Story by Adrian Brijbassi
TURNER VALLEY, ALBERTA — Dewy Matthews grins when I ask what inspires people to come visit his ranch, a gorgeous swath of land that dips and dawdles like a rhyme along the foothills of the Alberta Rocky Mountains.
“Every year, they go to the Calgary Stampede and then a bunch of ’em come down here ’cause they want to play cowboy,” Matthews says and raps his wooden kitchen table to beat home the point.
Matthews has been operating the Anchor D Ranch for 30 years, wrangling horses, teaching others to do it, and leading city slickers into the mountains of the great continental divide to show them what cowboys have known for decades: Ain’t no office in the world can compete with land like this for a way to spend your day.
Alberta’s Kananaskis Country has broken men as much as men have broken horses. Its jaw-dropping beauty can stupefy any onlooker and put adventurers into a lull, leaving them ill-prepared for the difficult terrain, much of which is still unexplored. But Matthews knows the area as well as anyone. He owns a portion of it that isn’t small, either. His ranch is on the 600 acres of territory he purchased decades ago.
“There are places we go that no one else even knows about,” says Matthews, who is as cowboy as they get. He wears a mountain hat like the kind Pharrell Williams has made famous, except Matthews doesn’t do it for fashion sensibilities. It’s a practical garment for his job. “When we get up there, people begin to forget who they are and what they do for work. The land grounds you, makes you think about what is really important in life.”
I didn’t go on a backpack trip with Matthews because of lack of time, but I did take a brief horseback ride with him around his ranch. If you’ve been on a horseback tour and been less than impressed by the experience because the horse you were on wasn’t as obedient as you were led to believe, the Anchor D will give you a new appreciation for the activity. Matthews takes pride in training his horses to lower the riders’ anxiety level, not raise their fear. Though it was short, my ride at the Anchor D was by far the best horseback experience I’ve ever had and the only one I would recommend.
Not only was the ride nearly effortless, it led to a view of the Rocky Mountains that may just convince you to quit whatever occupies your time and join up for a turn as one of Matthews’ ranch hands. The Anchor D employs a team of mostly young, hearty workers who wake at dawn and continue til dusk, plying the land, breaking in horses, and leading tour groups. Some are exchange students who have come as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
Where to Cowboy Up in Alberta
When you visit the ranch, you will have the chance to immerse yourself in the cowboy life. The Anchor D has accommodations on the property that are suitable for families — and animal lovers, as there is a coterie of animals, including several dogs, who call the ranch home.
Fittingly, to reach the Anchor D you need to ride along Alberta’s Cowboy Trail — the nickname for a section of Highway 22. About an hour south of Calgary, the Cowboy Trail — named one of the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2015 — shuttles you to the towns of Turner Valley, Millarville, Longview and Black Diamond. It’s a region that is rustic, authentic and largely unvisited by people outside of southern Alberta, even though there is plenty to do. The surprisingly upscale finds you’ll encounter include the new artisan distillery, Eau Claire, in Turner Valley, the art shops in Black Diamond and the celebrated Longview Steakhouse.
The Eau Claire Distillery is in a 1929-era building that was formerly a movie theatre. The new owners, who have experience operating Big Rock Brewery, have focused on what they call “farm-to-glass” spirit-making. They make vodka using local barley and the mineral-rich water that originates in the glaciers of the Rockies. They will have a special edition rye whiskey in three years and are also retailing gin out of the renovated facility in Turner Valley. Some of the grains for their product are planted on a Parks Canada National Historic Site that is 35 kilometres (21 miles) down the road in Longview.
The Bar U Ranch is a preserved attraction that is on the grounds of what was one of the earliest and most successful commercial ranching operations in the country. It features heritage buildings, re-enactors in period dress and many glimpses into an unrecognized aspect of Canada’s past, namely the economic and social importance of ranching in the west. Coming to Bar U will help deepen your understanding of the significance of what occurred here in the 19th century and why politicians in Ottawa would be eager to run a railway to the mountains and beyond.
On the Cowboy Trail, you will also notice the signs of where Alberta’s other engine of economic might started. Historic oil derricks continue to churn and squeak as they pump out black gold from beneath the earth. The Alberta oil and gas industry can trace its roots here, to Turner Valley, where crude was discovered in 1914. What will next make money for this part of Alberta is unknown, but once you visit you may be convinced that tourism is an industry that could have a ceiling as high as one of the peaks overlooking these foothills. That’s because the Cowboy Trail and the experience it offers just may lasso you into coming back more than once.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE COWBOY TRAIL
Getting There: From Calgary, access Alberta Highway 22 southbound from the Spruce Meadows Trail. Follow Cowboy Trail markers and signs toward Millarville, Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Longview. (See map below)
Anchor D Outfitting: Horseback rides start at $69 per person for a two-hour tour. The four-day “Adventurer” tour that leads into the Rocky Mountains costs $1,199 per person. Lodging: The ranch has cabins whose nightly rate starts at $175. The cabins sleep four comfortably. Website: anchord.com. Telephone: 1-877-933-2867 (toll free) or 1-403-933-2867.
Where to Eat: The Chuckwagon Cafe is famed in southern Alberta for its heaping portions and award-winning burger. The cafe has ties to Calgary’s Galaxie Diner, a locals’ favourite for brunch. I found the Chuckwagon cute but surprisingly overpriced and while the burger is good, it’s not as incredible as the fare you’ll find at Calgary’s better restaurants like Model Milk and Charcut. I wouldn’t make the trip to Turner Valley just to dine at the Chuckwagon. However, I might do so to enjoy the ice cream beverages and atmosphere at Marv’s Classic Soda Shop, an authentic throwback to a time when the town diner was the place to spend your hours. The shop serves the Marvello, a treat it calls carbonated ice cream, and delicious ice cream sodas that will make you think you’re in a scene from “Back to the Future.” I didn’t get into the Longview Steakhouse, but I heard enough great things about this revered spot that it’s on my list to visit this year.
Cowboy Trail Maps and More: Visit Travel Alberta’s website for details on planning your trip.