CALGARY – The greatest outdoor show on earth? It just might be.
Hard to believe, but I’d never made it to the Calgary Stampede prior to last week. I know, I know. It makes no sense. But at least I made up for it with a rollicking good time involving pancakes and champagne at 9 a.m., a great Stampede parade, mini-hot dogs, a new pair of cowboy boots and a wonderful afternoon watching cowboys ride buckin’ broncos and little kids chasing ponies in the dirt and the famous Chuckwagon races.
My wife and I decided (mostly her to be fair) that we needed to be property outfitted for the show, so we both bought cowboy boots at Lammle’s, a western shop downtown that was packed to the rafters the day before opening Stampede day. A crazy scene, with tourists from all over getting decked out in boots and cowboy hats and plaid shirts and blue or red bandanas. But it’s a blast to watch.
Pancake breakfasts are a big part of the Stampede. I was lucky enough to wrangle (sorry about that) an invite to the famous kick-off breakfast at The Fairmont Palliser , where they had just about every kind of food you can think of; roast pig, roast beef, pastries, eggs, and, of course, pancakes. There was a Bloody Caesar station and lots of beer and champagne, with or without orange juice, even though it was only 9 a.m. Gotta love Calgary!
The parade was a lot of fun, with marching bands and lots of cowboys and William Shatner in a cool old car as the grand marshal.
We got to try one of the new lounges at the Stampede Grounds for lunch, snacking on wings and mini hot-dogs and pita bread with dip and other goodies. I didn’t see the place selling pizza with scorpions and I somehow missed the deep-fried Oreos. But I did manage to check out the mini-donuts and the bbq stations and drank lots of good lemonade on a hot day, about 28 C.
The bucking broncos were fun to watch as were the barrel races, the only event involving women during the rodeo. Females aren’t given a chance to ride wild horses or wild bulls, which I find odd. I mean, if they’re capable, why not give them a shot? I’m sure there are awfully tough girls who could do the job.
But the Stampede isn’t exactly modern in terms of sex equality. The announcers kept singling out the rodeo cowboys’ wives in the stands, and one announcer made a point of announcing that July 4 was not only American Independence Day but “opening day of halter top season.”
It might be a bit much for some folks, but then again it’s only a 10-day event and the Stampede can’t be seen as reflecting all of Calgary. Many folks here are much more into the arts than bucking broncos. The Stampede is important to Calgary, sure, but it doesn’t define the city any more than TIFF defines Toronto or the Gay Pride event or Caribana or any other festival.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the barrel races and the other events, including the one where thre little kids try to corral a small pony and hop on its back for a ride. The ponies are small and incredibly nimble and most of the kids ended up on their backs or getting dragged through the dirt as they held onto a rope around the pony, who was wildly charging around the arena.
We also checked out the Chuckwagon races at night, a distinctive feature of the Calgary Stampede. They’re a lot of fun to watch, with giant wagons barrelling around the track at top speed. Many competitors race against other family members in this close-knit community, so it’s not uncommon for a father or uncle to take on their son or nephew.
I also got to take in a behind the scenes tour of the lounge where the cowboys rest up – or get stitched up or iced up – before or after their event. We got to stand a few feet away from wild-eyed bulls as the cowboys got ready for their wild rides. The power of the animals – and the determination and strength of their riders – is quite something up close.
One guy we watched got a particularly long ride and came back to the main staging area looking as crazy eyed as the bull he’d been riding. It looked to me like he might pass out from the emotion and exhaustion of it all. Another rider was so pumped after a great show that he was thumping his chest with his fist over and over again. I could see other riders coming up and slapping him on the back for a job well done, which was cool to see.
I have to say that one of the truly great things I discovered is how Calgarians volunteer so much time to make it happen. The Stampede is a non-profit agency and I was told there are something like 2,100 volunteers sitting on 47 various committees. One fellow I talked to, Kirk Morris, is a former Mountie and now a cop in Calgary who uses a week or two of his vacation every summer to help make the Stampede go smoothly.
Hats off to you and the other volunteers, Kirk. Well done. And greatly appreciated.
I want to say thanks to the folks at the Hyatt Regency for putting us up for the night. It’s a great hotel right downtown and the staff were utterly fabulous; welcoming and helpful and enthusiastic about the Stampede. We had dinner at Catch , a seafood place that’s more or less inside the hotel. The décor is lovely and the staff is excellent. But the food is even better. It’s honestly one of the best seafood meals I’ve ever had anywhere in the world, which I didn’t expect in Calgary.
The fish was perfectly cooked and they had some great Asian flavours to go with it; coconut/lime sauce on my seared black bass and a spicy ginger coating for my tempura veggies. Really nice.
We had a bit of time to check out Heritage Park , as well. I was expecting something like our Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, which is pretty sleepy. Instead, we found an enormous slate of land with re-created villages but also a train you can ride around the perimeter and a paddleboat you can take around the lake on the property. They have a home called the Famous 5 Centre of Canadian Women, dedicated to a group who fought to have women in Canada recognized as “persons” under the law in the 1920’s. It’s an amazing part of our culture and not to be missed.
The park turns 50 this year, and there are a series of major events and concerts planned. I was hugely surprised by the place, and the food at The Selkirk Grille on the park grounds was outstanding, including great salads and wonderful seared scallops. You might not expect great food at a facility like this, but it’s as good as many of the city’s best restaurants, and that’s saying a lot.
I was particularly smitten with a building at Heritage Park called Gasoline Alley. It’s a gleaming building filled with cars and automobile gear donated by a wealthy Calgary collector, and it’s utterly amazing. There were front-wheel drive Cord L-29’s and a powder blue 1932 Auburn convertible, as well as a vintage 1956 pink and black Plymouth station wagon and lots more. The gas pumps and gas signs were glowing and colourful and a blast to check out. You could easily spend a couple hours in this part of the park alone.
I also want to give a nod to the folks at the Springbank Air Training College outside of town, where we had a tour of the countryside from a small Cessna. I’m not one for small planes and I found it a bit nerve-wracking to be honest. But the guys know their planes and we had a sensational pilot who was very understanding of my desire to avoid mid-air bumps and dips. The views out over the foothills west of Calgary are amazing, including massive river beds (swollen with rain a year ago, as you recall) and small towns and long stretches of deep forest and hills so green it looked like Ireland.
For more information: www.visitcalgary.com, www.travelalberta.com
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