman gathers strength in the high elevations and bursts out onto the grasslands through a fortuitous crack in the limestone wall that juts up abruptly from the prairie foothills.
And then there’s the Bow, a gorgeous, gleaming stream that runs through a broad, well-peopled valley and out onto the plains. It is the most altered of our watersheds but somehow, almost miraculously, it still maintains most of its wildness.
And then there’s the Red Deer River, maybe the wildest — along with the Castle — of all of southern Alberta’s rivers. That’s what I was headed out to see.
Leaving the frost behind, I cut through Sundre and idled west across the broad valley that stretches off toward the mountains and then cut south and west on Coal Camp Road to follow the river.
The road more or less parallels the river as it winds its way west and as you drive along you can get quite a good idea of how the river has shaped the land. At Sundre, the river flows through a huge flood plain, a broad, flat expanse of gravel and cobblestones laid down over the millennia, first by retreating glaciers and then by subsequent floods roaring down from the mountain heights.
Then you hit the sandstone outcrops, bent layers of ancient sediments shoved out of place by mountain building. The river bounces over and around them, forced through narrow gorges in some spots and bending around slabs of fallen sandstone in others. From high spots along the road you can look south across the river and see where ancient channels carved their way through and around the topography of the valley, leaving behind gravelly plains and slabs of isolated rock.
Every bend in the road holds another sight, another unexpected view. Come past the little cabins at Coal Camp and suddenly it seems like you’re back on the prairie again with a wide open, grassy valley stretched out in front of you. Then you’re back in a canyon, then you’re looking down at a black spruce swamp, then you’re back on the grasslands, then you’re parked beside a lovely, trickling spring surrounded by frost.
And you just gotta stop to check that out.
There are ravens flying overhead and siskins among the spruce trees. A whitetail deer emerges for just a second before disappearing back into the red swath of willows close by. And there’s a dipper bobbing on a shelf of ice and diving into the water to come up with a stonefly or caddis larva to gobble down.
And then, back on the road, you see the horses.
Yes, the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre is similar to the other southern Alberta watersheds but horses are what makes it unique. While there are bands of feral horses roaming the Rocky Mountain front from at least the Elbow River up past the Red Deer, it’s here in this valley where you are most likely to see them.
And right in front of me was a band of about a dozen.
They were gorgeous creatures, their manes and tails long and unkempt, their coats of winter hair shimmering in the sunlight, their nostrils flaring and sending out streams of steam. There was a baby with them, probably not more than month or two old, and it stuck right beside momma as she nibbled on grass and twigs. The others mostly stood there and stared at me as I shot my pictures, the teenagers — one with a hilariously crazy mane — being the first to break eye contact and then the rest going back to their business.
The boss stallion quickly assessed my threat level and then went on his way while one of the mares grazed so close by that I could hear her tearing up mouthfuls of grass.
They were all different hues, mostly dark tones, but there were a couple of greys among them, one almost white. The stallion’s coat was a deep brown with hints of red while his floppy mane was black with cinnamon highlights. Horses have the best hair.
I left them to graze while I explored further up the river, driving past grassy, south-facing slopes free of snow, through more narrow gaps and then right beside the river. I could see down through the clear water to the cobbles and ice on the river bed and stopped to shoot a panorama of a shelf of sandstone that bent the flow.
It was deep afternoon now, chinook cloud was building up and the day had warmed substantially as I hit the junction with the Forestry Trunk Road. Should I turn south toward the city here or head back to Sundre? But I decided there was one more place I wanted to see just a little further west.
Just beyond the aptly-named Wild Horse Recreation Area there’s a broad valley that was burned over a few years back. I’ve visited it a few times since then and it’s always fascinating.
But something bright caught my eye just as I hit the open country beyond the recreation area. It practically glowed against all the soft browns and dark greens of the willows and spruce. I put up my camera for a better look.
It was a horse. An orange horse. There were others around it, most of them dark-hued, a couple were black, one was a soft, brick colour with a frizz of grey. But this one, I can only describe it as orange.
I guess maybe it was closer to red but there was a lot of yellow in there, too, and it immediately brought to mind a still-ripening orange. The tail was a bit darker and there was a patch of brown hair at the shoulders but overall, it was just, I dunno, orange.
I’ve never seen another horse quite like it. Wish I could have gotten better pictures of it but it was fascinating just to see.
Darkness was settling in by now so I headed back toward Sundre. I passed other bands of horses out for their evening meal and watched the setting sun glimmer on the river’s ice as I drove on.
We have some lovely river valleys here in southern Alberta but the Red Deer River valley is unique.
It has an orange horse.
Chinook breeze at my back, I headed home.
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