One and a half hours South of Calgary is the UNESCO World Heritage site, Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As we drove South the topography changed and the landscape became farmland and ranches, until we reached grassland. A hot, dry Chinook wind was pushing the yellow Prairie grass. MLH said it reminded him of the Sinai Desert in Egypt and was content. Staffed by members of the local First Nations, the interpretative centre describing the ancient buffalo hunt is built right into the hill. Well worth a visit, this is a reminder of how the ‘West was Ruined’ by hunters with guns pushing the buffalo herds into near extinction.
A contrast was Spruce Meadows, the huge horse jumping venue just outside Calgary, where nature is tamed with landscaping and imitated in the jumps. The one which caused the most refusals from the horses had the Rocky Mountains painted on it – I think the mountain peaks confused them. In real life, a horse does not have to jump over a mountain! What a joy to watch world class riders and horses compete on a sunny day. An added treat was watching the Lord Strathmore Regiment practising their musical ride. Most of the soldiers were clearly not riders before volunteering for the team, but they managed all the complicated manoeuvres. Something about them was familiar, and I realized they were dressed in traditional World War I uniforms, which I recognized from a photo of my Canadian grandfather.
We wanted to experience the Calgary Stampede from the beginning, so started off at one of the many free pancake breakfasts held around the city. Cheerful corporate volunteers had ditched their business casuals for jeans, cowboy boots and hats (and very nice they looked too), and were enthusiastically, if not expertly, waving pancake spatulas about and serving huge breakfasts while a Western band played. All very hearty for 8 in the morning, but most of the breakfasts raise money for charity, and Calgarians really get into the spirit of the thing.
The next morning was also an early start, to watch the Stampede Parade, a 2-hour affair through downtown Calgary which officially opens the Stampede. Knowing where the shady places were, families had staked out spots along the route. We watched marching bands, community floats, and former Stampede Princesses on horseback (since they went back to 1970 something, some had grey hair and a few bulges, but to be a Stampede Princess it is clear you must be blond and know how to ride a horse). Rather incongruous was the RCMP Pipe and Drum Band, where the bagpipers and Scottish dancers wore kilts and black uniform shirts and Stetson hats to top it off.
What can I say about the Stampede proper? It is a fun mixture of rodeo and the midway (fair), kirsch and serious competition: the most extraordinary fast food such as deep fried spiralized onions with melted cheese in the middle which you can then throw up on the hurtling rides, corporate types entertaining with beer in grandstand boxes, and little girls in pink sequined cowboy hats self-consciously examining their cute new cowboy boots every 5 seconds. The entertainment is pure – bucking horses and bulls, chuck wagon races, grandstand shows with music and dancing and fireworks, lots of suspense. Many of the competitors are super heroes of the rodeo world, often following in their father or grandfather’s footsteps. When they were named as babies, their parent obviously did not think they would grow up to have desk jobs. Here are some of my favourites:
Top of my list: Stetson. Can you imagine the conversation every morning on the way out to wrangle cattle on the ranch? “Stetson, where’s your hat?”.
After our stampeding, we went to Canmore Alberta to stay with cousins in this Swiss-like mountain town. An open-air Blue Rodeo concert at the Banff Centre for the Arts was followed by two days of spectacular mountain hiking. They were wonderful guides, we would never have done the hikes they took us on alone; a richness of alpine meadows, getting up close to glaciers, waterfalls and mountain streams. We even heard, but did not see, two avalanches as the sun loosened the snow on the glaciers.
After three weeks in Alberta, time to continue West to British Columbia…