Alberta, like Texas, is big, brash and full of cash. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that its signature event, the superlative-inducing Calgary Stampede is both the world’s biggest outdoor show and the world’s richest rodeo. And for someone new to cowboy culture it is nothing short of thrilling.
Until you attend the Stampede you can’t imagine the colour, energy and excitement. It hits you the moment you land in the city. Everyone is dressed in their best cowboy bling. During the Stampede, Calgary is a city awash in boots and buckles, jeans and jewellery. It’s a city where cowboy hats don’t seem out-of-place in a bank, restaurant, office, behind the wheel of a truck or on someone in the saddle. Albertans seem born to the saddle, though I don’t understand how anyone wearing a belt buckle so big that it amounts to a small shield at their abdomen can bend over to sit in one, but they manage.
Before I arrived in the city, I was told that during Stampede week, Calgarians “drink triples, see double, and act single.” You certainly get the party feel. Not that the streets are full of falling down drunks. Far from it. But people smile and have that carefree attitude of holidayers for whom life is good. Hotel parking lots are converted into tented discos and cowboy bars. And a local restaurant hosts annual “Testicle Festival”, serving up platters of fresh Prairie Oysters in suggestively named dishes like Battered Balls and Italian Stallion (“oysters” on linguine in a tomato-basil bolognese). During the Stampede, Calgary lets down its hair and has a laugh – even at itself.
For a big city, whose core is dominated by the office towers of huge oil companies, Calgary is a friendly place with a real sense of community. The staggering scale of the volunteerism is one of the hidden superlatives about the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede operates with an army of 2,500 volunteers, working on 50 committees. There’s such community spirit here that there is a five-year waitlist to get on a Stampede committee.
To start the cowboy experience you can join a horse-drawn wagon tour of the downtown, which can also deliver you to the Stampede Grounds. Passengers are encouraged to mark intersections and greet pedestrians with throat-stretching YEE-HAWs and YA-HOOs, which often earn similar tribal chants in return. The rattle of the rigs, the clip clop of horses’ hooves and jingle of their harnesses seem to quickly transport these Prairie people back to their roots. Calgary may be the centre of the oil industry, but its heart is still in the Prairie’s wide open spaces and endless skies.
At the Stampede itself, my head spins like it did as a child. There are the usual screams and lights of the midway and diet-busting aromas from hundreds of food sellers – if it’s fryable or barbecuable it’s here. In addition to the usual carnival elements are surprise features like the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Agrium Ag-tivity in the City and Indian Village.
While I looked at the over-the-top rhinestone infused costumes of Canadian country greats at the Hall of Fame, I was lured outside by the not-to-subtle blasts of the Stampede Brass Band, who wander the fair grounds putting on impromptu concerts. The Agrium is a cool area that introduces children to, and reminds the rest of us of, the source of our food. It’s like a hip, high-tech trip to the farm. Kids can sit on a wooden horse and lasso a steer. They can see a sow nursing her piglets, touch chicks, pat a bull, view a buffalo and milk a mechanical cow.
The Native People’s village contains rows of teepees, fantastically coloured costumes, cooking demonstrations, dance displays and native competitions.
Of course the main draw and action is in the Stampede ring. Since recorded history, mankind has been staging spectacles, from the blood and gorge of the Colosseum in Rome to the mock battles staged in the fountains of Versailles. The Stampede is equal to anything I know of for sheer spectacle.
Before each event, participants run into the Stampede ring to take a bow. I
found it comical watching a wall of cowboys trying to run with their thick fringed leather chaps flapping like an ill-fitting kids’ costume. Then, with a quick wave of their hats, they disappear behind the head-high wall of metal railings to the animals.
The Stampede rodeo events include: Saddle Bronco, Bareback Bronco, Bareback Bull Riding, Tie-Down Roping, Steer Wrestling, Ladies Barrel Racing and Chuckwagon races.
Watching the Saddle Bronco and Bareback Bull Riding I wondered how many Prairie parents asked their sons, “Are you crazy? Are you trying to break your neck?” There’s a fine line between courage and crazy. The bronco and bull events are bone-rattling rides. The riders look like raggedly dolls being tossed unmercifully with limbs, hands and feet flying everywhere while they hold on for eight-very long seconds. Eight seconds doesn’t seem long until you’ve seen how much jumping, twisting, bucking and turning an horse or bull can manage in that time.
Riders are expected to have a lot of leg movement and are judged on how well
they ride‚ as well as the participation of the animal. So it doesn’t pay to pick a passive pony or benevolent bull.
I also learned that different body types help with various events. For example, bull riders are short guys because it’s hard to balance yourself on a bull if you’re tall. They also tend to have very thick arms.
If the rider lasts his eight seconds, outriders come to his aid. Whether the cowboy is lifted from his mount by an outrider or picked up after being thrown face down in the dirt, it always ends in a classic cowboy tradition with him dusting himself off and raising his hand to the roar of an appreciative crowd. It is cliched and wonderful. It seemed like we had a new Colosseum, a new hero, and an updated spectacle.
One of the members of the medical team – the Stampede maintains a clinic in the cowboys’ lounge (there are even more vets on duty than doctors) – told me, “People who have not been around rodeo have a misconception that cowboys are weekend warriors, that ride on Saturday, sit around all week, then ride again the following weekend. To give you a little snapshot of the schedule most of these cowboys, eight of the guys rode here for on the first four days, all entered rodeos in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. They don’t get to stay two days in a row in one place. Typically they would have had to criss-cross between four rodeos. So, for example, yesterday one athlete was up in Sheraton in the morning, Colorado Springs that evening, then drove through the night to get here for today.”
What I also found interesting is the description of rodeo cowboys as athletes. It wasn’t something I ever considered, but of course they are. I wrongly assumed the competitors were ranch hands having a lark. What is different about their sport is the clothing. Nike doesn’t do boots and chaps, so they wear plaids instead of logos.
The Stampede’s highlight is the chuckwagon races. The only thing I can liken this fast and frenetic pace to is the chariot race in the film Ben Hur. They are almost too exciting.
Each race is between four teams. Each team comprises a chuck wagon pulled by a four-horse team, a driver, four outriders and their horses. That means the ring fills with four wagons, 20 men and 32 horses. They begin from a static start, with riders on the ground by their horses, the reins of the wagon taut as these thoroughbred horses strain to do what they were born to do. When the start horn sounds the ring breaks into organized chaos. Suddenly teams of horses pulling brightly coloured chuckwagons dash around rubber pillions, while outriders fling items representative of the cattle-drive campfires on to the back of the wagons, then throw themselves on to their already racing horses. The air fills with a loud blur. The ring is blanketed by the thunder of 128 hooves, flapping tails and flying mud. Then in seconds, poof, they’re gone, leaving the ring calm for a minute or two before their thundering hooves, shouts of drivers and rattle of wagons flies to the finish. It’s orchestrated pandemonium.
It’s a hell of a high note on which to end the Stampede. It’s a massive job keeping an iconic festival or event fresh. So many become faded and worn around the edges as locals tire of it and volunteers repeat themselves. New blood is too often met with a ‘we tried that’ dismissal, so that slowly great events get strangled by inertia and protectionism from the old guard. Not the Calgary Stampede. This celebration, which started in 1912, manages to maintain its youthful energy, positive freshness and a frontier scappiness. It truly is worth experiencing.