In Alberta for the Calgary Stampede, a writer makes a detour at a working ranch
Cowboyin’ in Canada
STORY BY KENDRA STREY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTOR ENGLEBERT
paused atop my mare, Chic, and took a deep breath. From this crest, I had a sweeping view of a green valley topped by a sky that was clear save for a couple of cumulus clouds. The only sounds came from the rolling creek that cut in to the pasture’s edge and the sporadic lowing of cows. What a difference from the sea of gray office cubicles I’d left behind. My task here was to move a herd of cattle to fresh pasture. Two other riders and myself, all of us guests at a working ranch, and our host had just summited a hill that afforded a bird’s-eye view of our charges: 50 or so cows, some huddled under shady trees, others scattered and mindlessly munching grass. I hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to get from up here to down there. In contrast to the gentle slope I’d just scaled, the route that confronted me led down what looked like a 90-degree angle, peppered with boulders in all the wrong places. I was spending the weekend at Bent Creek Ranch in Fort Macleod, a rural southern Alberta community about 30 miles north of Canada’s border with Montana. I’d traveled this far north to attend the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day citywide extravaganza that has been drawing folks to Alberta since 1912. Throw into a blender a rodeo, an ag expo, the world’s best cow dogs, chuck wagon cooks, carnival rides, tepees, rowdy honkytonks, and 1.2 million cowboy hats, and the Stampede is what you’d get. But why come all this way to have the fun stop there? Calgary lies smack in the middle of Alberta’s Cowboy Trail, a 435-mile scenic driving route in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In between its endpoints are more than 70 attractions, including pioneer villages, antiques shops,
saloons, dance halls, and Alberta aboriginals interpretive centers. Accommodations range from campgrounds and inns—with easy access to river rafting, horseback riding, and other activities—to more than 20 working ranches that invite visitors to get a taste of cowboyin’. Cowboyin’ is what drew me to Bent Creek Ranch for a couple days before the Stampede. Owners Gerry and Kathy Karchuck take in guests of all experience levels, whether it’s their first time in the saddle or they’re old pros looking to tag along on a multiday cattle drive. Guests who can stay longer might learn how to rope or tackle a river crossing or even lend a hand with spring branding. Because it had been 20 years since I’d been on a horse, I’d risen early to practice my riding skills in the arena. The morning began with my extremely ungraceful mount, achieved mostly by kicking my free leg while pulling myself up into the saddle. Once I’d met Gerry’s approval, though, we loaded our horses into a trailer and headed to the pasture where the herd was grazing. Sitting atop that crest, I was still strategizing my descent when Gerry took off, his horse trotting down the hillside with ease. Uli, an eight-timereturning ranch guest, followed. Third up was Victor, a photographer who was balancing two massive lenses, a camera bag, and a tripod and still somehow managed to stay in the saddle. I wasn’t about to let them have all the fun, so I nudged Chic onward. Fortunately, she has more experience being a horse than I have being a rider, so we made it to the bottom safely. As the herd responded to the guys’ hollers, Chic’s ears pricked forward, and she danced excitedly. In an instant she was off, chasing a rascally calf back toward the herd. We finished our task in an hour—a good
Wide-Open Spaces: (From top left) The writer warms up at the Bent Creek arena; ranch guests move the herd to fresh pasture.
IF YOU GO
The Cowboy Way: Riders load up their horses after a hard day’s work.
Bent Creek Western Vacations (866) 553-3974; bentcreek.ca The Cowboy Trail Tourism Association Information on attractions along Alberta’s Cowboy Trail; (866) 627-3051; thecowboy trail.com Calgary Stampede (800) 661-1260; calgarystampede .com Alberta Tourism (800) ALBERTA [252-3782]; travelalberta.com
thing because the horizon hinted that a storm was rolling in, and the thunder, even at this distance, warned it would be a vicious one. The rain was falling when our car pulled in to Bent Creek. Gerry and I relaxed in the living room while Kathy cooked dinner. “So on a scale of 1 to 10,” I asked, “with 1 meaning I should go back to the city and 10 meaning you’d hire me for the fall cattle drive, how’d I do?” Gerry wrinkled his brow. “Considering your progress from this morning to this afternoon, a seven,” he said. A couple points shy of upper crust, but good enough for me. The burning pain to my inner knees and thighs was proof of my effort. I had earned my supper for sure. Kathy rang the chuck bell, and Victor, Uli, and I elbowed each other for first in line as if we were family. We ate Alberta beef—“of course,” Gerry said when I inquired—and washed it down with a Rickard’s, one of Canada’s top-selling beers. Canadians take pride in their home products in
much the same way Texans do anything (or anyone) hailing from the Lone Star State—just one of the ways I learned that Alberta lives up to its nickname, the Texas of Canada. After dinner, Gerry and I indulged in one of his favorite pastimes, Lonesome Dove trivia, while the film’s soundtrack played on the house sound system. As I flipped through Gerry’s copy of A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove, a book by Texan Bill Wittliff (some of his photos are on display at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University San Marcos), Gerry tested my knowledge. I had him stumped when I asked the name of Anjelica Huston’s character. (It was Clara.) I limped off to bed, and my body thanked me. I was sad this part of my trip had ended. Adventures of another kind, though, awaited in Calgary. J KENDRA STREY is the features editor of Texas Journey. For more information, visit your AAA Travel Office, call (866) 567-9217, or go to AAA.com/travel.
Calgary Stampede Best Bets The Stampede takes place over 10 days—July 3–12 this year—for good reason: So much goes on that it takes that long to see and do it all. But if you’re in town for just a couple of days, don’t miss these attractions in and around downtown Calgary. Ride around the city in a horse-drawn old-time rig. One-hour tours depart daily at 10 A.M.; tickets are available at Fluor Rope Square on a first-come, first-served basis. The rigs stop for a free pancake breakfast before continuing to the drop-off point at Stampede Park, the event’s main venue. calgarystampede.com. Call ahead to arrange a tour of Alberta Boot Company’s workshop, behind the retail storefront. Specializing in custom-made boots, this family business also manufactures boots for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (403) 263-4605; albertaboot.com. Head to Ranchman’s Cookhouse and Dancehall, where live musical entertainment starts at noon daily during Stampede Week and the line to get in wraps around the building into the wee hours of morning. (403) 253-1100; ranchmans.com. Inside Stampede Park, don’t miss the nightly chuck wagon races, in which four teams race around a 5/8-mile track. The power of 32 thoroughbreds galloping down the final stretch gets the fans out of their seats. calgarystampede.com —K.S.
36 Texas Journey | May/June 2009