The newspapers have been awfully depressing recently, filled with forecasts of economic disaster, reports of epidemics (cholera in Zimbabwe and ebola in the Congo), and casualty statistics from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. With millions of people going hungry worldwide on top of that, it's sometimes hard not to listen for the echo of hoof-beats heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Once in a while however, you catch the a glimpse of light in the dark that helps keep despair at bay.
The village of McBride, on the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), hasn't had much to celebrate this last little while. Up in the mountainous interior of BC they depend on the forestry industry for survival, and they've suffered with the downturns its experienced in recent years. Mill closings and job losses have left them in rough shape, and I'm sure a lot of the town folk are struggling to make ends meet and were wondering what kind of Christmas they'd be having this year. Whatever they had been thinking, I don't think any of them quite imagined the way Christmas would turn out this year, but I doubt any of them will be forgetting it too soon either.
A week before Christmas, Logan Jeck went up Mount Renshaw in northeastern BC to retrieve a couple of snowmobiles some tourists had abandoned and what he discovered was enough to break your heart. Two horses, believed to have been there since September, were clinging to life, and the mountainside, in a tiny, snowed-in space. Jeck's family owns horses, and the next day his father sent his sister Toni back up the mountain with a bale of hay, a .44 magnum, and instructions to put them down if they were in too much distress or feed them if they looked like they had a chance at survival. She fed them.
Then the people of McBride got down to the business of trying to figure out how to get two half-dead horses down off the mountain. The first order of business was to ensure that they were strong enough to make the journey. When the animals were first discovered they had lost a third to a half their body weight, one of them was covered in sores and missing patches of hair, and urine had encrusted what remained of their tails. The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sent a vet in to check the animals out a few days after they were found. On a scale where zero is death and six is ideal, their health was rated a two.
When word began to spread through the Robson Valley where McBride is located, volunteers and donations started to pour in. Blankets and hay were hauled up to feed the two horses and keep them warm, and snow was melted over open fires to provide water. Money to cover the costs of fuel and anything else required was coming in from as far away as Vancouver on the West Coast and Edmonton in central Alberta. However it was still going to be up to the people of McBride to bring the two lost souls safely home.
They considered various options: hoist them out with a helicopter, pull them out on sleds, or even seeing if they could put them on horse snowshoes so they could walk out. Horses, like deer, can't walk on powder snow — their hooves just break through the crust. With the snow on the mountain piled in drifts higher than most people, there was no way they could walk out in the current conditions even with help. Not only would they quickly flounder, the chances of them breaking a leg while trying to plough through the snow in their weakened condition would be incredibly high. What it came down to was digging a corridor through the snow, with shovels, up the mountain down which the horses could be led safely.
For a week the people of McBride BC shoveled and dug a kilometre-long passageway up the side of Mount Renshaw. Braving temperatures as low as -40C they cut an avenue through drifts that towered over their heads. On Tuesday, December 23 the two horses and their rescuers walked seven hours down to safety. Sundance and Belle have been placed in foster care by the SPCA, and are expected to make a full recovery. When you think of the conditions that people worked under, there were more than a few cases of frostbite reported among those doing the shoveling, and everything else that the townspeople have to worry about, it's hard not to agree with special constable of the BC SPCA Jamie Wiltse's assessment of them as heroes.
"They've been struggling lately," he said, "but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses. It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, it was totally selfless." Yet to hear the people of McBride talk you wouldn't think they had done anything out of the ordinary. "They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out," said horse trainer Birgit Stutz, one of those who took care of the pair on the mountainside while the escape route was being dug. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."
Ownership of the horses has been traced to a lawyer in Edmonton who says that the horses were carrying supplies for some hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He claims to have returned three times to try and retrieve the animals, getting stuck in the snow twice before he even located them, and then was unable to get them out of the snow. Constable Wiltse is investigating whether or not charges can be laid against the lawyer under provincial animal cruelty laws. He says the owner had a duty to at least alert the authorities as to the animals' plight. Instead he left them on the side of a mountain and winter setting in with little or no chance of survival.
Thankfully the people of McBride British Columbia weren't going to let that happen if they could help it, and they turned what could have been a tragedy into a story of hope and compassion. A Mrs. Stulz said when commenting on the fact that she hadn't been able to buy presents or a tree this year because she'd been up the mountain, "This is the best Christmas ever, you realize these are the most important things in life – to help something that needs help."
When you read about a story like this, and you hear someone saying that, especially someone who has just done what Mrs. Stulz and her neighbours have done, you feel a little better about the world. They might not have been able to stop people from killing each other in the Middle East, or catching disease in Africa, but they did remind us what it means to care more about somebody else than yourself. If that's not a message of hope I don't know what is.