MD OF BIGHORN – Cowboy, honorary First Nations chief, member of the Scottish gentry, artist, sailor, designer, husband, father, Alberta icon and friend to many. Stan Cowley held many titles in his 87 years.
On Oct. 11, the born and raised Calgarian of Rafter Six Ranch fame, took his last ride and tipped his hat in a cowboy’s final farewell after a long battle with illness.
“So many lives were affected by him just coming down this gravel road,” said Cowley’s son David, in a tribute to his father at the ranch Sunday (Oct. 22). “A lot of my good friends are all together because of him having the vision to come in and do Rafter Six; not being afraid to chase dreams. That’s something that I’ve always tried to keep going myself.”
When Cowley turned off the Trans-Canada Highway near Seebe one fateful day in 1976, it was on a whim.
David said half the time he was driving around with his dad, as they often did, “it was him telling me to turn down this road just to see what it was.”
“And that’s how we got here,” he said to a crowd of about 200 people, gathered under the gaze of the Rocky Mountains to pay respect to Cowley and his family at Rafter Six – a good old fashioned western hospitality guest ranch that has welcomed the world over for four decades.
Cowley bought the scenic ranch, a 30-hectare site located on the west side of the Kananaskis River and west of Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation as a retirement plan. The site was formerly a guest ranch, North West Mounted Police staging area, and before that, an outlaw whiskey post.
It wasn’t long after he settled in, however, that Cowley realized the land was too special to keep to himself.
“He designed on a napkin a three-storey log lodge to share it with the world,” said daughter Kateri. “And as he was looking for the beautiful, perfect logs to fulfill this dream, he went up to Lac La Biche where he found this really beautiful woman.
“Instead of watching where he was going, he actually knocked himself out on a low beam … So, my mom’s a real knock-out, I guess.
“Together, they shared their dreams, they shared their home, they shared their life and shared with the world, too.”
Cowley’s passion for western culture and the cowboy lifestyle started early in life growing up around the Calgary Stampede, with over eight decades of participating in the parade under his belt.
“He rode in the parades with his friends, and it built lifelong respect, relationships and many valuable lessons,” said Kateri.
Over the years, Cowley made friends at the event’s Elbow River Camp – formerly known as the Indian Village, and, at the age of 13, he became blood brothers with Îyârhe Nakoda Chief Walking Buffalo after he was sent on a vision quest – a feat Cowley’s Scottish mother was OK with having five boys, some of them “rowdy.”
“At 13 years old, he was taken up to a mountaintop and left there for three days by himself with no food, no shelter; just left by himself and told to stay,” said Kateri.
“It was a vision quest and although those visions were his own, he did share some good advice: if you ever have to eat grasshoppers, be sure to pull the legs off first because they’ll grab you on the way down.”
The acclaimed chief gave Cowley a Stoney name which translates to Deer Fawn in English – for his Scottish and English roots, and for his freckles.
Cowley worked alongside the chief and other Indigenous knowledge keepers of Treaty 6 and 7, and the Métis, to establish the Buffalo Nations Cultural Society. Cowley’s ultimate dream was to create an Indigenous cultural park in the Bow Valley.
“Dad left with many life lessons to share. If you have something special; share it, and it will grow,” said Kateri.
Together, Cowley and Gloria grew a family on the ranch, welcoming five kids and grandchildren since, as well as countless friends over the years.
His family would often remark on his ability to make connections everywhere he went.
“Even if he didn’t know you, he would just put his arm around you and just welcome you in anyway,” said Gloria.
And he would often leave you with a drawing, usually on a napkin.
“People we’ve met from all over the world have his drawings still on their fridge or on a wall,” Gloria added.
But in September 2016, the log lodge Cowley and Gloria built from one of those illustrations he was so well-known for and where many of those connections were made, was demolished.
Two years earlier, in 2014, the Cowley’s lost the ranch in what Kateri called a “sideways deal.”
The Cowley’s partnered with a company with aspirations of turning the ranch into a five-star resort. Instead, the company nosedived and went into receivership, with the ranch suffering the same fate.
Despite the unimaginable loss, with a lot of grit and good nature, the Cowleys re-rooted the ranch on a property adjacent to the original site, which is under new ownership and now known as Star 6 Ranch.
In a scaled back version of Rafter Six, the family operates a trail riding business from the land, just as they did before. Cowley’s vision lives on and the ranch continues to welcome guests to set up camp, sit around a campfire and live a western experience.
“One of the most profound lessons that he taught me was especially difficult when we lost the ranch (…),” said Kateri. “He told me ‘Kateri, in every situation, you have two choices. You can get bitter or better.’
“But what is really profound is just how he demonstrated this life lesson in his own life. With the last few years of very challenging health issues … Especially in the last few months, his generosity grew, his sharing grew, his kindness grew, his patience grew, his joy grew, his hope grew, his family grew, his faith grew, and his peace grew.
“Most of all, his love grew. This remarkable man got better and better.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.
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