Nine things we learnt from our first ever Calgary Stampede

Last year, the AU headed to Calgary in Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede. Now in its 104th year – though with origins dating back to the 1800s – the event is steeped in tradition and an icon of the Canadian Summer. It’s the sort of festival you have to attend to fully comprehend, and, naturally, we learnt a lot about the event by doing just that. So here now are the nine things we learnt from our first Stampede experience…

It’s like the Royal Easter Show… on steroids.

The mix of agriculture and carnival flair – minus the showbags – makes the Stampede easiest to compare to the Royal Easter Show in Australia. But there’s so much more going on here. The main stage is for the rodeo – one of the biggest and most celebrated rodeos of the national calendar – then smaller venues showcase other events like the Miniature Horse Show or the SuperDogs, who were busy “inspiring all ages with amazing tricks”. Indeed they were.

Some events were included in the price of admission, and some weren’t. But there was plenty for everyone, with live music nightly – from up-and-coming local acts to some of the world’s biggest, like Stevie Wonder – and performers roaming the streets. Meanwhile, the park itself was littered with food vendors and carnival rides, running day and night for almost two weeks. It was a tonne of fun.

You can deep fry anything. And I mean anything.

By now you may have seen us talk about the deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, served on a stick and split up by deep fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (pictured below, being served with a pile of whipped cream). But that’s just the tip of the deep fried iceberg.

Around the park we stumbled across deep fried oreos – a crowd favourite – chicken strips coated in red velvet cake mix and then deep fried, a deep fried philly cheesesteak, deep fried cheesesteak, deep fried wagon wheels, deep fried cheese pies and apparently there was deep fried Kool Aid if you looked hard enough. But we have no idea how that would work… suffice it to say, if it exists, someone at the Stampede has asked the question: how would it taste if we fried this? And usually, the answer is “delicious”.

Rodeos are actually really, really fun. And kind of addictive.

It was my first time to a rodeo, and I must admit I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I learnt a lot about how the event works and how the animals are treated along the way (look into the Stampede Ranch, where all the animals come from, and if may change some of your viewpoint too), and I have to say it changed my perception of the event as a whole. Though I still have some ethical reservations, I “get it” a lot more now, and certainly see the appeal from a spectators point of view.

It’s also addictive for the cowboys themselves as a way of life, as they participate in dozens of rodeos a year across North America. One cowboy we met backstage, Wesley Silcox, said that “my dad and brother rode bulls so I kinda grew up into it… I didn’t wanna ride bulls when I was little but it just started getting awesome and so I just kept going… it was fun…”. (Read the full interview here)

This is the “cream of the crop”

This is rodeo at its finest. The cowboys that participate in this event are considered the best in the world, and the prize that is awarded at the event reflects that. In the six major disciplines that are showcased at the event – bull riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, tie down roping, saddle bronc and bareback riding – the winner of each discipline wins a massive $100,000. Over $1 million is given away to their champions on the final day of the event, making it one of the richest events in the world for cowboys and cowgirls.

While that’s quite a bit of money, considering how some events see both riders and animals putting their lives on the line, it’s one of those “how much is my life worth” sort of arguments. I guess that’s what makes it an addiction. And a thrilling one at that.

White cowboy hats are not optional. It’s a way of life. Well, for these 10 days anyway.

The white cowboy hat is the official hat of the Stampede and of Calgary. It’s sacrilegious not to wear a cowboy hat, it seems – and though everyone who attends the 10 day event is not, in themselves, a real cowboy or cowgirl, for these 10 days, everyone enjoys pretending…

Calgary endeavours to deliver the Texan experience. Also the Nashville experience. Also the Calgary experience.

Suffice it to say, the result is a unique one. From Southern food and the cowboy spirit, to the flavour of Calgary and the music of Nashville, the Stampede is a unique mish-mash of a lot of what North America has to offer…

I now know what Chuckwagon racing is.

But I still don’t understand it.

Canadians invented basketball?

Just one of the fun facts we learnt from the epic TransAlta Grandstand Show “Canadian Classic”. As part of the show, Acrodunk gave us all a bit of a show that featured a bit of acrobatic dunking (as the name suggests!)

The Caesar was invented in Calgary (and everyone wants you to know it).

The infamous drink of Canada, which is essentially a Bloody Mary but with Clamato juice instead of Tomato juice (as the name suggests, it brings Clam and Tomato juice together just as God intended), isn’t just a Canadian drink – it was a drink invented in Calgary. And it seems that everywhere you turn, someone is quick to point out that the drink was invented there. But I think what’s really important about it is that it’s actually a damn good drink. And they seem to serve iteverywhere at the festival. Sometimes in the Stampede special “extra spicy” variety, which is a crowd pleaser for sure…

It’s the red one, pictured on the left…

The Calgary Stampede returns for 2016 on July 8th and runs until the 17th. You can learn more about the event HERE. Air Canada flies to Calgary via Vancouver from Sydney and Brisbane. While in Calgary for the Stampede we stayed at the Hotel Blackfoot.

The writer attended the event as a guest of Tourism Calgary, Alberta Tourism and the Stampede. All photos by the author. Contributions to the article by Lucy Inglis.


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.