The Rescue of Belle and Sundance
AFTERMATH Continued #2
The backdrop to all this, and it may well have figured in MacKay's thinking (and fueled his anger at the public outcry), was a long history of kept horses starving in British Columbia. Certain outfitters simply abandon horses in the wilderness come fall ("standard business practice" was how Shawn Eccles of the SPCA put it); individual horse owners leave their horses in winter paddocks without adequate food and water (increasingly so in hard economic times); and on some First Nations reserves, where horses are often deemed common property, horses are sometimes left to fend for themselves all winter long. Such horses survive mild winters but many succumb during long or harsh winters. Even veterinarians have been caught up in charges of neglect and abuse of their own horses.
The SPCA is sometimes alerted in these cases, sometimes not. It has sometimes acted, sometimes not. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the animal rights agency alternately offends animal lovers by not being diligent enough and certain horse owners by engaging in what's seen as unjustified meddling.
It may be that Frank Mackay viewed himself not as the villain in this case but as the first rescuer of Belle and Sundance. The two horses had been bound for the slaughterhouse when he'd bought them for $300 from a veterinarian who raised standardbred horses. Mackay told Daniel Jacobs he'd invested some $30,000 in Belle and Sundance, a figure that presumably represented the cost of feed and board during the time he owned them.
On February 20, 2009, a ceremony and luncheon were held in Prince George to honour the rescue effort, with Premier Gordon Campbell and Deputy Premier Shirley Bond both present to hand out certificates. The premier and his deputy were in town on other business, but the local chamber of commerce and Bond's office used the occasion to recognize "the shovel brigade."
Though not keen on going to the ceremony, Marc and I feared it would reflect badly on McBride and the rescue group if only a few turned up, so we went. At first, we'd thought it would be fun to go on a trip with our fellow rescuers, as some of them we knew barely or not at all. Unfortunately, only a handful of them were able and willing to come. We didn't talk much about the rescue; however, we did share horse stories and sledding stories and enjoyed a lot of laughter.
The certificate from the federal government, with the insignia of the thirteen provinces and territories as well as that of the House of Commons all ringing the document, read:
In recognition of your heroic efforts to rescue two stranded horses from certain death in the Robson Valley. Your exceptional compassion for animals and determined actions won the admiration and gratitude of the entire nation.
The provincial certificate, topped by a sun rising over a rnoun-taintop ("British Columbia: The Best Place on Earth," it read below the drawing), stated:
The Province of British Columbia gratefully acknowledges the selfless contribution made by [name inserted] to the .... December 2008 Renshaw horse rescue. Your compassionate actions are an example of the spirit that truly makes British Columbia the Best Place on Earth.
Several of those who had either dug on the mountain or played behind-the-scenes roles were there: Dave Jeck, Ray Long, Rod Whelpton, Joey Rich, Marc and me. We all received certificates with our names on them.
There was one funny moment and, of course, Ray was at the centre of it. One by one, we were called up to the stage to be congratulated and handed our certificates. Ray was summoned last. Shirley Bond introduced Ray, whom she had met in McBride on another occasion. She shook his hand, and Ray gave Shirley a big hug. When Ray turned to shake the premiers hand, Gordon Campbell walked toward him and spread his arms, prepared for a hug. Ray, however, gave him a shove, grabbed his hand and shook it firmly, then slapped the premier in the chest.
"Oh, you northern boys are all the same," said the premier, laughing. The room broke up. Ray later explained his action this way: "I don't like being hugged in public." Not by men anyway.
That spring, I received a letter from the B.C. SPCA's Vancouver office. It read, in part, "Each May, the B.C. SPCA holds an award ceremony. .. . We honour individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to animal welfare in B.C. in the previous year. ... One of the major awards is an Award of Heroism, and this year the B.C. SPCA would like to present this award to the amazing people of McBride who rescued Belle and Sundance?"
Though none of us were able to attend the Vancouver event, we felt buoyed by yet another acknowledgment that our efforts had not gone unnoticed.
Shawn Eccles believed that the manner in which the people of the Robson Valley rallied to rescue two horses from a wintry mountaintop might have been unprecedented in the province and maybe in Canada. "Some communities rally," he told me. "But I've never seen a community come out like that." He called it "a fairy tale story. Two working animals abandoned at Christmastime. The heroes are the people of the community."
Kent Kokoska, one of the SPCA officials working out of Kam-loops who had come to see the rescue effort, said, "We were very pleased that such a huge undertaking had been accomplished in such a short time due to the compassionate efforts of the locals. It struck a deep chord with us. It is something we wont forget any time soon."
"If you own an animal," said Debbie Goodine of British Columbia's SPCA in Prince George, "and that animal is suffering, it's your responsibility to ensure that suffering is relieved." She called the rescue effort on Mount Renshaw "a miracle."
My instinct was to celebrate the rescue, to shout the news of it from the rooftops. Maybe it was the journalist in me who appreciated, for once, a good news story. Tim and Monika, however, found the hoopla over the rescue unseemly. "Why make a big deal out of ordinary human generosity? They did what they had to do and they would do it again. No more need be said."
Tim and Monika dropped around to our ranch one day in early summer in 2009, and we got talking about what motivated them to become involved in the horse rescue. For Tim, curiosity was an early factor—that and Monikas concern for those horses. We sat outside in the warm sun and remembered the cold and how McBride made front-page news far and wide.
"That was nice," he told me, "and it was nice to get the recognition, all of us working for the same purpose. But too much was made of it. I know two guys in town who volunteer for the local search and rescue team looking for lost skidooers. These guys are called out of bed twice a week. No one's writing them a letter of thanks."
Tim was somewhat surprised by the camaraderie that developed, even among strangers. He remembered several sledders who had spent $3,000 on a weekend getaway up on Mount Renshaw, but they stopped for several hours to help dig. Tim never got their names. What mattered is they helped, and the anonymity seemed right to him. It was how it should be, how it was when he was growing up near the Annapolis'Valley in Nova Scotia. "We were all a family," he said. "The village looked after the village."
"The rescue," Tim said in sum, "was a great experience. I was glad my son was involved. . . . You go along, day to day, and it's nice that when someone is in dire straits, people will pull together. Sometimes at work, someone will say, 'You're from McBride.' The horse Rescue is what we're known for now. But I wouldn't say McBride shines a little brighter because of it. This place shines bright anyway."
Monika echoed his thinking. "Being good should be part and parcel of our lives," she said. "As for recognition by the government, come on. Politicians are using this story to their advantage. Don't butter your bread with what other people do."
The story of Belle and Sundance had spread—through the Internet, through Facebook, through emails that skipped around the world. At the height of the rescue story, the sledders' forum got fifty thousand hits. The role of technology in this story taking off could not be overstated, but when all was said and done, it was local people who literally came to the rescue.
For some of the veteran horsemen in the Robson Valley, the case of Belle and Sundance offered lessons in what to do and what not to do when things go wrong in the mountains.
One afternoon while I was enjoying coffee with Reg and Krys Marek at their farm, Krys brought out several old photo albums of pictures of the two of them on horses in the backcountry. Reg was raised in Sundre, Alberta, where he worked as a scout in the oil field. "I love horses and the wild country," he said. He admired the book by Joe Back but added a cautionary note. "Books are a good way to learn. Experience is better."
What Frank Mackay should have done, said Reg, was to stop as soon as the horses were mired in the bog. He should have scouted the area, determined the breadth of the bog and looked for a way out. And if none seemed available, he should have turned back. Better still, he shouldn't have gone alone into territory he didn't know. Mackay had had a GPS device with him, but as Reg pointed out, "That tells you where you are but not how to get out or through muskeg. He should have hired a guide. He should have talked to the locals."
"The mountains will humble you," warned Reg. He described a trip he took with Krys to Jackpine Pass, southeast of Beaver Dam Pass, Frank Mackays destination. "Jackpine Pass is so beautiful," Reg enthused, "but it can also be a hellhole, with sleet and cold, a hell on earth." The photos of a trip they took to Beaver Dam Pass clearly show the strain on Krys's face.
Reg is a clear-eyed man who can forgive the owner of Belle and Sundance for getting lost. Reg believes Mackay never intended the result and never wished upon his horses the terrible suffering they endured. But what Reg cannot forgive is the man's attitude. "Frank Mackay dug his own grave. People would have helped him had he just asked. He has hurt himself more than the courts ever could."
A week after speaking with Reg and Krys, I sat in the bright dining room of Sara Olofsson and Matt Elliott in their house up on Mountainview Road, the same road that rescuers had so often used en route to the Renshaw some five months beforehand. Sara and Matt's place is ten minutes from a five-hundred-acre ranch on the valley floor, where Sara keeps her eight horses. At one time, she owned twenty horses in Kamloops, where she ran a riding school and a thoroughbred breeding and boarding facility. Now a real estate agent in McBride, she still rides.
Sara and I conducted a post-mortem of the rescue, tried to determine how and why it succeeded, and all the memories came flooding back. We laughed as much as we cried.
The view from Sara and Matts table is of cottonwood, birches, the mountains across the way and the valley below, and the water from their tap comes straight from a glacier further up the mountain. "When she mocked herself for giving Matt "the look" and shedding the tears that helped spur him to action, she was also displaying how comfortable she is in her own skin. A smart and attractive woman who looks much younger than her thirty-seven years, she habitually ran her hands through her streaked-blond hair as she searched for the words to describe her view of what happened on the mountain.
Looking me in the eye, Sara said, "Birgit, you started it." She meant the rolling of the rescue ball (though it has to be said that Glenn's SOS on the sledders' forum offered vital impulse). Sara believed that Matt was a huge factor in the rescue, too. "You called the right two people: a horse person and a sledder." On that December 15, the Robson Valley horse hotline had spread news of the horses' predicament from Ray Long to Reg Marek to Monika Brown to me, and from me to Sara Olofsson and Matt Elliott.
Sara had put the story out on Facebook and spread the word among friends and neighbours. We both expressed shock at how the story eventually found a worldwide audience—"I thought it would make the McBride paper!" she said as the two of us hooted. As for the owner of Belle and Sundance, Sara came at the question first lightheartedly, then more seriously. "I wouldn't do a manhunt with torches and pitchforks, but . . . this owner, this type of owner, he's been punished, and it puts a bit of fear of God into some people, and that's a good thing. Had the owner said, "I screwed up" . . . but no, he was arrogant. I'm sure he did not intend harm to come to those horses, but I don't feel he was a responsible owner or that he did everything possible. To say, 'I couldn't ask strangers.' The owner said the hay fell off the sled? Well, put it back on! Giving Gatorade to horses?" Sara just shook her head. "Had the horses been spotted even two weeks before they were, we could have walked them out. There was snow then, but it was manageable."
However, she would rather dwell on the positive.
Like a man in town, Norman Scales, who walks with a cane, handing out notices of the horse rescue operation to sledders in the Renshaw parking lot. Like Geri Wayslow at the deli sending up food—boxes of twenty or thirty sandwiches, with nuts, fruit and chocolate. Like the Vizza brothers sending up shovels. Like the diggers who were out of work and dug into their own pockets for truck fuel and sled fuel, money that came back to them when donors from all over the world wanted to help any way they could.
"Hollywood movies are manufactured to make us feel good. This rescue just happened. It was just a very special experience for me," Sara told me, her eyes (and mine) growing wet as she spoke. "To be a part of it. I hope it could be replicated everywhere. There's a reason it happened the way it did. "Without a doubt, my life was enriched by this experience."
TO BE CONTINUED