Most of us have seen rodeos. We’ve experienced carnivals with midway rides, foods and games. We’ve attended fairs with agricultural exhibitions and all sorts of farm animals. We’ve gone to flashy multi-act shows with headlining stars. Some of us have seen colorful First Nations pow-wows with drumming, singing, and dancing. We’ve visited Western art shows and auctions and big vendor displays selling everything from Miracle Mops to massage chairs. We’ve heard marching bands and show tune ensembles. But it’s only at Calgary Stampede, Canada’s 10-day Western Extravaganza, where you can experience all of this and so much more.
The first thing you notice in Calgary during Stampede is that everyone is a cowboy or cowgirl. Walk Stephen Street that’s been turned into a pedestrian mall and you’ll see toddlers, grandparents, teenagers, and folks of every age and ethnicity wearing cowboy hats, boots, jeans, and all manner of Western attire. Businesses get into the act too. The lobbies of banks feature bales of straw and saddles while tellers sport cowboy hats and Western shirts. Restaurants, especially along the pedestrian mall, decorate their store frontages and outdoor patios with straw and barn boards. Every few feet is a tent selling cowboy hats, rhinestone buckles and tooled leather belts.
During Stampede, the downtown association and other businesses sponsor 125 venues for free pancake and bacon breakfasts. The twang of Western music blares out of bars, restaurants and pop-up stages. Along one block in the middle of the street, square dancers twirl and swing to the sounds of fiddles and dancers pull onlookers into swirling rounds of allemande left and circle to the right. And during this brief time, the population in this prairie town swells from 1 million to 2 million. Welcome to Stampede, a Western-themed phenomena that’s long on fun and community involvement.
Everybody Gets Involved
This is my first visit to Calgary Stampede and I’m not sure what to expect. Sure, I’ve been to rodeos. I grew up in a little town with an annual county fair rodeo and I’ve been to the big Cheyenne Days rodeo in Wyoming. But I never expected the Western-crazed, community celebration on the massive scale that’s Stampede.
The Calgary Stampede is a rodeo, exhibition and festival all rolled into one that’s held every July in Calgary, Canada’s surprisingly sophisticated prairie town. The 10-day extravaganza bills itself as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” It might also call itself one of the biggest volunteer/community efforts in the world. Not only does Stampede have the support of businesses and civic leaders, more than 2,500 everyday people—from young kids to aged grandmothers—volunteer to make Stampede happen. These unpaid and largely unsung heroes do everything from directing visitors, to selling raffle tickets for fabulous prizes like trucks, boats, and RVs that benefit community organizations, to ensuring rodeo and show performers have what they need. Some, like Chuck Wagon Committee Volunteer Kirk Moore, take a week or more of vacation time to work at Stampede. Moore, who has volunteered at Stampede for the past 14 years, ensures that entrants in the chuck wagon races and their teams of thoroughbreds get settled into comfortable barns and have everything they need, including vet checks of their stock right before races.
At the far end of the camp is Indian Village, a gathering of a couple of dozen colorfully decorated tee pees where members of five different First Nations tribes camp during Stampede. Canadian First Nations people have been part of Stampede since its inception in 1912 and our Blackfoot tour guide, Tyrone, introduces us to Savannah, a beautiful young woman who has been crowned this year’s Indian Princess.
Today is kid’s day at the park (kids get in free before 9 a.m.) and it’s kids pow-wow day here in Indian Village. Dozens of children and teenagers, dressed in colorful costumes, gather under a large pergola and dance to the beat of native drum circles. It’s a brilliant and inspiring sight.
Chuckwagons and Native Braves A-Racin,’
By the time we leave Indian Village, we’re weary and sun-baked so we head to ranahans, an upscale eatery in the Grandstand Stadium, for dinner. (See more about this experience in “A Food Lover’s Guide to Stampede.”)
After we’ve eaten our fill at this amazing, all-you-can-eat restaurant, we head down to the rail level of the stadium to watch the chuck wagon races. Traditionally, chuck wagons were heavy wagons pulled by draft horses that hauled all the food and cooking gear, including iron cookstoves, to feed hungry cowboys on cattle drives. The first chuck wagon races featured these heavy wagons, but, over time, the sport has evolved. Now drivers race lightweight wagons drawn by four sleek thoroughbreds running at lightening speeds around the track. They’re accompanied by an athletic “outrider” who must hold the skittish team and, at the start horn, leap onto another thoroughbred and race alongside the wagon.
Four wagons and their teams and outriders line up and, at the buzzer, race around a figure eight of barrels and thunder off out of sight. Cameras and large screens track their progress as they careen around the track. The wagons race perilously wheel to wheel with drivers standing above the buckboard seats urging their teams to go faster and faster.
Suddenly, the wagons race into our view and thunder past sounding like freight trains. Standing this close, we feel the rumble of the wagons and pounding hooves and air whooshes at us as they fly past us. We watch nine wagon race heats and it’s a thrill each time.
The chuck wagon races end with a bareback Native pony relay, a relatively new and popular event at Stampede. Four Indian braves, colorfully adorned in war paint, and their horses race around the track, with riders leaping on and off new horses as they change riders. It’s fast and furious and heart-stoppingly exciting as the winner roars down the track, his fist raised high in victory.
Sparkling Grandstand Show
Then it’s time for the 90-minute nightly Grandstand show so we head to our reserved stadium seats for an Olympic-style variety show that dazzles. (The man who designed and produced the Vancouver Olympics also created the Stampede show.)
This year, the show is headlined by Canadian singer Jenn Arden and features the young Canadians, a Calgary-based song-dance-acrobatic group of talented kids ages 5-21. Every year, young performers audition for coveted spots in the group that performs almost exclusively at Stampede. It’s another example of how the Stampede inspires people of all ages to volunteer their time and talents. During her introductory remarks, Arden jokes that as a young girl she auditioned unsuccessfully for the performance group. A pint-sized Young Canadian performer told her, “You just have to keep trying.”
The big show also features Irish dancers, a man who performs amazing feats with laser lights in a big plastic bubble, First Nations hoop and fancy dancers, and aerialists in sparkling light costumes who float and dance high above the stage. The entire show is a fast-paced wow and draws plenty of applause from all of us in the audience.
It’s Rodeo Day
The next day, we’re set to attend the Stampede Rodeo. Before we do, we meet with cowboy and chuck wagon driver Jaimie Labcoucane to learn a little more about his unique sport. Jaimie is wearing a leg cast and is on crutches from an injury he sustained working with his chuck wagon teams.
In the coolness of the barn, Jaimie shows off 15 horses he’s brought to Stampede. He’s got another 15 at his ranch. Most driver teams bring at least that many horses when they compete. Drivers may switch out individual horses or entire teams, depending on the track conditions or the health of the horses. Most of his horses, Jaimie tells us, are retired racehorses. He buys them at claims races and trains them to race chuck wagons.
Costs for operating a chuck wagon team can run as high as $1,500/day, but in rodeos like Stampede, the rewards can be worth it. The overall winner in the chuck wagon races at Stampede will earn $100,000 and a brand new truck.
The richness of the purses is something that makes the Calgary Stampede unique. Prizes for the combined rodeo events at Stampede exceed $2 million, making it one of the richest rodeos in the world. However, Stampede isn’t a sanctioned rodeo. That means contestants don’t earn points in the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association for competing here. And to compete in Stampede, you have to be invited. Only the best of the best receive that coveted invitation.
Unlike standard circuit rodeos, Stampede pays all the cowboys/cowgirls to be here, whether or not they win. Stampede also provides free RV space for contestants and their families by the river and volunteeers cook up lunches for them every day. Stampede provides barn space and free vet care for their stock, and they offer a contestant break room with TVs and other amenities. For cowboy/cowgirl contestants, Stampede is not only profitable, it’s downright luxurious.
The quality of the Stampede rodeo stock is also a draw. Calgary Stampede operates its own 22,000-acre ranch just outside of town. At a Behind-the-Chute Tour, guide Crista Patterson tells us Stampede Ranch breeds its own bucking stock. “They look for bulls and horses that like to buck and breed them,” she says. “If an animal isn’t happy, it’s not going to perform well. So we definitely want our stock happy. They have a pretty good life; they’re pampered. They perform once; then they go back to the ranch. If I come back in another life, I want to come back as a Stampede bucking horse.”
At the rodeo, we get a first-hand look at Stampede’s quality breeding stock. In rodeo, both the animal and the cowboy are judged. Judges not only evaluate how well the cowboy rides, but how well the bull or horse bucks. The more it bucks, the higher the score. And these Stampede rodeo animals buck like crazy.
Even More to See
When the rodeo ends, we’ve got a few hours to meander Stampede Park. There’s plenty to see. I wander through the Dream House, an upscale home worth nearly $1 million that’ll be won by some lucky raffle ticket holder. Raffle proceeds for this and trucks, RVs, boats and more benefit local community organizations.
On my way back through the midway, I encounter the Calgary Stampede Show Band, a world champion marching band that knows how to entertain. It’s another volunteer youth group inspired and organized around Stampede. The Stampede Show Band is only one of several musical groups that prowl the park, offering free entertainment to fairgoers. Dressed in red shirts and iconic Stampede white cowboy hats, this group of 152 musicians ages 16-21 blast out bone-shaking music that rocks the crowd.
I stroll through Western stores, searching for the perfect pair of cowgirl boots. Then I peruse the agriculture building, ogling cows, pigs, chickens, lamas and more There’s a huge educational component where displays explain topics like farming canola (the Calgary area is a big canola producer), bee keeping, and more. I also stumble into a huge complex where vendors sell everything from jewelry and skin products to automatic louvered patio covers. I spend some time easing my weary muscles in a couple of massage chairs. Ahhh, I could use one of these…
Then I discover Western Oasis, a large building with every type of Western art—paintings, prints, and sculptures–for sale. A lively art auction is going on. In the center is a large wine garden where wine by the glass and food like pasta, cheese plates, and grilled Panini are available. I purchase a pork and cheese Panini and join a friendly table of folks listing to Nicholas Marks playing some lively gypsy riffs on his guitar.
When he finishes with a flourish, the crowd goes wild. “Thank you so much,” says Nicholas, grinning widely. “I am a signed Disney artist, but I take vacation to come here every year to Stampede to play because it’s so much fun.”
You’re absolutely right, Nicholas, Calgary Stampede is just so much fun. It’s worth coming back again and again. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Editor’s Note: Mark your calendar’s now for the 2018 Calgary Stampede to be held July 6-15. You’ll also want to book accommodations now as hotels, motels and RV parks fill up fast.
Want to know some of the great foods to check out when you visit Stampede? Read “A Food Lover’s Guide to Calgary Stampede.”