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Home on the Range North of 50

Published: March 15, 2017

SUBMITTED BY MARILYN DUNCALFE

When a North Hamilton adolescent girl named Lee Green had the chance to go canoe tripping with a church group in Algonquin Park, she jumped at the opportunity. During these happy wilderness excursions, outdoorsmanship and leadership skills were fostered and a few key realizations came to Lee:

The first epiphany was that although she thought that spending time in Algonquin Park was great, she just knew that she wanted to be in the bush somewhere far more remote. She also grew to understand that her long-term dream was to instill the same love of canoeing that she had been lucky enough to experience to groups of young people.

Thus the early stage was set that ultimately led to the vision, development and continued growth of a beloved Red Lake institution. Since the mid 1990s, hundreds of local children have benefited from the variety of horse and pony camps that have been on offer at Sunset Stables.

Following a stint of teaching in the Georgian Bay area in the 1970s, friends suggested that Lee should come North to work at the then-thriving Griffith iron ore mine. She ran heavy equipment for five years at “Griff”, purchased a property in Red Lake with the proceeds and convinced her mother and younger sister to relocate.

Lee then worked for the Municipality of Red Lake for nine years, primarily as the Recreation Maintenance Supervisor. During her one year term as Recreation Director, she worked closely with the late Ron Robinson to bring together the first Norseman Days Festival, which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer.

In the early 1990s, Lee was contemplating a midcareer shift and decided it was time to learn to ride a horse. When she signed up for riding lessons in Starrett Olsen, she met Bonnie Hodgson, who ultimately became her Sunset Stables business partner.

The two women developed a vision and plan, and between the two of them had the expertise to bring Sunset Stables to fruition. They thought strategically about location. There was a perfect spot for a ranch near Bug River, but they comprehended that they needed to be close enough to town that parents would be able to easily bring their children – especially on those hectic work mornings.

The current five acre spread on Highway # 105, just five kilometers from town was selected and the necessary navigation through two levels of government began. The fact that the site is situated within the boundaries of the Municipality added complexity, but the partners persevered through zoning, surveying, an environmental assessment and ultimately the clearing of the land.  The assistance of the Chukuni Communities Development Corporation was very helpful.

The acreage was “close enough, but far enough” and boasted access to two mile long, spring-fed Sully Lake, Sully Creek and a 30 foot waterfall and rapids—perfect for canoeing.

Clearing the land was a marvel of optimism – Lee worked a chainsaw and the horses helpfully munched the deciduous leaves and branches.  Ten years worth of firewood was a side benefit. When the veterinarian commented on the excellent health of the horses, the new ranchers attributed it largely to the copious amounts of grazing the animals had done while clearing the land.

There was no electrical power at the site during the construction of the first barn, so generators were used.  Ten thousand pounds of rock need to be purchased in order to stabilize the often muddy land for road construction. A dozer was hired and friends and neighbours pitched in to help. After two years, Sunset Stables was home to 22 horses and they were consuming a large truckload of hay per month. Lee comments that the hardest aspect of northern ranching is the high cost of trucking in supplies, but that the horses thrive in the cold climate.

The horse and pony camps have also been thriving for two decades. With an emphasis on the younger children and peer learning, hundreds of children hold sustaining memories of grooming, tacking and riding the horses, hiking in the bush, canoeing, learning to identify animal tracks, playing hide and seek in the hay barn and experiencing the general state of well-being that is the result of working hard and spending time in nature.

“There are firm rules – it feels wild and woolly to the kids, but they are very closely supervised and on a schedule,” observes Lee.  “I was never one to work in a system. I tell the kids that it’s my ranch, my rules.”

Is Lee starting to slow down?  She is still running Christmas, March Break, PD day and six weeks of summer camps, which fill quickly to capacity. She now relies on the Junior Counsellors to keep up with the five year olds, but she can still keep pace with the eight year olds.

There are numerous traditions at the camps including the Friday bon fire and weenie roast and the ongoing munching of cookies. Lee estimates that last summer she baked 1200 scratch cookies to help fuel the campers. “It’s all about the kids,” she smiles.

Lee stresses and wishes to give thanks for the tireless support of friends and family for assistance on the ranch, and acknowledges that she couldn’t do it without them. From rallying around on “hay days” to the sad assignment of moving a deceased horse from the barn in 40 below weather, the community has been there for her. 

Since the relocation of her business partner to Manitoba a decade ago, Lee has been on her own at the ranch. There are currently five horses, 23 laying hens and two cats in residence. A relatively new enterprise is a huge veggie garden that provides for Lee over the winter and the upcoming raising of meat chickens.

When asked what she does to relax, Lee hoots with laughter and comments with satisfaction.

“There are always chores to do—and the horses have me well-trained by now.”

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