Standing amid elegant log structures, we gaze eastward over green pasturelands rolling toward the Marble Mountains. To the west, wooded hills border a grassy valley that goes on forever. Echo Valley Ranch offers us an extraordinary spot to unwind, commune with nature and sample cowboy life for a few days.
Tonja greets us at Dove Lodge, the social centre. She suggests activities, provides a trail map and escorts us along a boardwalk through the corral. Curious horses amble over, sniffing, nudging and apparently sizing us up. Stroking their velvety noses, we whisper promises to become better acquainted.
Our cozy accommodations at Lookout Lodge prove spectacular! An inlaid, multi-hued wood mural depicts stylized aboriginal birds on the northern wall. Inside, paintings and carvings abound. Our room’s picture window frames the majestic landscape itself. Tonja grins, “You’ve got our best ‘country view!’ Other guests get ‘city views’ overlooking our log community!”
Naturally inspired, we try out one of many forested trails looping through this extensive property. Boisterous black and white ranch dogs materialize out of nowhere and accompany us into the woods. These exuberant border collies merrily romp, chase each other and gently herd us around the meandering 2.6-kilometre route.
Awaiting dinner, guests and hands alike assemble at Dove Lodge. The lounge overflows with artwork and photo displays of those beloved border collies. A clanging bell calls us into the dining room past an elaborate open kitchen where Master Chef Kim prepares all our gourmet meals. Seated around large tables, platters of succulent baked salmon, organic vegetables from ranch gardens and trays of fresh-picked raspberries are passed family style.
Owners Nan and Norm welcome newcomers to Echo Valley Ranch and recount their history, “We found this 160-acre ranchland in the 1980s and built our home here as a place where friends and family could gather, and soon it developed into this guest ranch you see today!”
Lively conversation and laughter fills the room. An English couple extols their exciting trail rides in the wilderness and upcoming fly-fishing lessons at the stocked trout ponds. A Kamloops twosome blurts, “We’re here to decompress!” Our first wondrous day concludes with a slow, romantic walk through the starry quietude to our lodge, shepherded again by tail-wagging collies.
Awakening daily to swirling pink and yellow sunrises, we watch horses canter and wheel joyously in distant pastures. Breathing in the fresh, crisp air, we walk along the pathway to Baan Thai and report for morning exercise classes. Sitting on floor mats alongside other early risers, we learn an ages-old Thai form of yoga, stretching our muscles from head to toe with 15 easy-to-learn poses - and whetting our appetites for the hearty breakfast buffets!
At our first breakfast, Norm explains how Nan recruited fellow countrymen as resident spa therapists. In the Sabai Sabai Suite, they offer traditional Thai wellness therapies embodying the harmony of mind, body and spirit. Thai architect Dr. Pinyo Suwankari designed this surprising log Thai house and pavilion. Later climbing stairs to its courtyard, we peek into the luxurious penthouse, admiring teak furniture and fine artwork from Thailand.
Energized and refuelled, we embark on a longer hike. As doggie pals collect, five race up ahead in anticipation, two remain as escorts. All instinctively crouch, keenly observing our every movement before dashing onward. Tossing small branches ahead, these collies eagerly retrieve, dropping the sticks nearby, begging for another toss. They abandon this sport only when another game commands their attention; then, in a barking frenzy they’re off to tree some squirrels!
In the barn that afternoon, we choose cowboy boots and hats for a sunny trail ride. Head wrangler Flint introduces us to our horses: Ernie and Shadow. Flint advises us greenhorns, “If you pull yourself onto your horse using the horn, it’ll flip your saddle!” Successfully mounted, he adjusts our stirrup lengths and shows us how to position our boots and correctly hold the reins.
Ernie and Shadow eagerly respond to knee pressure, lining-up behind our leader Julie. Our leisurely clip-clopping parade proceeds into the jack pine forest. Thrilled to be sitting so high up, enjoying heightened perspectives, we rock gently in our saddles and feel like old hands within minutes! When our mounts snatch mouthfuls of blue-flowered alfalfa, we confidently pull up on the reins and urge them forward.
Julie leads us under a dappled canopy of evergreens. Hearing only rustling branches and birdie chirps, we breathe in pine-scented air and wind peacefully onward. Pausing in sunlit clearings, she tells us about ranch chores, her rodeo days as a barrel rider and encounters with wildlife, including black bears. Looking over a spectacular bluff, Flint tells us more about the laid-back Cariboo lifestyle.
Merging from the narrow trail and onto a gravel roadway, our horses sense their jobs are almost done and pick up the pace; briskly trotting toward the distant barn. After two hours, we stiffly dismount. Though a little bowlegged, we can’t help proudly swaggering after accomplishing this exhilarating venture.
Some of our new cowpoke friends mosey over to the Cariboo Spa complex for spa treatments, rewarding themselves with western rather than eastern pampering; others work out in the fitness centre. We loosen up in the sauna, soak in the hot tub and frolic in the indoor heated pool.
An authentic Thai dinner presents heaping platters of sumptuously spiced dishes, glass noodles, sautéed vegetables and seafood. Traditional dances typically entertain guests on such evenings, another experience enhancing the ranch’s unique West Meets East theme.
Our next day’s exploration follows a rutted dirt road to the uppermost pastures. Here we achieve splendid panoramas of this sprawling ranch and its Black Angus herds. Our return route passes through thick reeds above the four fishponds. Clambering over a rail fence, we hop down into a huge pasture where retired horses graze with two donkey friends. Through a gate and over a grassy knoll, we return to our lodge past coops of clucking hens and pet turkeys whose “gobble-gobbles” echo across the valley.
Back on the sundeck at Lookout Lodge, we sip coffees under the bluest of skies, speculating on the derelict cabin nearby. Over a century ago, cattlemen settled this idyllic spot among the high ranchlands west of Clinton. They followed early prospectors who’d trekked through the Fraser Canyon during the Cariboo gold rush. Our own 435-kilometre road trip from Vancouver retraced the famed Cariboo Trail forged by gold seekers. Stopping along the way, storyboards and a heritage bridge at Alexandra Provincial Park helped us envision the 1861 wagon road first spanning the mighty Fraser River.
The big event, a western cookout, ends the day. After detouring to check out a pet piggy pair sheltered near the honeymoon cabin, we arrive at the barbecue area. There, Chef Kim tells how he was once executive chef in five star hotels, and the King of Norway’s kitchen! After one season here, he just never left!
Having savoured chef’s grilled chicken, steak, lamb chops and yummy accoutrements, we sit around a crackling fire on rustic teak benches. Keeping toasty, we trade tall tales as the sun slowly sinks behind the mountains, cloaking the Cariboo in darkness.
Too soon, we bid farewell, and return to our city lives refreshed and rejuvenated.
When You Go:
JULY 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND