photography by Cooper & O’Hara
What do you wear when you’re being tracked through the woods? If you ask Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, it might be a high-tech jacket with the ability to retain body heat. Joel Martens, an Alberta cowboy and operator of Red Deer’s Heritage Ranch, would suggest head-to-toe camouflage.
But if you ask me: It’s a dark water-repellent vest, comfortable pants and running shoes that you bought so recently, you didn’t have time to replace the fluorescent pink laces. At least that’s what I wear the day that Martens chases my husband Jeff and me through 150 acres of land that’s just on the outskirts of Red Deer. We are participants in a game that the ranch has been hosting for the last three years, where groups try to evade Martens and his horse, Hummer.
The rain is coming down in sheets as we drive past a cul-de-sac that borders the City-owned parkland that makes up Heritage Ranch – residents on the edge of Red Deer can walk to the park and quickly be immersed in a forest that’s home to a wide variety of species, from moose to squirrels.
The animals might flee when they see the many dog walkers and hikers who come across the paths. But these creatures should rest easy; they’re not the ones being hunted. Today, it’s me. And it’s Jeff, who reaches in the back of the car and grabs his bright yellow poncho – no camouflage in our closets – as an antidote to the rain. Just as he’s about to pull the luminescent material over his head, the clouds part and the rain stops. The odds are forever – or, at least, at this very moment – in our favour.
We walk up the wooden steps between the restaurant and the stables, located towards the start of the property, and are greeted by Martens. He’s the picture of the stereotypical cowboy – dressed in a tan hat, a denim jacket and a smirk that widens into a smile.
“You ready to be chased?” he asks, his eyes glinting as they focus on my footwear.
We are as ready as two city people fresh from a Tim Hortons can be. We finish our caffeinated beverages – there’s nothing like a little jittery paranoia to start off a race – and we climb into the truck that will take us into the middle of an area bordered by a lake on one side, the restaurant on another. We have a cryptic map to guide us to four different spots where we’ll have to find flags tied to trees. If we find the four flags within two hours, we win; but, at any point, Martens can crash through the trees on horseback, upending our plans.
Heritage Ranch offers the game for pairs, sometimes hosting large events with multiple groups being chased. It’s like a twist on Mantracker, the Canadian television show that aired from 2006 to 2012. While the details of the game are quite different from the show, the idea of being tracked by a cowboy remains. And Martens even has a connection to the show – when the producers of Mantracker started looking for a replacement after long-time tracker Terry Grant left, Martens applied, making it to the top 12 of about 300 applicants.
Now, he sees the game as just a side project to the restaurant and the many other activities on the ranch. But it’s a side project that allows him to enjoy his passion of horseback riding. Before taking on the position of ranch operator, Martens was a horse trainer, having trained 900 animals in 10 years.
I, on the other hand, spend my days working at a desk. While the adrenalin associated with running through the woods is similar to the thrill I get from chasing a good story, that doesn’t mean I’m wilderness-wise. Prior to the chase, I knew I didn’t have adequate time to physically prepare but, mentally, I wanted to be ready.
A few days before the chase, I spoke with Grant, whose name is synonymous with Mantracker after having chased countless pairs over 59 episodes. One group, he said, wore horseshoes on their feet for a short distance to try to throw him off their trail. But the two ladies failed to imitate a horse’s gait correctly, and Grant was still able to find them.
“What they did was awesome; all they needed to do was pay a bit more attention to the way a horse walks. And if they had done it, wow, I could have been a long time looking for those guys,” he said.
Grant’s knowledge of tracking was gathered from 15 years of search-and-rescue experience. Understanding the difference between imprints left by humans and those left by animals can make a huge difference in emergency situations.
But at Heritage Ranch, the footprints of dog walkers and hikers mingle with ours, meaning that we don’t need to worry as much about tracks as we do simply being seen or heard. We, however, do find some fresh prints made by a horse; chances are that Martens is close by. So, we venture far into the trees to avoid being caught on the large open trail areas – another suggestion made by Grant.
“Over there!” my partner exclaims, pointing into the distance. My heart rate increases, expecting to see a flag hanging from a tree, rather than five deer poised to run. As we move towards them, they scatter, jumping across the trail, their tails in the air like the flag that’s tied to a tree just to our left.
We have our first flag. But scaring the deer could come at a price.
Grant, an Albertan cowboy – who now offers courses for those wanting to learn the skills of tracking for the purposes of search and rescue – warned us that scared animals signal to the tracker that the prey is nearby. So, keeping that in mind, we head further into the trees, hoping to put distance between us and any animals who might give us away. Again, there’s something intriguing in the distance but, this time, it’s a flash of orange, indicating what we are convinced is another flag. We walk over stumps, across trails and through patches of grass, all the while scanning the horizon for any indication of Martens. It’s a slow walk, as the flash of colour keeps disappearing through the trees. We get close enough to see with clarity the patch of orange that’s actually just a pylon out in a field. It was like a desert mirage, beckoning us with its promise of a cool drink.
Coincidentally, there is a pool of water located close to the pylon – and the map shows that one of the flags should be in the vicinity. After a little searching, we find our second flag. I’m starting to get excited – maybe we’ll be able to finish the race.
But, then, when we look again at the map, we realize the two remaining flags are actually closer to where we started. The only way we’ll make it is by traversing a large open area, where the possibility of getting caught is very high.
We step outside the comfort of the trees. That’s when he appears, facing us about 30 metres in the distance, right where we need to go. I look at Jeff, and his eyes are wide like those of the deer we’d scared earlier.
“I think he saw us,” I say, but Jeff has already run at full speed back into the trees, taking cover behind a bush with spindly branches. I make a move to run, but trip on my laces, which have come apart in a hot pink mess on the forest floor.
We don’t hear the horse until he’s right in front of us.
“I got ya!” Martens exclaims, his eyes belaying an excitement that’s only outshined by Hummer. The horse, a Morgan who has spent 10 years with Martens, shakes his head, blowing through flared nostrils, while jogging in one spot. He loves the thrill of the catch as much as, if not more than, the chase.
“If you hadn’t seen us in that opening, we might have made it,” I say.
But Martens admits he hadn’t noticed us. Hummer was the one who directed him towards us. “He doesn’t back down from anything or anyone,” Martens says with pride.
Over the last three years, Hummer and Martens have tracked people from all walks of life, from ex-military members in full camouflage to people who just like a nice outdoor stroll. And, Martens says, you never know how people will react when adrenalin kicks in. One participant acted as a decoy, tricking Martens into tending to a fake injury while his friends got away. Another man high-tailed it when Martens arrived, leaving his young son to be caught.
Jeff and I walk back to the restaurant; his foot is blistering, and I’ve been slapped in the face by a rogue tree branch. But it’s all worth it – it’s our most adventurous walk in the wilderness yet.