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Calgary's rapidly changing weather can leave competitors dealing with muddy conditions at the Stampede. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

There’s a saying used often in Alberta: "If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute." There were probably even more people using the well-worn line after the past two days of the Calgary Stampede.

On Sunday, we got through the rodeo without any showers.  But an ominous black cloud circling around the grandstand waited until about half way through the nightly chuckwagon races before busting loose. There were actually pictures of funnel clouds from the neighbourhood just north of Calgary, in Airdrie, Alta.

Then Monday started out a bit cloudy, but still warm. Wouldn’t you know it? The sky blackened up again in the afternoon. This time it happened a little earlier. The barrel racers got through their event dry, but for the bull riders, not so much.

One thing visitors to Alberta often comment on is the wide-open sky, and how much they can see. Well, you can see about three different weather patterns in that big sky when these systems roll in.

In fact, CBC Bold Stampede commentator Jim van Horne said they didn’t even see the system moving in Sunday night, because from the direction they were pointed, all they could see was sunshine! Lots were caught unaware, without jackets or rain gear. But everyone at the races soon realized what had been moving in rapidly. The downpour soaked everything and everyone, in short order. We’re talking wet-to-the-bone soaked.

Just imagine being one of those working with electronic equipment when the thunder and lightning struck. It was a mad dash for cover!

Slickers worth every penny

Most in the cowboy world are very familiar with the fickle nature of Alberta’s summertime weather. So there’s always a cowboy "slicker" close at hand, along with a plastic cover to put on the cowboy hats. And it’s during a rainstorm when even newbies with the western headgear begin to appreciate why those high-crowned, big-brimmed hats are so important to those who make their living outdoors. When the rain begins flowing off the front and back, and your head stays dry, that straw structure becomes worth every penny.

The slickers are not exactly fashion statements. They’re usually a grubby brown or musty green oilskin — heavy, a bit smelly and long. But they do the trick to keep you dry. I know that first hand, after spending many a rainy rodeo in mine.

And people without slickers become creative too. Even black garbage bags with holes sliced in the right place can help a bit.

The thing about rodeo and chuckwagon racing is that if it could only take place in perfect weather, it wouldn’t happen very often in Alberta. So the events go ahead rain or shine. Only rarely are rodeos or races cancelled, and only then if the safety of livestock becomes at risk. Those involved just make some clothing adjustments and carry on.

A sudden downpour does make working conditions difficult for all. The chuckwagon races had a 10-minute delay while the grooming equipment switched from "dry" to "wet" mode. The rain changes the ground to "slick," and then "sticky." So the gals making the pattern around the barrels in the rodeo were very glad to get done before the sky opened up.

TV crew toughs it out

The bull riders just had to tough it out. Keep in mind they use rosin on their flat-braided rope. They heat it up by rubbing it, as they wrap it around their wrist just before they begin their ride. The rain makes the rope slippery instead of sticky, and there were at least a couple of cowboys making a great bull ride, only to have their ropes slide right out of their hands as they went flying off a second or two early. You can just see the cash slipping through their hands when that happens.

It was also tough on all the CBC broadcast crew, but they soldiered on to keep the great mud pictures coming.

The good news in all this? Twenty minutes later, the sun was out and another beautiful summer day continued, with that minor glitch soon just a sloppy memory.

Shirts and jeans and shoes will eventually dry out. Mud can be washed off. Arena puddles evaporate. Before you know it, dust will re-appear.

In case you’re wondering how I fared in the rain: I must admit, even though I’ve been around this game a day or two I left my slicker in my truck in the parking lot a long way from the arena. Gotta tell you I dashed for an inside spot and sat it out until the sunshine returned.

The next Stampede forecast? More of the same. Tomorrow, I’ll bring the slicker.

BEHIND THE CHUTES: Just to follow up, bareback rider Travis Whiteside came out of retirement to ride at the Calgary Stampede. But call him officially done now. After experiencing severe pain in his back and neck during earlier rides this week, he had a CT Scan done. The Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team took a close look at those pictures today, and told Whiteside he’s got a crushed disc pressing on his spine. It’s only aggravated when he rides. They told him he might be able to get through his last few scheduled rides all right, or he might wind up with that pain permanently. It was a risk, and after evaluating, Whiteside wisely made the call he’d rather not hurt it further. As difficult as it was for him, he withdrew today, and from the rest of the Stampede. He’ll hang up his rigging with no regrets, and his great 92.5-point ride on the Stampede’s Grated Coconut just a week ago at Ponoka will be a lasting memory he’ll savour.

Steer wrestler Tanner Milan was packed off to the hospital on Day 3, after a steer’s head hit him square and hard in the chest. The verdict was a badly bruised sternum. But he hadn’t won a dime here yet, so he made the decision to go ahead. It came with some pain, but in Round 4 he gritted through a run in just 3.8 seconds. That was good enough for second place, and $4000 in the round. To make it sweeter, the cowboy who beat him was his own brother, and Baillie Milan won enough to get a direct pass to Sunday’s showdown round. Tanner has until Saturday to heal up and try again.

Saddle bronc rider Jeff Willert is riding with a very sore tailbone after an incident suffered just before the Stampede during an awkward landing smack dab on the cantle of his saddle. But he’s kept going, and today he marked 89.5 points on a Calgary horse called Lynx Mountain to win the round, and enough cash to get him right through to Sunday as well.

And in case you read about Dusty LaValley in the last blog, he wound up a half point short of placing in round four. So he’ll hit the road, and be back to try again on Wild Card Saturday.


Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!