It’s 5:30 a.m. and the July sun has just made its lazy appearance over Scotsman Hill. Creeping over the chuckwagon barns, it warms cowboys walking the thoroughbreds needing to cool off after early morning workouts. I’ve grown up visiting the Calgary Stampede, but I’ve never been behind the scenes before. The atmosphere, even this early in the morning, is electric.
Once chores are done, there’s a subtle energy shift. The Stampede’s chaplain makes his rounds, giving encouraging words to cowboys down on their luck. Outriders swap horses for bikes, catching up with one another as bacon begins to sizzle on portable griddles. The smoky scent mingles with the fresh hay that’s just been laid down.
Most chuckwagon families head back to their trailers to rustle up breakfast, but not the iconic Dorchester clan. They feed their entire crew at the barns. “Do you make omelettes to order?” I ask with a grin. Given the reaction, I understand that back here you get what you get.
Pancake Posse Volunteers
Across town an even bigger breakfast extravaganza is getting underway. Over four tonnes (8,820 lb) of sausage and nine tonnes (19,842 lb) of pancake mix – enough batter to fill an Olympic size swimming pool – sizzle on griddles during 10 days of Stampede breakfasts. In the more than 30 years Ruth Ann Rayner has volunteered with the Stampede Caravan Committee, she’s lost count of how many pancakes she’s personally flipped. But one thing she never forgets is the look on the people’s faces when they realize the abundance of free food and entertainment they’re about to receive.
Though the Stampede operates with a core staff, many of the fundamentals – from pancake breakfasts to livestock evaluation and the parade – are run by over 3,000 volunteers. It’s no surprise to me, as volunteerism is part of the core fabric of Calgary. People want to be connected with the Stampede and take a lot of pride in this event and their city.
World’s Premiere Chuckwagon Event
Every year, the Stampede becomes the third largest city in Alberta. Like any city, there are local celebrities and at the Stampede, the chuckwagon drivers get most of the attention. They gallop through rural Alberta luring fans to small rodeo fields, but the Stampede is their stadium. You know you’ve made it when you receive an invitation to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth – and with it the opportunity to race in front of thousands.
Once the rodeo lets out in late afternoon, Stampede Park teems with visitors either finishing off their day or just wandering in. Back at the barns, golf carts delivering hay and outriders blaze through the crowd. Massive tents have been erected as hosting stations for the chuckwagon sponsors. By the time a Canadian military helicopter trailing an enormous Canadian flag sweeps over the crowd, the barns have emptied out. For the chuckwagon drivers it’s the period of relative calm before the storm. Once horses are hitched to their wagons, they trot eagerly towards the track, plumes of dust billowing in their wake.
The horses don’t have to be told it’s showtime – these athletes know what they’re here for. They’ve been waiting for it all day. The sun, now melting behind the Grandstand, signals the end of the day. But, for the lucky team of horses riding into the sunset, it’s just begun.