The Rescue of Belle and Sundance
Looking back, I marvel at all our good luck. The notoriously fickle mountain weather co-operated, offering a steady stream of cold, clear days. Had temperatures risen, the snow would have turned wet and heavy and the digging would have been that much harder on our backs and shoulders. Although the cold was a burden on both the horses and the humans up on that mountain, as each phase of the trench was completed, the deep freeze hardened the track. And though I wish we had arrived sooner, we were fortunate that the horses had survived the frigid temperatures long enough for us to discover them.
The one-kilometre-long trench allowed access for Belle and Sundance, but it might also have created a passageway for predators. Yet no predators found them. No snow fell during the eight-day rescue operation, nor during the night, and we were spared those fierce mountaintop winds that might have filled in our trench in minutes. Some days, wind rocked the valley floor but not the mountaintop. Two days after the rescue was complete, both snow and wind returned and blithely swallowed up our trench.
The early days of the rescue were a muddle, with the right hand sometimes not knowing what the left was doing. But it all worked out; the little tensions, the politics and cliques that can divide a group and lead to argument all were quickly dealt with before they could amount to anything. The abiding sentiment was this: what's best for the horses? Horses in a herd have to sort themselves out, and looking back, I can see that everyone involved in the rescue effort did the same. In fact, I was amazed at how people managed to put their differences aside. How virtual strangers formed an alliance. In a way, it was a blessing that we needed eight days to dig that trench and walk the horses out. Belle and Sundance were given time to begin gaining back the weight they had lost, to recover some of their strength, to get warm again thanks to blankets and hay. And the people working toward their rescue had the opportunity to bond.
One striking thing about this story is that it brought together three parties—-those who love animals, those who love machines and those who love both. The horse lovers had their pipelines: the telephone and email. The sledders had theirs: the Internet forum and Glenn Daykins shop. Over coffee, at Spin Drifts long black counter, information (and misinformation) about the lost horses would be shared then spread around McBride and up and down the Robson Valley.
"People think sledders are rednecks," says Barry Walline. "I get it all the time. A lot of people don't like snowmobilers. But the sledding community did step up. "What they did made the snowmobile community look good. More respectable than they're commonly perceived. They made McBride look good."
I learned from this experience that great things can be accomplished by people working together. It's the best thing about small communities. A little band can more easily form a common front than a bigger bunch can. What compelled us to act in the way that we did? I have to wonder if it was in part because the horses had been abandoned right in our backyard. Those who helped were not being asked to solve the worldwide problem of mistreatment of animals. They were being asked to respond to two horses, horses with unknown names and an unknown history who were slowly dying of cold and hunger almost literally within view of the town. Some of us simply could not avert our eyes. Or, as Marc and others put it, they were put there by humans, so humans had to get them out. Luella had an interesting thought, which she offered one day at her place over tea: "The rescue took place near Christmas. Our sympathy grows at that time of year. People think, Lets make rescuing these horses into a joyful event."
Ray agreed. "This wasn't about the value of horses. You might get $75 for them at the meat plant. The rescue proved to the owner that the horses could be rescued." This was a recurring theme among valley folk. That someone had left the horses on the mountain seemed to imply that getting them off was impossible. For locals, this was a challenge—a gaundet had been thrown down, and the Robson Valley responded. When it later became clear around McBride that the owner of those horses had expressed doubt that anyone here would help him retrieve his animals, it was viewed as an insult.
Sitting in his kitchen one morning in the summer of 2009, I asked Ray what lesson he took from the entire episode. With a wry smile oh his face, he paused, as a comic will pause before delivering a punch line, then said, "Don't let lawyers have animals."
My experience on Mount Renshaw reminded me that kindness is contagious. As Geri Wayslow put it, "One unselfish act creates another." Close to sixty people in my community—-from the Robson Valley, from Valemount, McBride and Dunster—either shovelled on the mountain or otherwise contributed to the rescue, and many more wrote emails offering their ideas for getting the horses down or encouragement to those who played an active role. Some days, only a few people dug on the mountain or tended to the horses. The stalwarts—-Dave Jeck, Stuart MacMaster, Matt Elliott—spent six days on the mountain and worked extremely hard. Collectively, the people who made the trek from their homes up the mountain travelled 3,516 kilometres in those eight days.
Trudy Frisk, the author of an online column on a popular Canadian website called cowboylife.com, wrote eloquendy about the rescue in a piece she called "It Takes a Valley." Writing in January of 2009, she remarked on the lets-just-get-it-done attitude that governed what happened on the mountain:
....they hadn't formed a committee, drafted a mission statement, applied for a government grant and ensured that the shovelling groups were gender balanced. They just voluntarily went out in the cold and dark, spending time and money to rescue two strange horses, horses which didn't belong to them or to anybody they knew. Those who couldn't actively dig supported the rescue in many other ways; the entire valley was involved.
That's what seemed to touch a chord—that a community of people coalesced. Dozens of letters came to us marvelling at that fact, so one had to presume that such co-operation was all too rare. Here, for example, is an excerpt of a letter that came from Kassie Nixon, a fifth-grade teacher in a California town just north of San Francisco:
I was just talking to my students before our school break about thinking about the true meaning of the winter holidays. We discussed that it used to be bringing light to the darkness of the cold world, but now it seems so wrapped up in consumerism. When I saw the story this morning about some incredibly dedicated and selfless human beings saving these abandoned horses, I knew that I had a really great story to share with them next week, a story that really illustrates what we lamented not seeing much of... I just wanted to say thank you for your selfless 'act and for warming my heart this season. In a classroom fa. California, your story will be teaching some lovely kids that people do step up to the plate and do what's right, even if it costs them a Christmas! I hope that you will share our thanks with all of those that helped. You are our heroes!
I was astonished to get letters and emails from all over the world. The words used captured some of the feelings expressed by correspondents. Incredible. Amazing. Uplifting. Miraculous. Heroic. Heartwarming. More than thirty came to me, and thirty more came to the village of McBride. One elderly man in Alberta sent me a poem he wrote about the rescue, along with a cookbook. Lester received a letter from Germany. Some of these correspondents have continued to write, and we've become friends.
There was such a huge sense of relief at the end of the rescue, and this I will never forget. I felt better about my community, about my fellow humans across the country and oceans away, about myself. We need to be reminded now and again that when help is desperately needed, sometimes help comes, in the most amazing and even miraculous ways.
WOW INDEED WHAT A STORY. JUST GOOD TO SEE THAT TWO HORSES WERE NOT JUST TAKEN FOR GRANTED, LOOKED UPON AS "WELL THEY'RE JUST TWO HORSES, SO WHAT, MANY MORE FROM WHERE THEY CAME FROM....LET NATURE TAKE ITS COURSE."
HORSES LIKE ALL GOD'S CREATED ANIMALS NEED TO BE RESPECTED, HONORED, LOVED. HORSES HAVE SERVED MAN MORE THAN ANY OTHER ANIMAL THROUGHOUT HISTORY. THE CREATOR MADE THEM FOR US.
FRANKLY, NO HORSE SHOULD BE SOLD FOR MEAT. THEY SURE WILL NOT BE IN THE AGE TO COME. BESIDES PEOPLE WILL NOT BE EATING HORSE MEAT THEN.... IT IS UN-CLEAN IN GOD'S FOOD AND HEALTH LAWS.
LOVE AND RESPECT EVERY HORSE AND PONY, THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.