Yee-haw Cowboy!

Issue 36

The great plains of the American west are undisputedly the home of the cowboy, but for ten days every July the Canadian city of Calgary, takes on this mantle and goes wild with the spirit of the old wild west.

The great plains of the American west are undisputedly the home of the cowboy, but for ten days every July the Canadian city of Calgary, takes on this mantle and goes wild with the spirit of the old wild west.

Yes Siree! Like Rio’s carnival and Edinburgh’s festival the Calgary Stampede rolls into town and welcomes the world to a spectacular celebration of western heritage. Heralded as the ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’ its rodeo is the largest in the world, attracting professional cowboys from Argentina to Australia – and of course America – with a prize pot often worth well-over $2million.

But it’s not all just bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing, the extravaganza includes a festival of live music, marching bands, fairground attractions, agricultural exhibitions and displays and a nightly Grandstand Show that wouldn’t be out of place on Broadway.

Our day at the Stampede was the first of several bucket list items we were set to tick off during a 2- week Canada road trip. We knew there was a lot to cram in, so after a hearty breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup (of course), we joined the revelry as soon as the impressive 208-acre Stampede Park gates opened at 11am.

Now you can’t have cowboys without Indians, and Canadians are proud of their First Nation heritage. The indigenous tribes of the area have been included in the Stampede celebrations since its inception in 1912 so our first stop was the Indian Village. The impressive programme of historical storytelling, arts and craft displays, tipi raising competitions and tribal dancing opened our eyes to the traditional life that is still respected and embraced to this day by the Kainai, Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda, Siksika and Piikani Indians.

Next on the agenda was a turn around the agricultural arena, which housed a host of displays and shows I hadn’t realised could be so darn exciting. The heavy horse pull saw teams of giant shire horses pulling sleds weighing five times their body weight; the Blacksmith Challenge featured the best of Canada’s blacksmiths, showcasing their forging and shoeing skills; and the International Sheep Shearing Challenge semi-final, between America and Australia, pitted ranchers up against the clock to prove their speed, skill and humane handling of the sheep.

I could have watched those shearers all day, but it was Rodeo time!

We’d bought our tickets in advance for the two daily Grandstand Shows, that for most international visitors are the main reason for attending and include your entrance fee into Stampede Park. There’s a host of options from Infield seating right at the heart of the action to several levels of Grandstand seating and Clubhouse VIP passes. We’d chosen level 5 Grandstand which was undercover, out of the sun and rain (as the occasional downpour can happen) with an excellent view. The interactive seating map on the Stampede’s own website is a great tool to help pick your seats providing photographic views for each section.

The next few hours were spent whooping and cheering as broncs bucked, lassoes flew and cowboys and girls sped around barrels on horseback for the prestige and purse of being a Stampede champion. Some animal welfare activists may say that Rodeos should be a thing of the past but as we sat there watching the races unfold, the skill and power of both animals and humans, was clearly matched by the respect and care each side afforded each other.

A short intermission, in which the fabulous Calgary Stampede Marching Showband performed, was followed by the prize winners’ presentations, and a much needed food break, before the evening Chuckwagon racing began.

To be honest as the chuckwagons, a strippeddown version of the cowboys’ mobile kitchen, raced around the track, visual only via big screens for three-quarters of the circuit, my cowboy enthusiasm began to wane. We dipped out to soak up some of the evening atmosphere as the fairground lights began to sparkle, beer started flowing and the spit roasts and grills served up mouth-watering meat cuts the size of my arm!

We’d been told the final Grandstand Show was not to be missed so we re-took our seats for a showstopping performance named ‘Together’ in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Wow and what a show! Featuring performances from singers, acrobats and dancers including the Alberta Ballet and the amazing Young Canadians, 120 young people from the Calgary area aged between 7yrs and 18yrs, recruited each year to perform at this nightly Stampede spectacular. Tracing the heritage and culture of Canada’s 150 years, the performances are inspiring and the absolute highlight of the day.

As the fireworks finale filled the night sky we left the fairground revellers to party on and strolled back to the Hotel Arts, chosen for its perfect location, just 4 blocks from the Stampede Park, full of cowboy cheer and our first bucket list experience of our trip well and truly ticked.

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