Calgary Stampede

You know that saying? Well, this is my 1st rodeo

CBC's Scott Russell attended his first-ever Calgary Stampede this year, and the experience didn't disappoint. He talks about the atmosphere, the rodeo lifestyle, and, being someone who didn't grow up in this world, how he fit in.

The Stampede could be a fearful thing for a guy from the East

CBC's Scott Russell, atop 27-year-old Splash at the Calgary Stampede. (Scott Russell/CBC)

It's a cliché — I know. 

But a first trip to the Calgary Stampede is a fearful thing for a guy from the East. Everything from getting measured for a cowboy hat to buying a first pair of roper boots seems like another mountain to climb.

Walking onto the grounds for the first time in Wranglers and a starched, western-style shirt is akin to crossing the border to another land. The dress code requirements in this country are: Cowboy hats, clean jeans, and long-sleeved shirts which are pressed to perfection. People take off their hats when they shake your hand, look you in the eye and welcome you. 

As opposed to the old phrase which many of us have come to repeat, I haven't quite got this yet. It is far from my comfort zone. 

This is, indeed, my first rodeo.

"Don't worry. You'll look legit," said Brian Hanson, the master hatter at Smithbilt, who carefully shaped my headgear made of fine grey felt.

Myrtle, at Lammle's Western Wear, was philosophical about the boots.

"You have to work a little to get them on," she figured, "but keep at it…sooner or later they'll fit you like a glove."

'Elevate your mind, your heart, your spirit'

It seems to me that attitude might apply to most newcomers at the Stampede. It will eventually be comfortable, but not at first. It's because the language is different, the rules on the field of play are foreign, and the code that seems to be implicit is one which I don't yet understand.

Bob Tallman, the legendary stadium announcer, has called rodeos worldwide for the last half century. He's my broadcast partner at this year's Stampede. I called him to introduce myself as he was en route to Calgary. In my mind's eye I envisioned him in a truck, rolling through the vast landscape of Montana.

"Well, it's a really big deal, and we'll be ready for you," Tallman, who is also a Texas rancher, drawled from his mobile phone. "When you qualify to come to the Calgary Stampede, you have to elevate your mind, your heart, your spirit, your horsepower, and your body."

Bob Tallman, a Texas rancher and Calgary Stampede stadium announcer. (Scott Russell/CBC)

This rodeo raconteur has a flair for the dramatic and I have to admit, it made me anticipate venturing to a wild-west show, a theatrical spectacle the likes of which I had never witnessed.

On the grounds, a giant grandstand meets the threshold of a neatly groomed playing surface, composed entirely of dirt. There are countless animals backstage; steers, bulls, bucking horses, ponies… all waiting to perform. 

People constantly warn you to be careful when going through gates, because the stock may be on a determined path back to the pens or to the arena. It seems to me they are, as much as the cowboys or cowgirls, the stars of the show.

"They were bred to do this," said Mellisa Hollingsworth, who slid to an Olympic medal in the sport of skeleton at the 2006 Games, and who has also competed in barrel racing. 

Now a key member of our broadcast team, Hollingsworth grew up on a ranch near Eckville, Alta., where her father Darcy raised bucking horses. 

"They are doing what they are meant to do, and what they do in their natural habitat.  They love to run and buck and play. If people had an appreciation for the animals as athletes, as well as the humans they would understand there is something natural about it. It might even be considered artistic."

Getting started

I figure that the best way to get a handle on this is to jump right in. 

I interview Ray Mitsuing, an indigenous chuckwagon driver from Loon Lake, Sask., who is racing at his last Stampede.  He's reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 and after this year's Rangeland Derby he'll hand the reins over to his son Dale. But he'll keep driving the local school bus back home, just as he's done for the past 43 years.

"Oh yeah. I've got two years left on my license and I still love teaching the kids about the importance of treating the animals right," Mitsuing chuckled. "It gives a fella a good reason to get up in the morning."

Scott Russell with Ray Mitsuing. (Scott Russell/CBC)

The chuckwagon racing is awesomely exciting and incredibly terrifying at the same time. It was conceived at the Stampede decades ago and as the wagons thunder around the track there is always the possibility of a wreck. The fans thrill to it night after night and the drivers and outriders choreograph a series of mad dashes, each with the possibility of drawing the capacity crowd out of their seats.

Tom Glass comes from a chuckwagon racing dynasty which has been competing here for nearly a hundred years. He's the analyst in the booth with CBC's Doug Dirks, and looks like the movie stunt man that he is. Glass has won the Rangeland Derby four times over the course of his career and knows that claiming the first prize of $100,000 and the "Dash for Cash" can mean everything to each of the 36 drivers at every edition of the Stampede.

"It will change their lives forever," Glass offered. "I paid for my first house when I won it and I never looked back."

More than money

You get the sense there's a lot more at stake here than the money. 

There's pride, performance, and maybe more importantly, a way of life. The competitors are actually ranchers, and what they do in this sport is ultimately born from how they earn their keep and put food on the table.

The accomplished actor and aspiring country music artist Kiefer Sutherland performed at the Stampede this year at the venue known as "Nashville North." His band played songs which he's written. The crowd ate it up, and Sutherland, who traces his roots to Weyburn, Sask., spent some time in his youth as a tie-down roper on the American rodeo circuit.

He appreciates what this is all about.

Keifer Sutherland. (Scott Russell/CBC)

"It's glamorous to people watching from the outside but it's a lot of hard work," Sutherland estimated.

"Just because someone's running a cattle ranch and they enjoy doing it doesn't mean there aren't other things they might have wanted to try. For the cowboys there's a freedom in that but there are a lot of them, who if they don't win this event, have to go back home and right back to work."

"It is dangerous and this is not a game," Bob Tallman advised. "In bull riding, the bull has got you 10 or 12 times to one in muscle, power, and behaviour. They breed them to be helicopters…they can go up and down and sideways. These bulls today are so smart that they buck with their eyes wide open. There are animals here capable of doing a 360-degree turn in the air, and they weigh 1700 pounds."

It is breathtaking to be sure.

From the perspective of the chutes, where the humans board the enormous animals and aspire to hold on to a bucking horse or a bull for a mere eight seconds, the adrenaline rush is palpable. 

The animals are unpredictable and they can often crash and bang with a terrifying thunder before they begin their quest to shed their human cargo. In the ranks of the cowboys there are few rivals and countless compatriots. For instance in steer wrestling, one rider might haze or guide a steer for his fellow competitor. 

A bull rider at the Calgary Stampede. (Scott Russell/CBC)

Everybody's looking for a good performance…to be the best they can collectively be in their various matches against the beasts.

"It's a bit of a misnomer and people often have an interesting view of rodeo," said Butch Knowles, who describes the action for CBC from the six events featured here; tie-down roping, bareback, saddle bronc, barrel racing, steer wrestling, and bull riding.

Knowles is a former saddle bronc champion at the highest level in the United States, and his son, nephew, and niece are competing here in Calgary. Along with his broadcasting at rodeos throughout America, Knowles operates a ranch in Oregon where he raises a huge herd of cattle.

"Yes, this is the west and it's kind of wild," Knowles acknowledged. "But at the rodeo and on the ranch there is a code of ethics you follow as a cowboy. It's a way of life and you live it every day. Your word is really all you have and sometimes it's to your detriment to keep it. But that's okay. I think for most of us cowboys, we like to follow the code."

The wild pony races are the last event of each performance. Three kids on each team, girls and boys, who compete together. The aim is to get a runaway pony under control and ride it to stop the clock and win the race.

There's a shankman, or anchor, with the rope, a mugger who tries to get hold of the pony by the neck, and an ambitious rider who attempts to mount the creature bareback and stay on board for a couple of hops.

Most of the time the pony wins and ends up dragging a helmeted and determined little boy or girl hanging on to the lead through the arena dirt. The fans rise to their feet to shower accolades on the beaming child who waves enthusiastically to the grandstand.

It's a testament to their courage and fortitude, and for many of them, their first foray into rodeo.

Appreciating the spectacle

My familiarity with the Stampede and its unique culture is still growing and there is no way I can speak the lingo or fully appreciate the lifestyle from the get-go. But I do feel a sense of acceptance if only I take the time to try and understand what's happening here.

The Calgary Stampede has been around for 107 years. It's a staple of the Canadian west and a fixture in this community. The Stampede and the legion of white-hatted volunteers who make it go allow the congregation to be possible.

It's billed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth." I have no doubt that it really is. It's thrilling, overwhelming, and imbued with a sense of frontier spirit. Animals and people are at the centre of the stage, showcasing something which, for a newcomer, is a source of endless fascination. It is also at the very foundation of how the country was built.

Maybe it's a national treasure we shouldn't take for granted.

At this year's Stampede, for the first time in 50 years, since I was a pre-teenager, I was given the chance to ride a horse. "Splash" was 27 years old, and he was a painted horse like the ones I had seen in so many westerns on TV.

He led me gently into the massive arena before the show began and with me upright in his saddle we posed for a picture.

Scott Russell riding Splash. (Scott Russell/CBC)

The simple joy of it was something I'll never forget and the perfect capper to my maiden voyage to the Stampede.

"I want to see that picture on TV on the final day," laughed Bob Tallman. "I told you, the rodeo will always be vibrant. The lifestyle is exciting and the history book is a mountain that nobody can ever climb to the top of. But the stories of the rodeo give us all a chance to connect our hearts and thoughts with what is happening in every unique performance."

I couldn't agree more, and I'll only get the chance to say this one, final, time. 

This is my first rodeo.

But I'll hazard a guess it won't be my last.


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