3. Arriving at Ubar
The Greyhound bus stop in Hinton has moved. Fortunately Ray had seen the bus leaving town as he arrived so knew it had been through but when he went to where he thought we would be the place was deserted and in darkness. At least he didn’t give up at that point and enquired at an all night cafe who put him right. We hadn’t had to wait all that long as we’d been given quite a wide time window but we were still relieved to see him as we were in the middle of nowhere with only 2 buses a day. He took us to the Canadian stalwart, Tim Hortons, for coffee and breakfast. He was in great need as there had been no power at the ranch when he left at 3am without his caffine fix. We didn’t object despite having not long finished one we’d bought at the all night store by the bus stop. The only difficulty there had been deciding which of about 10 different varieties to chose.
We took our coffee and breakfast back to the 4×4 flat bed truck in which he’d arrived -apparently the only real vehicle of choice in this part of the world – and consumed them in the supermarket car park. Despite the unearthly hour many places seemed to be open so once finished we ventured in to get provisions. We were given an almost blank cheque ‘get whatever you need and I’ll pay at the till’. A different supermarket in a foreign country and trying to be sensitive to someone else’s budget did not make for quick shopping compounded by the fact that he was unsure what was already available back at the ranch (not a metaphor now but reality). Sometime later, now daylight, we exited with a considerable number of carrier bags as we had been informed that the local supermarket in Grande Cache was expensive.
We set off on the hour and a half journey to our home for the next month. Ray chatted all the way, answering our questions with good humoured patience and imparting information from his 20 years in the horse business and a lifetime as a rural Canadian. The road was virtually empty at this time but doesn’t get much busier at any other; it was only built in the 1970s. Ray told us about the mining, logging and oil work in the north, making it sound very industrial but there is little evidence as the sites must have melted into the vast landscape, just snow capped mountains and trees as far as the eye can see, predominantly birch and pine, either spruce or poplar. We rounded a bend and there, grazing nonchalantly, was a moose and her calf. Apparently this is not an uncommon sight out here, the grass verges also provided breakfast for many white tailed deer and finally we came upon a more rare occurrence, a caribou. None seem perturbed by us, they know that their natural predator has four legs not four wheels.
Caribou numbers have diminished since the road was built and opened up the land in an inverse relationship with the number of wolves locally. The lupines are eating more therefore have greater numbers in their litters to the extent of requiring to be culled after some were subjected to live capture and sent on long term holiday to Yellowstone National Park USA. Ray tells of a recent visit (last week!) to the ranch of a lone wolf who was attracted to the horse compound although fortunately not horse meat. He did upset one of the mares who kept having to herd a couple of the youngsters to the other end whilst patrolling up and down across the front of them. Later, as we’re sat outside having a BBQ tea I kept thinking that I could see movement up in the trees on the bank but its just tiredness. Alternatively it could be a bear, either black – not a problem as they’re not aggressive! or a grizzly – not a problem as there aren’t many of them around here so that’s OK then! The only other predators to watch out for are the gold and bald eagles but also osprey so this could transpire to be an amazing experience on so many levels.
We turned off the road to negotiate a drive winding between the trees with the usual array of working farm detritus. On opening out we saw the first corral of horses, this holds about 12 of the trail horses who are very interested in what foodstuffs we may be donating. We pulled up in front of a little log cabin with nearby tiny log cabin. Our walled tent isn’t ready yet so this is our temporary residence. It has been Ray’s when he stays here; I soon come to realise that his and Brenda’s house is in the town. She works full time at the power station so we wont met her until the evening. Ray is off for 4 days to a reigning show near Calgary so will stay in his trailer for now. The tiny cabin nearby is a (not very) long drop toilet!!!
We unloaded our luggage and the shopping and go to meet the others. We have been greeted by Brandy, a lab and Bea, an old border collie crossed with woolly mammoth. The other human is Bailey, an absolutely delightful ‘farm hand’. She helps out on the ranch all day everyday in the summer when she is away from her regular job as an instrumentation inspector. Ray gave us some time to unpack and get sorted, apologising for the state of the cabin and confessing that it may need a bit of a clean. It does, but there is little point in being too diligent in this environment and we don’t have too – yippee. We are shown to the office where there is also a comfortable lounge area with a plasma TV, wifi and an excellent coffee machine. Cup in hand, we receive a tour of the ranch buildings, the other 15 acres can wait along with the wilderness beyond. Ray took us into the town to show us around, this takes all of about 15 minutes but we stop to chat to a friend who actually occupies one of the trailer sites on the ranch. He gives us a tour of the more residential area from where you can see the roof tops of the nearby medium security jail before heading back the 2km to the ranch.
There is no expectation for us to do anything today but in an effort to stay awake we were happy to undertake some straight forward tasks. Bailey showed me how to tack up one of the trail horses she’s assessing for lessons and then gets me to do it; western saddles weigh a tonne. I watch her for a while before wondering where Roger has been when he turns up on the quad bike with trailer attached. He had diligently started to clear the rocks from a flowerbed, as suggested earlier, and was returning from dumping the first load. I join him in finishing that area before we retreat to a covered balcony tent to have some lunch, admiring the view from where our accommodation will be when completed. We undertake further stone clearing in the afternoon from behind the vacant trailer pitches so that the sit-on lawn mower can get along without wrecking the blades. The loads of rocks and stones need to be taken to a different part of the ranch where they will help with drainage and I get behind the wheel for the first time in over 6 months. The throttle on the handle poses the same problems as the handset in Ben’s PS3 games but after a couple of runs I’m regaining my control and confidence but still can’t reverse.
By 5pm we’ve called it a day and opened a well-deserved can of beer and cider, watching Brenda ‘play’ on her new sit-on lawn mower. Roger offered to do the job but we definitely got the feeling that her pride and pleasure in her latest acquisition was yet to abate, particularly with her grandson on her lap. As we are still trying to stay awake we welcomed Ray’s invitation to join him and Brenda, their son and daughter-in-law and grandson for a BBQ tea in the kitchen tent behind the cabin. They had built a fire to keep the mossies at bay after checking the fire status, there are still several high alerts but not in this area. The family depart around 8pm to get Ryder to bed, Brenda stays on for a while and we discuss some of the tasks for the next few days whilst Ray is away then she too leaves. We do a bit of clearing up and manage to reach our goal of 9pm before conceding defeat, apparently to Ray’s relief as he retires then also. We collapsed into bed and would have fallen asleep immediately if not for a knock on the door 15 minutes later. Thinking it was Ray wanting to collect something Roger shouts ‘come in’ the door opens and a stranger apologies profusely whilst he learns that Ray is in the trailer.
Our first impressions of Ubar elicit pure pleasure. We are their first workawayers and it seems that they are very kind generous people who live in an amazing place which they are happy to share. I think we may be very lucky to be here.