Thank you to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for granting permission to the Park Warden Service Alumni to post this interview on our website
Park Warden Alumni Society of Alberta Oral History Project Phase 7.
Interview with Ken and Deb Pigeon at the OH Ranch
April 30th, 2016.
Interviewed by Rod Wallace and Perry Jacobson
Ken and Deb Pigeon have had an exceptionally interesting life. They both hold a special appreciation for the places where they have lived and worked. Both of them were raised in Jasper National Park. Through their summer jobs while still going to school, they acquired experience and knowledge of horses, tourists and of living and working in remote locations. Early in their marriage they moved to Banff where they worked in the backcountry for Warner & MacKenzie Guiding and Outfitting and then made a move to the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch in 1988. After a few short years, Ken became the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch Manager and Deb became the Record Keeper/Clerk. With their young family they made the most of their years there. The Ya Ha Tinda has a tendency to engrain itself into the souls of a few of the people who have lived there. These people have a special bond with the land, the horses, the wildlife and the lifestyle of living in such a remote area. The Pigeon family possess this bond. From the Ya Ha Tinda the Pigeon family lived and worked on a picturesque ranch west of Calgary. Later the family moved to the Bar U Ranch near Longview where they once again worked for Parks Canada Agency managing the National Historic Site. They succeeded by working closely with local ranchers through the Friends of the Bar U in building up the historic site to the success it is today. Ken and Deb’s kids are now grown and on their own. In recent years, Ken accepted an offer to manage the OH Ranch for the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board where the following Oral History interview occurred.
Deb and Ken Pigeon
Rod: Can you give us an idea of where you were initially from and when and how you got started with Parks Canada?
Ken: That is pretty simple Rod. We were raised in a national park; we are both from Jasper National Park. It was a natural progression for us to work for Parks or else for the CN Rail when you are raised in Jasper. So, I started with Parks Canada with the Fly In Trail Crew in Jasper National Park….and then I went outfitting for John Ward in the Willmore Wilderness area. I went to Banff and outfitted there and ended up at the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch. It just progressed from place to place. Deb is a bit of a gypsy so if we spent more than ten years in one place she would start looking over the hill to see where we could go for a new adventure. (laughs).
Rod: How about you Deb. Were you raised in Jasper?
Deb: Yes, I was raised in Jasper and my family had a riding stable (Clint’s Pony Barn) for many years there. I grew up riding on the Pyramid Bench and taking guests from all over the world on day rides. Then, after (completing) school, Ken and I moved to Banff and we both ended up working for Warner & MacKenzie Guiding and Outfitting. I cooked at Flints Park and Ken guided backcountry trips. During our time in Banff, we spent a winter in California riding Polo horses and I also worked in the backcountry for Parks Canada as a cook for fly in trail crews. We were there for just about ten years and then we knew there was a position coming up at the Ya Ha Tinda, so we thought we’d give that a try. We went there in 1988.
Rod: So, you went and lived at the ranch. Who was foreman at the time?
Ken: Calvin Hayes.
Rod: Tell us at least one story about Cal.
Ken: There are lots of stories about Cal Hayes. One of the better ones is when Deb went riding with Cal and Steve Bennett. Of course, Deb is on her own horse with Cal and Steve and they go out the back way (north). Steve is on this big buckskin horse named Zest that we’d bought. Zest was a bit of a wild ass so anyhow, Steve thought he’d just lope him out and warm him up. Cal and Deb are just riding along and Cal says “We’d better catch that guy before he gets into a wreck. So they break into a lope to catch him, and Deb’s horse bucked her off!
Deb: My 11-year old broke gelding no less.
Ken: So, they get that all tuned up and Deb tunes her horse up…and away they go….and so they did about a four hour loop up to the Clearwater and back. And when they get back to the buildings….the first thing Cal does is ride right to our house. He knocks on the door and he says, “Kenny! Kenny!” And I’m worried that something has happened. Cal says, “We’ve got to go to town! And I said, “What do we have to go to town for Cal?” And Cal says, “We’ve got to buy some soap to wash Deb’s mouth out…us boys don’t event talk like that in the barn!” It turns out he was talking about Deb’s language after she got bucked off. (laughs)
Deb: He never let me forget that.
Ken: I can tell stories about Cal all day.
Deb: One thing about Cal though, he was awesome with the families. He liked little kids and old dogs. He loved our kids. They called him “Grandpa Cal” and every evening he would have his supper and then come to the house at about 7 o’clock and the kids would run to the door because Cal had a candy in each pocket for the kids. It was just a little ritual that he did every single evening. We’d put tea on… even though we’d visited all day as we worked together, he’d still come for a visit in the evening. If he liked you he was great. He was really attached to the kids. When Clinton was a baby, about 18 months old, Cal would go out feeding (the horses). Cal would come to the house first and I would have a snowsuit on Clinton and he’d take him with him. Pretty soon I’d hear the tractor coming and Clinton would be fast asleep and Cal would bring him to the house and give him back to me. When Jessie came along, he’d come and take her as well. That was kind of a special thing for our kids and they have never forgotten that.
Ken: And his curly cue! Do you know why he had that? Because Donna (Cal’s wife) told him to get a hair cut….and Cal was mad…so he left that (curly cue) on purpose… just to make her mad. And then she even got madder….so he just made it a point to keep it. That is all it was about. (laughs)
Deb: Donna, his wife and their kids (Doug and Deb) lived in town, in Sundre….
Ken: He had to buy back quite a few years because he went to the province for a while.
Deb: Yeah, for 8 years or something I think.
Rod: He came back (to the ranch) twice?
Ken: It was his second trip back there when we were there.
Rod: I recall the first time I met him. I had driven up to the lower (ranch) gate and pulled off on that little pull-off area. This guy came riding up the road. I had never met him before…and I met him at the gate there. He says, “Who the hell are you? Or something like that…. and I said, “I am Rod Wallace. I am a park warden up in Jasper.” And Cal says, “Well, who the hell cares?” Ever since then I was kind of stepping backwards every time I talked to him. Because I was never sure what this guy (Cal) was all about.
Ken: His bark was way bigger than his bite.
Deb: There was a couple of things he did not like. One was if you came to his house at dinner time. One time someone showed up and said, “Cal, I thought I’d drop in for a short visit.” And Cal said, “I bet you didn’t know your visit was going to be this short”. And he closed the door…
Now him and Kurt Seel (Parks Canada biologist)….they were actually good friends, but those two scrapped. It was very funny to be a part of that. Kurt would come and he would stay at the bunkhouse and they’d get scrapping about different things and then they’d kind of pat each other’s back. They had an understanding and they were quite good friends.
Ken: Cal would call him “You damned square head! Kurt was quite opinionated on range and ranch management.
Ken: And at that time Kurt and Percy Weibe were doing a lot of range management for the ranch.
Ken: Another Cal story: There was this fellow we hired and his name was Alan Midthal – he worked at the ranch for a few months. We actually moved the bunkhouse ahead a full length and put new bottom logs under it when he was there. But anyways, Cal had been out riding and when Cal came back in he was mad, just furious, because he tried to come in the back way, along Sheep Hill, and he ran into a grizzly bear. Cal said, “That son of a bitch would not let me by. He’d stand up and jump at me sideways snapping his teeth and I had to ride all the way back around to get back to the buildings.” So,….he was telling Wendy Midthal, Alan’s wife, about this episode with this bear on the back road and she was just horrified. She said, “What would you have done Cal if your horse had gone down? Cal said, “That wouldn’t have been a problem. I would have kicked a jack rabbit in the ass and told him to let someone in the lead that could run!” (everyone laughs)
Rod: He sounds like a man of a thousand sayings and such.
Deb: He was notorious for sayings that were very funny and they just flew out of him. You couldn’t help but just howl with laughter.
Ken: Jasper had a big grey horse named “Smokey”. Cal got on him one time and that horse bucked him off right in front of the barn….in that little catch pen. Cal went up in the air and did about 2 flips and landed in front of this horse on his feet. He still had the reins in his hand. He walked through the barn and looked at me and Neil Plested, and he said to us, “Now that’s how you get off a rough one boys!”
Deb: Couldn’t happen again in a million years.
Ken: He put that horse in its stall and never got on him again.
Rod: So how was he with horses?
Ken: I think he was one of the better guys with studs. He’d walk out to the barn and he’d yell, “Come on old man.” And it didn’t matter where in the yard the stud was he would come trotting over. And when we were hand-breeding the mares he’d lead the mare…and he’d look at the stud, and he had a little bamboo ski pole and he’d say (to the stud), “Get to your corner.” And those studs would go stand in the corner and then he’d say, “Okay, now you can come and breed.” And if the stud came past the front legs at all, he whacked them with the ski pole and they’d just stay back and breed the mare. When the stud was done breeding, he’d say, “Get to your corner.” And the stud would go stand in his corner and Cal would lead the mare out.
Deb: The Morgan stud was there when we first got there. And then they bought Arrow (a registered quarter horse) as a 2-year old.
Ken: When Arrow arrived, Cal said to me, “Saddle that stud up. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Then Cal buggered off to do something else. I started to saddle the stud and I hadn’t even touched the cinch when he hit the floor. So I thought, he can’t be that ‘cinchy’ so I get him up and I do it again and he hits the floor again, like really hard. I thought I’d take my saddle off… “If Cal wants him saddled he can use his saddle, I’m not using mine anymore.” Cal came in and he says, “I thought I told you to saddle that stud.” I said, “You have at it. I’m not wrecking my saddle.” Cal went and threw his saddle up there and that sucker hit the floor. I couldn’t believe how fast that man was. He had all four legs of that horse tied together in the middle of the barn. He went and got this big blue tarp and threw it over the stud and said, “Let’s go for coffee.” And he left him there for 3 or 4 hours and Arrow never went down again.