I had the privilege to visit our northern neighbors in Canada recently to photograph the famed Calgary Stampede, proclaimed as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” The highlight of the 10-day stampede is the daily rodeo, which draws top riders from all over Canada and the United States. I had never photographed a rodeo before and was a bit amused to learn that the photographer’s dress code inside the chutes area included a mandatory cowboy hat. I soon procured one and was on my way to the infield area where bull riders were stretching and bulls were being corralled into chutes as each awaited their turn in the spotlight.
While animal rights activists probably shudder at the sight, I was stunned witnessing the first bull charge out of the chute from ground level. From my vantage point it appeared that the bull rider was almost like a surfer, and the bull’s back the wave, except that the bull’s bucking jerked the rider’s body in such odd contortions that one might only imagine seeing those gyrations come from some sort of possessed yogi. The large crowd, many donning cowboy hats themselves, came from places as far afield as Japan.
The other main attraction at the Calgary Stampede is the nightly Rangeland Derby which includes the controversial chuckwagon races. A chuckwagon race involves a one-person covered wagon being pulled around the track by a team of horses in a race against other chuckwagon teams. Despite an overhaul of animal welfare rules developed after six horses died in chuckwagon races last year, sadly another two perished at this year’s event.
I was able to hang around behind the scenes of the chuckwagon races, in the barns behind the track where horses and riders warmed up (and cooled off) after their races. If I used a some imagination, I could almost picture the teams preparing to charge across the prairie with a payload of meats — although the sight of cowboys speaking on cellphones and pushing baby strollers around the barns somewhat challenged this notion.
The Stampede draws more than one million visitors per year and features far more entertainment than just the rodeo. There is an outdoor festival with carnival rides, top country musicians, agricultural exhibitions and some truly bizarre food that your doctor wouldn’t have warned you about, like deep fried Coca-Cola and donut hamburgers. Western hospitality was on full display, both at the Stampede and in the streets of Calgary, where daily square dancing occured. I was endlessly greeted with warm smiles and firm handshakes while being queried where I was from and if I was enjoying myself.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of this unique event which promotes itself as “a living embodiment of the western values that bind and build our community.”