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Alberta Report Review

The life and times of a ski-bum
And what happened to her at the Douglas Lake Ranch

YES, I REALLY WAS A COWGIRL By Nancy Fowler Christenson
Ogden Fish Publishing, Wetaskiwin, Alta. 297 pages, softcover.


In the spring of 1975 young Nancy Fowler made a decision that would entirely change her life; she took a job cooking for a crew of cowboys in central British Columbia. It was hard work, in conditions as primitive as can well be imagined, but she was captivated by the country, the life, and the people. This is the intriguing story of the fateful three-year period during which she became a cowgirl — and something else that surprised her a good deal more.

It is also very much the story of her generation. A Castlegar doctor's daughter, she was living the hippie life around Kamloops, working just enough to qualify for unemployment insurance, so as to ski and party all winter, liquor and drugs flowing freely. Her friends mostly changed "relationships" as casually as their shirts, although Nancy and her ski-instructor boyfriend Derrick Wemp had been a steady item for two years, when she was not off on some wild hitch-hiking adventure.

She was about to grow up, however, at a small out-camp of the immense Douglas Lake Cattle Company ranch (500,000 acres in total, and up to 20,000 head). Her day began between 1:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. with the firing up of the big wood stove. She taught herself camp cooking, spitting on the griddle to test its temperature, and taking care (after one lucky escape) to keep diesel oil and cooking oil unconfused.

She found time as well to play her guitar, sing, and write songs expressing her thoughts and feelings. An athletic five-foot-ten, she learned to rope, bull-ride (sort of), and doctor sick cattle. Cowboys gradually ceased to be just "an interesting sociological phenomenon" with inexplicably short hair, and became a new bunch to party with. Author Christenson makes process, people, and events all come vividly alive.

Still beset by a sense of something missing in her life, she especially "struggled with a lot of spiritual questions" after Derrick's death in a hang-glider crash. "Now I could see not only the picture that was life, but the frame around it, which was death." But what about the "whole huge wall" on which this picture hung? What was there? Answers kept appearing in unexpected ways. There was the conversion to Christianity of a cowboy called the Bloke, for example, "a totally uncouth cretin from Australia." Although thoroughly anti-Christian, Nancy had to recognize the amazing post-conversion change in him.

One thing leading to another, she found herself in a crowded van with friend Margie Graham, travelling to a Women Aglow meeting. But the author never loses her acute sense of humour. "Yikes," I thought, "What have I got myself into?" This was uncomfortably reminiscent of the time she and a friend were picked up by a psychopath in California. "Now I was up against a bunch of wacky Christian women, by my own choice, and there would be no escape."

"Right beside me, singing her little
heart out, was Margie, and — miracle
of miracles — she was singing
squarely on pitch! Surely there was a
God!"

True enough, she was headed right where she thought she didn't want to go, on a journey into faith. It would take her away from her beloved ranch and into marriage — to a contractor, not a cowboy — and now they live at Millet, south of Edmonton, where the four Christenson children sometimes regale pals with tales of their cowboy mother.

   -Virginia Byfield Alberta Report, March 24, 1997, Page 42

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