Before the Garners moved to Alberta in 1986, the family of ranchers searched high and low for the ideal piece of land.
“We looked at every ranch south of Edmonton,” says AMA member Melody Garner-Skiba. “My dad had three conditions. He wanted to see the mountains, he wanted water and he wanted trees—because there’s not many in Saskatchewan.”
They found all three in the southwest corner of Alberta—a stretch of rolling grassland with a small forest of pine trees, nestled between Waterton River to the north and Waterton Lakes National Park and a spectacular view of the Rockies to the south.
Over the next 30 years, the Garners developed their land. They built a home, a barn, and later, an apartment for Garner-Skiba’s grandparents. They raised cattle, then switched to horses, adding an arena and corrals to their Rocking Heart Ranch. By the 2010s, it was one of the last privately-owned operations in the area.
Almost all of it vanished in less than a few minutes. On September 11, 2017, the Kenow Fire destroyed all but a metal building on the ranch, along with more than 35,000 hectares in and around the national park. Miraculously, all of their 100 horses survived and Garner-Skiba’s parents, Angel and Jim Garner, made it to safety with seconds to spare.
“By the time we drove to the highway—about a kilometre away—our house was in flames,” says Angel, who only had enough time to grab her purse before evacuating.
“We lost all of our family heirlooms, including some of my grandfather’s stuff from WWII,” Jim says. “You don’t replace that stuff.”
Undaunted, the Garners started to rebuild—and rethink their business. They ended up temporarily living in separate locations. Garner-Skiba and her husband Doug split their time between a camper on the ranch and a house in the town of Coaldale, 90 minutes northeast of Waterton. Angel lived in a portable trailer, while Jim (a quadruple bypass survivor) stayed in hotels and rooms in Waterton.
Angel and Jim, also AMA members, moved into their new home on Rocking Heart Ranch in early 2020—more than two years after the blaze. “It’s wonderful for two,” he says. “I call it a seniors’ ranch condo—it has two bedrooms, a utility room, a bathroom and a kitchen.”
Their house also includes two mounted photos of their ranch—before and after the fire. “We want to remember,” Garner-Skiba says. “It’s part of our story.”
They have yet to close the chapter on the fire. The Garners are still feeling the emotional and financial effects, yet they remain steadfast. “We’re going to make it,” Jim says. “It’s the desire to succeed. We will rebuild.”
They’re not just rebuilding, they’re also pivoting—even more so due to COVID-19. Last September, the family hosted Rocking Heart’s annual horse auction online. (About 600 people usually attend the sale.) Over the next few years, she has plans to build a barn house to host country weddings and equestrian experiences for tourists.
“After the fire, we really looked at the future of Rocking Heart Ranch and our legacy, knowing that we’re truly committed to this location and this land,” Garner-Skiba says. “I think of all the great sacrifices that the generations before made. I can’t imagine walking away from it.”