Deep in the depths of winter, on our visit, it’s all quiet. The barn and horse corrals, empty. The bunkhouse, the cookhouse, similarly so. Everything’s in place, ready for use, but there’s no one around. The silence, the stillness is palpable. Soon on however, with the coming of warmer weather the place will spring to life. It’ll transform into cowboy central, a seasonal base of operations for wranglers who ride the rolling hills of Kananaskis tending free range cattle.
Take an intimate peek inside the place they call home for a time each spring, summer and fall. This jumble of rustic buildings, host to countless generations of range riders and cowpokes, a setting right out of the old west. This is the Stock Association camp, at a meadow in picturesque little valley, here, where the plains transition to the foothills west of Turner Valley.
The association, a group of local ranchers forming a grazing cooperative of sorts, dates back near a century. It’s here, a few years after founding, at this very spot, they established a camp. Every spring, they bring in cattle who are set free to roam the hills at will, getting happy and healthy on the fine grasses that grow in abundance here. Then in fall they round them back up to winter at the various ranches they otherwise call home. And this bunkhouse, cookhouse and corrals are in support of that yearly event.
This cycle repeats time and again as it’s done countless times before.
Fast forward to the 1970s, Kananaskis Country, a vast tract of land in the front ranges, becomes mainly a recreation area (some logging and such was allowed to continue). Old grazing leases were grandfathered in however, and so to this day cows are still a common fixture in certain places within its boundaries. One can be hiking, mountain biking, equestrian riding or even driving the roads in and out of the area, and can fully expect to encounter these animals. It’s the norm, always been there, so no one even really pays it much mind. Dodging fresh patties, and coming face to face with a herd from time to time is just the way it is.
The camp has a place for the horses – there’s still room for them in the modern world and they come in real handy for riding the range or rounding up cattle. The barn dates back to the 1940s and while leaning a bit and propped up with posts on one side, looks pretty solid otherwise. Even if a bit beaten by time and weather.
Forest surrounds the property. Low rolling hills extend off in every direction. This is a transitional point of sorts where the plains and the Rockies meet. Tall peaks can be seen far off in the west.
A small creek runs through the property. Down there, near it, there’s a good sized bunkhouse. This building is from the 1940s and seems right out of a western movie, if not for the modern siding.
There’s a big stove in the centre of the structure, bunks flanking both long walls. A table for socializing, all kinds of messages and cattle brands scrawled into it’s worn top, occupies a corner. A dog-eared deck of cards is at the ready. Coffee cups, not a single one alike (thrift store finds?) hang on the wall. There’s a big enamelled coffee pot with which to fill them.
A stock of liquor helps one cope with those long lonely nights. Expecting to see Jack, but instead it’s rum and what’s this, a fine scotch? Who’d have guessed…and here I thought cowboys were weaned on Old #7 Tennessee Bourbon Whisky (or is that whiskey…who cares). Or maybe Fireball Cinnamon, that sickly sweet stuff found in many boot flasks, thick and gooey enough so to pass as pancake syrup.
Resist the urge to have a belt.
Insulation in the bunkhouse seems minimal, windows are single pane – imagine it gets good and cold here on fall round ups. Bunks look right out Cool Hand Luke. Mattresses are paper thin. A couple bare bulbs lite the place. I understand these are a “modern” addition. Before, it was oil lamps. A starburst clock hangs on the wall…pretty sure my mom had the same one.
There’s a motley mix of chairs with which to lounge, each unique and different. Most are straight out of a 1968 Eaton’s Catalogue or perhaps were picked up at a Brady Family garage sale. Who doesn’t like bright green velour? Styling cues…there is none. What’s this Ikea place? There is however, a giant wagon load of character here. Feels a bit like a time capsule too.
The cookhouse is next door. This building was hauled in from a nearby town back in the 1970s, but nothing else is known of it. Inside is a motley mix of old retro fridges and stoves, many stoves, some gas fired, some wood fired. The cupboards are plain and simple and are filled with all manner of mismatched flat wear. There’s a theme here, for sure. Take away the few modern touches and this place could be right out of the old west or some period movie. As expected, there’s an enameled wash basin. We somehow knew we’d find one.
Walking in one can almost smell the bacon and eggs cooking. No it’s cowboy coffee wafting up. Imagine it, deep and dark, looking like 10w30 after it’s been drained from an old pickup truck. And it’s strong…espresso being seen a light roast. It’s made old school in a percolator…seven to ten good-sized scoops, so about fifty/fifty water to grounds, making a pot, minimum, and served Chernobyl hot. If you can invert the cup and nothing runs out, it’s good cowboy coffee. If you get burns requiring hospitalization just holding the cup, it’s good cowboy coffee.
Back to the smells…dinner! There’s a big thick steak sizzling over a wood fire, some beans and bannock the accompaniments. The smell of a million dinners made permeates the walls. These hard working guys need fuel, lots of it, so meals were and are always huge. Pass the HP!
A call-to-dinner triangle hangs out front. And I thought this was a cowboy movie cliche! We rang it and and while I’m pretty sure they heard us back in Calgary, no hungry cowboys came running. They’re still at home on their respective farms and ranches.
A couple of storage sheds round out the inventory of buildings found here.
At the edge for the property, an old cabin is near falling down, which we suspect is older than anything else seen this day. Mention is made in records of other buildings that were here, predating anything seen now, but little is known about them.
A few months after our visit, so about now, the time this article is published, the Stock Association camp will come to life. And it’ll remain in use, sometimes intermittently over the season, till the cows are once again rounded up and sent packing home. Come winter it’ll again be quiet. Then it all repeats next year. As I’m sure it will for many years to come.
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Since the theme is cowboy-ish..
Brokeback Mountain then and now – Brokeback Meadows.
Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge – then and now.
Traditional First Nation’s Bannock.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: February, 2017.
Location: Kananaskis, AB.
Article references (and thanks): The Stock Association, Gillean Daffern, Book: In the Light of the Flares – History of Turner Valley Oilfields.
BIGDoer.com visited this site with permission.