Every July since 1912, Calgary ’s perennial rough-and-ready cow town image has been thrust to the forefront when a fever known as Stampede hits town. For 10 days, Calgarians let their hair down—business leaders don Stetsons, bankers wear boots, half the town walks around in too-tight denim outfits, and the rate of serious crime drops. Nine months later, maternity hospitals report a rise in business.
For most Calgarians, it is known simply as The Week (always capitalized). The Stampede is many things to many people but is certainly not for the cynic. It is a celebration of the city’s past—of endless sunny days when life was broncos, bulls, and steers, of cowboys riding through the streets, and saloons on every corner.
But it is not just about the past. It’s the cow town image Calgarians cherish, and the frontier image that visitors expect. On downtown streets, everyone is your neighbor. Flapjacks and bacon are served free of charge around the city; normally staid citizens shout “Ya-HOO!” for no particular reason; Indians ride up and down the streets on horseback; and there’s drinking and dancing until dawn every night.
The epicenter of the action is Stampede Park, immediately south of the city center, where more than 100,000 people converge each day. The nucleus of the Stampede, the park hosts the world’s richest outdoor rodeo and the just-as-spectacular chuck wagon races, where professional cowboys from all over the planet compete to share $1.6 million over 10 days.
But Stampede Park offers a lot more than a show of cowboy skills. The gigantic midway takes at least a day to get around: a staggering number of attractions, displays, and free entertainment cost only the price of gate admission; and a glittering grandstand show, complete with fireworks, ends each day’s shenanigans.
Although Stampede Park opens on Thursday evening for Sneak-a-Peek (an event that alone attracts approximately 40,000 eager patrons), Stampede Week officially begins Friday morning with a spectacular parade through the streets of downtown Calgary . The approximately 150 parade participants include close to 4,000 people and 700 horses, and the procession takes two hours to pass any one point.
It features an amazing array of floats, each cheered by the 250,000 people who line the streets up to 10 deep. The loudest “Ya-HOOs” are usually reserved for Alberta’s oldest residents, Stampede royalty, and members of Calgary’s professional sports teams; but this is the Stampede, so even politicians and street sweepers elicit enthusiastic cheers.
The pinnacle of any cowboy’s career is walking away with the $100,000 winner’s check on the last day of competition in the Calgary Stampede. For the first 8 days, 20 of the world’s best cowboys and cowgirls compete in 2 pools for the right to ride on the final Sunday. Saturday is a wildcard event. On each of the 10 days, the rodeo starts at 1:30 p.m.
Although Stampede Week is about a lot more than the rodeo, everyone loves to watch this event. Cowboys compete in bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, calf roping, and steer wrestling, and cowgirls compete in barrel racing. Bull fighting and nonstop chatter from hilarious rodeo clowns all keep the action going between the more traditional rodeo events.
The Rangeland Derby chuck wagon races feature nine heats each evening starting at 8 p.m. At the end of the week, the top four drivers from the preliminary rounds compete in a $100,000 dash-for-the-cash final. Chuck wagon racing is an exciting sport any time, but at the Stampede the pressure is intense as drivers push themselves to stay in the running.
The grandstand in the infield makes steering the chuck wagons through an initial figure eight difficult, heightening the action before they burst onto the track for what is known as the Half Mile of Hell to the finish line. The first team across the finish line does not always win the race; drivers must avoid 34 penalties, ranging from 1 to 10 seconds, which are added to their overall time.
Agricultural displays are situated in the center of Stampede Park. Centennial Fair is an outdoor stage with children’s attractions such as duck races and magicians. In the Agricultural Building livestock is displayed, and the World Blacksmith’s Competition and horse shows take place next door in the John Deere Show Ring.
At the far end of Stampede Park, across the Elbow River, is Indian Village. Here, members of the five nations who signed Treaty Seven 100 years ago—the Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, Sarcee, and Stoney—set up camp for the duration of the Stampede. Each tepee has its own colorful design. Behind the village is a stage where native dance competitions are held.
Once you’ve paid gate admission, all entertainment (except the rodeo and chuck wagon races) is free. Well-known Canadian performers appear at the outdoor Coca-Cola Stage from 11 a.m. to midnight. Nashville North is an indoor venue with a bar, live country acts, and a dance floor; open until 2 a.m.
Advance tickets for the afternoon rodeos and evening chuck wagon races/grandstand shows go on sale the year before the event (usually sometime in September), with the best seats selling out well in advance. The best views are from the “A” section, closest to the infield yet high enough not to miss all the action. Ticket prices for the first eight days of rodeo competition range $35–75 ($56 for section A). The evening chuck wagon races/grandstand shows run $42–84 ($72 for section A). Tickets to both the rodeos and chuck wagon races/grandstand shows include admission to Stampede Park. Order tickets by phone (403/269-9822 or 800/661-1767) or online (www.calgarystampede.com ).
If you didn’t purchase your tickets in advance, you’ll need to pay the $14 general admission at the gate. Then, once on the grounds, you can purchase “rush seating” tickets for the afternoon’s rodeo (adult $15, child $8) or the chuck wagon race/grandstand show (adult $20, child $12). You’ll only have access to either an area of the infield with poor views or seats well away from the action.
Check either of Calgary ’s daily newspapers for a pull-out section with results of the previous day’s competition and a schedule of events on the grounds and around town. At Stampede Park, a schedule and maps are available at distinctive Howdy Folk Chuckwagons topped with cowboy hats and staffed by friendly volunteers.
For future dates for the Calgary Stampede, contact the Calgary Stampede office at 403/261-0101 or 800/661-1260, www.calgarystampede.com .