At one time or another, most of us dream at of being a cowboy. The image of the lone cowboy in jeans and wide-brimmed hat atop a horse is iconic the world over. One Swiss-Canadian tenderfoot has made that dream a reality.
Cristoph Gisler had never been on a horse before he came to British Columbia on vacation a dozen years ago and spent 10 days horsepacking in the mountains. The experience was life-changing.
“I loved it,” he says, as he guides a bit into the mouth of a black Tennessee Walker named Beauty. “I wanted to do it again and again.”
And he did.
Cristoph brought his family, who live in Switzerland, back to B.C. twice, spending a week at a time at guest ranches riding horses and playing cowboy. It was fun for the family. For Cristoph, it was the birth of a dream; some might say an obsession.
He didn’t just want to spend a few days every once in a while on a horse. He yearned to own his own ranch in Western Canada. He wanted to be a Canadian cowboy.
Finding the ‘Perfect’ Place
For the next several years, Cristoph, a tinsmith and roofer by trade, became infatuated with finding the perfect property in the sparsely-populated, pine-studded Chilcotin plateau in central B.C. “I looked on the internet all the time,” he tells us. “I wanted a place in the Chilcotin; it’s so beautiful. I knew the properties that were coming up for sale; when the prices would drop. I looked all the time.”
When he spotted the ad for Terra Nostra Guest Ranch, 75 acres of meadows and pine forest perched on the edge of a small lake, he was smitten. He flew to Canada to take a look and meet the seller.
That’s all it took.
Cristoph found the big log guest house, log cabins, hay barn and the five horses, especially the horses, “just perfect.”
Despite living a continent and an ocean away and having no experience in operating a ranch, running a guest house, or taking care of horses, he made the leap and bought the place–in the dead of winter.
“I knew it was the right place,” he says as he guides Stumpy, a squat Icelandic horse, along the dirt pathway.
He put down the money, hired a caretaker to operate the place, and headed back to Switzerland. There he closed down his business and talked to his family about his scheme. “We’ve got a two to three year plan,” he explains. “My kids are 15 and 18 and need to finish school and my wife is working. They’ll stay in Switzerland and I’ll come here during the tourist season.”
Plenty of Work, Little Help
It’s Cristoph’s first season since purchasing Terra Nostra in March 2014. The caretaker didn’t really work out. The man who lived in the big guest house all winter was supposed to get the place ready and line up staff for the summer season.
Instead, despite a work a contract, he walked out and left Cristoph with no staff and plenty of maintenance issues, including no electricity in a guest bathroom and the RV parking lot.
And the tourists, mostly from Europe who booked well in advance came in droves, ready or not. In desperation, Cristoph’s wife placed an ad for an intern and a young Swiss student responded. Since May, it’s been Cristoph and his young charge doing everything from feeding the stock to changing beds to cooking the meals and repairing the plumbing. The intern, whose English is so-so, leaves for school in Vancouver in early September, well before Terra Nostra needs to be buttoned up for winter.
We ride along the dirt path, Cristoph in black cowboy hat and dusty boots in the lead. He’s downright jolly for a man with too much to do and not enough help. There’s a lightness, a joy to him that’s undeniable. Despite his full plate, he smiles incessantly.
We pause at a spot overlooking the lake with a view of his boathouse, the horse shed, and the big log guesthouse. He breathes deeply and says, “It’s perfect, isn’t it.”
It’s not a question; it’s a statement.
Does he miss his family? Yes, yes, he says, waving his hand like he’s brushing away a pesky fly. “There’s the internet and Skype,” he says. “I’m in touch with them all the time. And they come here sometimes.”
A big Swiss flag with signatures of friends and family flies over the hay shed. Most people were supportive he says. “There were a few skeptics, but most of my friends and family were excited for me. They know it’s my dream.”
In the evening, we join Austrian and German guests on the big deck in front of the guesthouse for dinner. Tonight it’s Terra Nostra’s “special” ribs that Cristoph cooks over a smoky wood fire in the campfire circle. Actually, they look and taste like the pre-sauced ribs from Costco. I saw the packages earlier in the tiny kitchen. For breakfast, it’s cold cereals and frozen waffles. Not exactly gourmet, but it makes sense that he’s got to cut some corners. The kitchen is too small to do much actual cooking and, with just an intern, there’s not enough help.
But the ribs taste pretty good, especially when we eat them watching the sun turn the meadow and lake brilliant orange.
After serving the guests, Cristoph joins us at the long picnic tables in a game of toss the bone. As guests finish a rib, they try to toss the bone into a metal bowl Cristoph has set up. It’s a little gruesome with most of the bones ending up on the ground being buzzed by yellow jackets, but with Cristoph as host and ringleader, it draws some giggles and good-natured competition.
Later, he stirs up the smoky fire and shares a laugh and toasted marshmallows with us.
The sun almost gone and Cristoph gazes out at the lake and his horses grazing in inky silhouette. “This place isn’t about making money; it’s about making people happy. People come here on vacation. They’re smiling. Our job is to make sure when they leave that smile is even bigger.”
What’s he doing to do if he doesn’t get some help?
He smiles. “I don’t know. It’ll work out. You know, even if I have to sell this place in five years, no one can say I didn’t try. Lots of people never live their dream. I’m living mine. My dream is the ranch life, the cowboy life. I’m living it.” – by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor