words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Névé Petersen
“I’m the queen of countless canyons, king of a million peaks;
Nymph of my timbered valleys green, and lord of my swollen creeks;
Ruler of flowing glaziers, God of Eternal Snows;
Mother of giant conifers and every shrub that grows;
Spawn of the swamp-loving Cedar, seed of the long-needled Pine,
Crown of the stately Douglas Fir; but the Human is not mine…
—Robert E. Swanson, excerpt from ‘The Spirit of the Forest’ 1942
The spirit of the forest—untamed, untouched, painted with life, and teeming with both the promise of adventure and the sense of insignificance that comes from simply existing within one of the most complex and biodiverse areas on planet Earth.
Time can stand still in the giant temperate rainforests of the Coast Mountains. It can also shift and flicker like the light filtering through the canopy of mossy cedar, towering fir, or big-leafed maple. In the forest, our pace slows—a lifetime here can last hundreds, even thousands of years, yet there are also hundreds of lifecycles that renew each season. Through this alchemy of permanence and impermanence, the rainforest lures our consciousness towards a simpler era, where life can be lived on its own schedule.
And there’s no better time machine than a horse.
Which is why, 39 years after being bucked off and kicked by one, I find myself sitting atop another living, sighing, snorting, shitting, grass-and-leaf-chewing, 1,200-pound animal about to forge off into the unknown. Well, the unknown to me; Whiskey, my trusty (I hope) quarter horse, is well versed on where we’re going and what we intend to do.
“He is a pro,” says Stacey Paradine as we meander through a fenced field on private land deep in the Upper Squamish Valley. “All these horses literally helped build these trails so anything they may encounter on the trail, they’ve already seen it before.”
Paradine, who recently started Squamish River Horse Adventures with friend Vincent Pennarun (he’s taking up the rear of our four-horse pack train, atop a horse named Nero), has been riding as long as she can remember and guiding horse trips in the Sea to Sky Corridor for the past decade. My nervousness, she claims, is her favourite part of the job.
“I love the vulnerability and how people immediately feel humbled,” she says. “They realize pretty quick that this is not like riding a bike. We’ll take a big tough-acting guy, put him on a horse and his hands start shaking. Then we teach him how to work out a partnership with this 1,000-pound animal, and that partnership allows us to go explore the most beautiful places.”
Paradine first came to the Squamish Valley in 2016, and immediately connected with the landscape. “This valley is so sacred, wild, and beautiful,” she says. “it’s completely different from anything I’ve ridden before—even compared to Whistler and Pemberton. I saw these huge sandy beaches and immediately wanted to ride them. The freedom out here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
As we push through the edge of the forest and out onto one of those big sandy beaches, the mighty Squamish River comes into view. Born from snowmelt at the toe of the legendary (and massive) Pemberton Icecap, the Squamish is joined by the Elaho, Ashlu, Cheakamus and Mamquam rivers over the course of its 80-kilometre (50-mile) run to the headwaters of Howe Sound. The mountains on the western bank rise sharp and steep still holding lots of snow, and as our horses pause to drink the glacier-fed waters, I count no fewer than four separate waterfalls cascading down the far side of the valley.
‘The river is a lot higher than yesterday,” Stacey notices. “We’ll cross over to the sandbar up ahead.” She knows the terrain intimately, and it makes me realize how seeing the world from the back of a horse offers the opportunity to connect with the landscape without having to think about where to place your feet, or which way the trail turns. The mind is free to wander, to observe—and I find myself watching dragonflies mating on the tip of a cottonwood branch or noticing how the silty river water eddies around a massive, upturned cedar stump like time itself washing past the tree of life.
For generations, the Upper Squamish Valley held incredible value as a rich fishing and hunting area for the Indigenous Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (Squamish peoples). The river teemed with salmon runs and the shores, ridgelines, and forests were home to mountain goats, deer, moose, elk, grizzly and black bears, wolves, cougars, bobcats, beaver, mink, wolverine, ducks, grouse, and more. Even in the early 1900s, it wasn’t unusual to see more than 200 mountain goats in one area. In those early days, nearly of the hunting—and general travel—in the Squamish Valley was done by canoe.
In his book I Remember, Clarence “Hank” Tatlow writes about legendary Squamish Chief Jimmy Jimmy (Swahsh in the local language), the best canoe-man to ever ride the river. After an early snowstorm interrupted a trout fishing and hunting trip, Tatlow—who was given the name Ta Kaya (Lone Wolf)—recalls paddling 30 miles downriver in the pitch black night with Jimmy Jimmy and his wife.
“He said his wife had good ears,” Tatlow writes, “and warned me about keeping quiet and not to touch the canoe with my paddle as his wife wanted to catch every sound the river made. We took off and every few minutes she would shout and we would really dig the paddles in and we could hear the water roaring under a log jam as we went by.”
Jimmy Jimmy also used to transport colonial hunters and logging surveyors up the Squamish River, and there are records of horse logging in the valley as far back as the 1890s, with a pack trail following the riverbank all the way back to the farms of Brackendale and the port town of Newport.
These days, a paved road runs deep into the valley and the wildlife is less plentiful, but out amongst the timeless murmur of the river, a horse can follow paths on the riverbanks that have been used for more than a century. Whiskey is less concerned about all that and more interested in straying from the group to forage on the fresh leaves of early summer. “Whiskey was the first horse I ever bought,” says Pennarun, expertly maneuvering Nero up beside me. “He’d never been ridden—didn’t have gears or steering, nothing. But I worked with him and trained him to be who he is, now he’s our top horse.”
For Pennarun and Paradine, rescuing and rehabilitating horses is both a passion and a way to build their herd—seven of their 14 horses have been cast aside by previous owners. “A lot of people buy a horse impulsively,” Paradine explains. “It’s not a lawn ornament or an accessory. It’s a full-on lifestyle—you need land, proper tack, food and resources. You have to be devoted to that animal for the rest of its life, which can easily be 30 years.”
Paradine’s white gelding, Dusty, was considered a problem horse who was showing aggression and hadn’t been ridden in over seven years when Paradine adopted him. “He hated putting on a bridle so the first thing I did was swap in a bit-less bridle, then I went back to the basics and rode him consistently, worked on gaining his trust. No one wanted to go near him when I first met him, now he’s the sweetest guy. I’d put my grandma on him.”
The Squamish Valley has a number of horse rescue operations and both Paradine and Pennarun say that local culture inspires them. “The horse community in this area is incredible and really steps up,” Paradine says. “There are always horses that need to be rescued—a couple of auctions a month with hundreds of horses. The more horses that can be rescued and rehabilitated, the better.”
As the sun dips behind the mountains, our guides tie off the horses while the rest of us prepare a fire for smokies, laughs, and the timeless ritual of cowboy coffee. (Legitimately, real cowboys and ranchers will drink 15 cups of coffee after dinner and still fall asleep within minutes. The gift of an outdoor lifestyle, I suppose.) Time slips by as a sliver of moon follows a steep ridgeline towards the valley.
Then, after the embers have burned down and the first stars have poked through the deep blue fabric of dusk, we remount the horses and head for the barn. With no moon, headlamps, or light sources of any kind, our trust is 100 per cent with the horses. Perhaps they have far superior night vision or can navigate by sound and instinct like Jimmy Jimmy’s wife, or maybe they just know the way back to the barn, but the partnership Paradine mentioned just hours ago feels complete—I trust this animal like a friend.
“That connection only gets deeper,” explains Pennarun, as Nero takes the lead. “And I feel like it’s in all of us. One hundred and fifty years ago, our great grandparents rode horses, and so did theirs for generations before that—that’s all still in us. And then if you take that connection and layer it with good experience on top of good experience… once that trust develops just about everyone starts to fall in love.”
“The person that got on the horse is not the same one that gets off,” Paradine adds. “And it’s because of the horses, that’s the coolest part. It all comes from these beautiful animals.”
And so, riding blind and happy up a dry river channel in a valley carved by thousands of feet of glacial ice several millennia ago, I think about the spirit of the forest and the history of the horse. They’re both here, surrounding us with a connection unburdened by time and space. A bond that is coded into our human DNA but also continually subverted—beaten out of us by the noise and lists and throat-clutching ego of contemporary life. But that connection is why we search for these wild places and, I’m discovering, why we ride these animals… because they know the way to get us back home.
This story was probably the best work i did in 2021. And some of the most fun I had (with the coolest people). Check out the companion piece to this, a short history of the Cowboy Hat (and a making of Stace’s hat in this story).
Stacey cites her favourite pie as , “Apple! Or Pumpkin. Or Saskatoon berry. Or my gram makes a chocolate pie too and it’s so good with whipped cream on top.”