Travel Story 

Branded in Heaven

My husband, Don, sat tentatively astride the bay mare, the saddle creaking as he settled his posture. He was missing the security of mother earth. "So," he asked, nodding towards the horse's laid back ears "what's her name?"

Slim, the Barn Boss, didn't miss a beat.

"Earthquake," he quipped, stealing a large wink in my direction.

Immediately, I could see my husband's aspirations "to cowboy" dissolve; he gripped the reins, squeezed himself into the saddle even further, and loosened the bandana around his neck. But before he could protest, we were off towards the open range.

This was the first time he had ever been on a horse – her real name was Lazy Gal – and even though it took some cajoling to get him into the idea, our stay at Big Bar Ranch turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

Like many of the farmlands, homesteads and cattle ranches in the Cariboo, Big Bar is set well away from the highway so that getting there is half the fun – winding through the mountains on well-groomed, dirt-track roads where cattle, Big Horn Sheep and the odd coyote, have right of way. Located near Big Bar Lake amidst the farmlands of OK Ranch, Big Bar is a heavenly spot – real cowboy country where you can roam the range in any direction for as far as the eye can see.

The welcome at Big Bar is instantaneous, first by a pack of tail-wagging collies, Booboo, Ben and C.C. (named after his love of Coors and Canadian beer) with Jessie James, an amiable golden retriever, bringing up the rear. Horses raise their heads from well stocked hay bins to acknowledge your arrival and you'll probably see a couple of barn cats skittering between horses hooves, testing their quota of lives to the max.

As one of the few guest ranches that is open year round, Big Bar Ranch serves up this welcome come rain or shine.

In summer, you can hike, canoe, and hope for the Mother Lode, gold panning the Fraser River. In winter they offer ice skating, sleigh rides, sledding, snowmobiling and skiing. And year round, there is riding on gentle horses that come as miniatures (reserved for petting) to much larger appaloosas, chestnuts and greys. Of course, for die-hard wannabe cowboys, Big Bar will organize overnight field trips and even a little cattle carousing – the real McCoy – that'll have you covered in caked-on dust from the brim of your Stetson to the tip of your spurs.

We opted for a two-hour ride into the hills that were splashed with brilliant shades of yellow, orange, crimson, gold and brown. A fall breeze quivered through the lakeside grasses and, as the sun cut swathes of shadow into the mountains, we watched cattle being coaxed from their high summer pastures in preparation for their drive down to winter fields nearer the Fraser River. It was a perfect introduction for neophyte slickers – just enough time to get used to one's buttocks jostling against leather alongside the faint satisfaction that I, at least, was using muscles I had actually thought were cellulite. And when we returned to the corral, I noticed that even my tenderfoot husband was sauntering towards our room with the confidence of a John Wayne swagger.

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