The Calgary Stampede: The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth

By Lisa St. John

Chuck wagon race at the Calgary Stampeded 2009. Photos by Lisa St. John.
The Chuckwagon race at the 2009 Calgary Stampede. Photos by Lisa St. John.

When someone asked me about my favorite moment of the Calgary Stampede in Alberta Canada, I was at a loss. Ten days for the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is not enough to breathe in the beauty and excitement of the Canadian Wild West.

Was it seeing the broncos burst out of their bucking chutes, feeling their wild energy and urge to run? Was it listening to the tales of the talented Chuckwagon riders behind the scenes as they prepared for a night of timing and skill unmatched in the rodeo world?

Perhaps it was the brilliance of the Grandstand Show with its state of the art fireworks and 1600-pound Wheel of Death? Or the ultra-green ScrapArtsMusic quintet’s athletic, theatrical performance that uses industrial scrap to supply their eclectic sound?

Interviewing members of The Young Canadians School of Performing Arts, one of many youth groups sponsored by the philanthropic Calgary Stampede Foundation, was also a thrill.

Maybe the elusive favorite moment was not at the Stampede itself, but in the restive respite of the luxurious Rocking R Guest Ranch in Strathmore, horseback riding in the Canadian badlands.

One moment in the glorious ten days of the Canadian Wild West will have to be an amalgam of many—all filled with raw beauty, exhilaration, and awe.

The Badlands and Beyond

Badlands Canyon.
Badlands Canyon.

When hearing the words “rodeo” or “Wild West” most images that come to mind are of dust and heat and rough country. Add to these the splendor of vibrant, green-yellow prairies and big skies; add voluptuous mountain ranges, breathtaking canyons, and an 86-foot-tall dinosaur and you have some idea of the glory that is the Alberta countryside.

Believe it or not, Drumheller Alberta, “The Dinosaur Capital of the World,” is a quick 90 minutes from lively Calgary. Visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum, nestled in extensive fossil fields and canyons containing riparian cottonwood forests and a multitude of bird and mammal species that earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1979.

They have over 40 dinosaur skeletons and they even provide guided hikes through the mystifying mountain range that was once home to the Midland Coal Mine that operated from 1912—1959. Alberta’s beauty, from the Saskatchewan prairies to the Rocky Mountains, feels not just prehistoric, but timeless.

Opposites Attract

On the other side of Alberta, the glorious Rocky Mountains act as a formidable bookend to the lonesome prairies. Dozens of parks give way to everything a mountaineer could want. Jasper National Park: A World of Scenic Splendor, a GoNOMAD article by Habeeb Salloum, touches on the glory of this majestic mountain range.

Cowboys wait their turns for the next event at the Stampede.
Cowboys wait for their turns for the next event at the Stampede.

Another great source of inspiration is Bonnie Way’s comments about her Jasper Alberta getaway. I found her wording sound and true; Alberta is both “relaxing and reenergize[ing]”. Which way to go? The exciting cities of Calgary and Edmonton or the peacefulness of the mountains and prairies?

Alberta has it all, and once a year, for ten days, it explodes into a culturally Canadian masterpiece of contrary collage…The Calgary Stampede.

Buck Up Bronco

I have never felt such power and raw energy; the magnificent horses that are bred specifically for bronco riding are no beasts of burden. These glorious creatures are treated like the golden gods they are.

A typical rodeo horse’s day sounds much like a coveted spa day for humans; three healthy meals, brushing and massage, exercise, bathing and brushing, another massage, and more love than I have ever seen given an animal.

Roping event at the Stampede.
Roping event at the Stampede

These beauties are the stars of the show, and their unwritten contracts include all the comfort their cowboys can afford. This gentle opulence is contrasted with the incredible energy of the actual rodeo. Riders come from all over the world to compete in this prestigious spectacle—the largest outdoor rodeo in the world.

The biggest one-day prize in pro-rodeo is invitation only, and just twenty of the world’s professional athletes get to participate in the six major events: saddle (bucking) broncs, bareback, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer racing and barrel racing. Like everything in this big country, however, there is more behind the scenes than meets the eye.

Meeting four-generation Chuckwagon rider Rick Fraser was a rare behind the scenes moment. As he talked about the six months of rodeo touring and the care of his animals, you could see a faraway glint in his eyes that could only have come from true cowboy ancestors.

As the story goes, after a long day on the range the chuckwagon was where a cowboy could relax and eat and tell stories. At the end of the week, cowboys would race into town and the last one in would buy the drinks, so packing up and racing out as fast as possible became an art form.

The first Chuckwagon races in Alberta began at the 1923 Calgary Stampede, and for over 60 years the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association has been leading the way. For a superb visual explanation of the complexity of this event see Half Mile of Hell’s electrifying instructional video.

Clown at the Stampede.
Clown at the Stampede.

Watching the cowboys prepare was a real treat; you can feel the energy and excitement emanate from the other side of the chute much like the horses’ powerful force.

As they stretch and swagger you wonder what makes a person want to ride a 1500-pound unwilling bull. But, as everything about the Calgary Stampede, the rodeo is both mysterious and heartfelt.

Living Like a Rodeo Tycoon

The ten days of celebration in Calgary begin the way all good stories begin, with food. Free pancake breakfasts can be found throughout the city and surrounding area and a well-prepared visitor can plan out ten free meals provided by the Stampede Caravan from shopping malls to businesses along the Calgary streets.

Often served by colorful clowns or on-the-spot square dancers, the celebratory mood is enhanced by these delicious pre-syrup cakes. At the Stampede grounds themselves, visitors have an enormous selection of choices from deep-fried Oreos (my life is now complete) to elegant buffets at Ranahans private club where premium seats for the rodeo and Grandstand Show are to be found.

Ranahan is actually a term meaning great cowboy, and this exclusive restaurant was a definite highlight of the stampede experience. This is not to say that the corndogs and pulled pork sandwiches were not delicious—just that you can find a range of everything from classic midway treats to elegant fare.

Rest and Relaxation Post Rodeo

Rocking R Ranch in Alberta.
Rocking R Ranch in Alberta.

Nothing is more satisfying than retiring to the luxury of the exquisite Rocking R Guest Ranch, less than 30 miles from busy downtown Calgary. This wonderfully magical spot promises “Your Little Piece of the Range,” and does it ever deliver! An elegant two-course breakfast served in your private cabin starts the day.

Fresh fruit, homemade French toast and sausage, and I were ready to claim this little piece of heavenly range for the whole summer. Fresh bedding and alfalfa is also provided in the “Bale and Breakfast” package for your own horse if you happen to be traveling with your equestrian friends.

The delightful owners, Marvin and Terri Kinsman, have left nothing out of The Rocking R luxury experience. After a true cowboy meal, wander outside to enjoy the view of Eagle Lake and the Canadian Rockies, or meander around the lush property and say good morning to the horses.

Then it is time for a massage or herbal wrap. Oh yes, there is spa treatment in this cowgirl’s world. Perhaps a healthy horseback ride should come first, however.

Marvin and Terri offer many choices for this adventure; from an introduction to horses to a three day camping trip in the mountains, The Rocking R is the spot for wild west adventure.

Saying Goodbye to the Big Sky

There is something miraculous and comforting about the western skies, whether in Canada or the United States. The wildness of a thunderstorm is juxtaposed with the serene lake views. Going to Calgary was, in a way, like going home; home to a memory of pioneers and prospectors, of rodeo wranglers and moonlit campfires. The Calgary Stampede is truly The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, and this cowgirl cannot wait for next year’s roundup.

Lisa St. John.


Lisa St. John is a high school English teacher, poet and GoNOMAD team member who spent decades with her husband the late Senior Travel Editor Kent E. St. John in Cottekill NY.

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