Just two hours east, Calgary was in festival mode. Everybody and their cowboy hat was out for The Calgary Stampede. Every corporate wall was splashed with colour. Inside the stampede grounds there was something for everybody, its slogan, the greatest outdoor show on earth. There appeared to be something for everyone, marching bands, dancers, fairground games and rides. It had a tacky exterior with every type of food cart vying for your attention, but beyond that, the country met the city. The best of the best were here to compete, perform and entertain. The first event we sat in on got our attention immediately. The team penning event saw 30 cows each with a number from 0-9 on their back. A team of three cowgirls and boys entered the arena on horseback and sought to seperate the 3 cows of their selected number and get them across the line, without their herd mates, then round them up into a pen. It was an event that lasted around 35-45 seconds of high energy with cheering and gasping from the audience. Hopes were dashed as one lone cow would decide to venture across the line ending the dreams of the team.
With three days to pace ourselves, we visited the Clydesdale horses, watched auctions unfold and learnt about local farming. Across the bridge into Elbow River camp, the local first nations bands held council about the events of the year. Each band brought beautifully decorated teepees to demonstrate their artwork and dress. The contrast of their colourful work and peaceful energy against the backdrop of the cities skyline was powerful.
Inside the stampede grounds, the grandstand holds daily shows of rodeo, the original focus of the stampede. The best of the best, having competed around the country in their events, qualify to compete infront of a huge audience. Contenders stepped up for their moment of glory riding bulls, bucking horses or encircling the barrels on horseback with amazing precision. The speed and skill of each performer was impressive. It took a mere 3-4 seconds for a cowboy to begin in pursuit of a calf, throw himself off a horse and take it off its feet.
Whilst the mini donkeys were cute, the mini chuckwagon horses took their event so seriously that it was hard not to fall in love with them. Each wagon had a driver and four horses who had to complete their course of tight bends and speedy straights, prancing in unison making their bells sing. They threw their heads around proudly believing in their athleticism. Another highlight was the dance performance by Light Balance, a dance troupe performing in the dark, illuminated by neon outlines on their clothing. Country music took hold in the Nashville north tent where artists took to the stage to get people dancing. There was a good amount of line dancing and the night built up to a performance from Keifer Sutherland, with his band complete in full cowboy get up.
Outside of the grounds, the party continued into the city. Huge tents nestled in amongst the city skyscrapers to host bands, food and alcohol. Every corporate banker and director of sales threw on some boots and gave the two step a whirl. It was an older, more local crowd letting loose for 10 days in the city centre and as the night progressed, you wouldn’t be sitting on your hay bale long before someone asked you to dance.
On Wednesdays, the local farmers set up at the market in Calgary’s northern suburbs to sell their produce. Here we met John who hosted Aus on his farm during her trip four years before. He was selling eggs and yaks meat from their homestead outside of the city. Once the stalls were packed down at the end of the day, we piled our bags in the pickup to head out into rolling countryside and move far away from the speed of the city. Here 6 Clydesdale horses, 4 pigs, a wild boar, 5 dogs, 3 cats and countless chickens ruled the roost. We were welcomed endlessly, especially by their giant Newfoundland, Duke.
36 hours of animal therapy stripped away any of the city fluster. We could walk amongst the horses as they came in close to nuzzle us, share many laughs with John as he recounted the personalities of the animals and their daily routines and wait for the skies to turn pink signalling the end of each day.
Back in the city, in total contrast from rural Alberta, Calgary Stampede was still ongoing, still 3 days left of the cities fiesta. We got commandeered for some square dancing in the street before we had even chosen a place for breakfast. The sun drew us to meander alongside the Bow River where many people were enjoying the same festive July feeling.
And at almost 2 years in Canada, I had marked Calgary Stampede off my bucket list. The journey was now taking a slight turn north to Edmonton to begin the railroad fun!