The entire city of Calgary is transformed during the Calgary Stampede. // © 2012 Calgary Stampede
A group of buckskin-clad tribesmen in full regalia stood outside colorful tepees eating freshly made bannock, the traditional fried bread of Canada’s First Nations people. In the background, the rhythmic beating of a deerskin drum signaled that a pow wow was about to begin — the warriors will need the energy the bannock provides.
Was this a scene from an old Western movie? Well, not exactly.
Each July, the City of Calgary relives its Western heritage through the Calgary Stampede, an event that is part rodeo, part music festival, part cultural exhibition and part agricultural fair and has been dubbed the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” For 10 days, the whole city sheds its modern urban image in favor of an old-time Western vibe with shops adding wooden ranch-like storefronts, restaurants transforming into saloons and residents and visitors donning Western attire.
“We’ve been doing this for 100 years now and what distinguishes the Calgary Stampede from other fairs is the fact that the event doesn’t end at the exhibition grounds,” said Doug Fraser, media relations manager for the Calgary Stampede. “Come July 6, the City of Calgary will become completely enveloped in the Stampede.”
During the event, Stampede spirit becomes an almost tangible entity as the city welcomes the world with its big-hearted, down-home friendliness. The Western welcome is so warm that the only way to feel out of place in Calgary during the Stampede is to wear a business suit instead of a pair of jeans.
No Free Lunch, But Plenty of Free Breakfasts
One of the best ways to experience the phenomenon that is Stampede spirit is by enjoying one of the many free pancake breakfasts that take place during the Stampede.
Legend has it that the first free Stampede breakfast happened by accident in 1923 when a resourceful young chuck wagon driver named Jack Morton was camping at the CPR station in downtown Calgary. Morton was a little low on cash, so he cooked up some flapjacks and invited a few other cowboys to join him and supply the syrup. Before long, the cowboys started inviting pretty much anyone who passed by to get in on the grub and the first Stampede breakfast was born.
Today there are so many free pancake breakfasts that visitors can plan their entire Stampede experience around flapjacks. There’s even a website, FlapJackFinder.com, dedicated to helping with this cause. Modern Stampede breakfasts have become a great deal more elaborate than they were in “Flapjack” Morton’s day. Besides an ample dose of Western hospitality, most Stampede breakfasts include pancakes, sausages, eggs, coffee, juice and plenty of entertainment, ranging from rodeo clowns to mobile petting zoos to Western bands.
Of all the world’s parades, the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., is the only one larger than the Stampede Parade. Joining the 350,000 live spectators that line the route is a Canadian television audience of 2 million viewers and an immeasurable international television audience. By tradition, the Stampede Parade is the kick-off event of the Calgary Stampede and, this year, there will be two hours of parade entertainment reflecting the Stampede’s centennial theme: “We’re Greatest Together.”
The parade itself will begin at 9 a.m., led by the Calgary Stampede Show Band whose members wear the traditional Calgary colors of red and white. There are often celebrities and political figures that take part — last year, the newly wedded Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Will and Kate, rode in the parade. But the real focus of the parade is on the horses, and the centennial parade will include about 850 “parade-broke” horses. Of these, the members of the Treaty 7 First Nations dressed in traditional regalia and riding horses with beautiful beaded adornments are a highlight. First Nations people have been an integral part of the parade, the rodeo and the Stampede from its very inception.
Dozens of floats, marching bands, chuck wagons, dancers and entertainers fill out the rest of the glittering display. A large contingent of deputized volunteer parade marshals not only keep the peace in the crowd, they act as cheerleaders — encouraging and choreographing enthusiastic “yeehaws” from the diverse crowd of parade-goers and promoting a rapport between the parade participants and the celebrants lining the street.
Once the parade is finished, Stampede Park officially opens its gates. With 100 years to celebrate, there are big expectations for this year’s Stampede event. Last fall, CNN International’s website listed the Calgary Stampede as one of the top 15 places in the world to “party like a rock star” and, this January, it listed Calgary as one of “the top five places to visit in 2012.”
Organizers have been working hard to make sure the centennial year is the best Stampede event ever.
“With the centennial, we’re doing a lot of things we haven’t had the opportunity to do before,” said Fraser. “The midway will have a new roller coaster named ‘Outlaw.’ There will be an 850-foot zipline across Stampede Park, and the Grandstand show will be the most spectacular in our history.”
At Stampede Park, visitors can also explore a variety of themed areas including the Indian Village, Western art displays, agricultural and livestock displays, a massive midway and kids’ play areas. There will also be a number of free live acts including trampoline acrobats, a high dive show, an ice show and a freestyle extreme motocross show.
Music is also an important part of the Calgary Stampede, with more than 250 live performances taking place over 10 days featuring a variety of styles including pop, hip hop, country, folk, rock, alternative, Native American and children’s groups. The annual Stampede Talent Search showcases young performers between the ages of 6-21 and has featured artists such as Paul Brandt and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald in the past. While the entire line-up for the Saddledome Concert series has not been revealed, organizers have confirmed that country musicians Johnny Reid and Brad Paisley will both be performing during the Stampede. With the exception of Pengrowth Saddledome, all the musical performances are included in the cost of gate admission.
The Calgary Stampede is the world’s richest rodeo and only the world’s best rodeo athletes are invited to contend for the more than $1 million in prize money. Six major events — Bareback, Bull Riding, Barrel Racing, Saddle Bronc, Steer Wrestling and Tie-Down Roping — form the backbone of the Stampede rodeo. With Novice Bareback, Novice Saddle Bronc, Junior Steer Riding and Wild Pony Racing for kids, the Stampede provides some of the best rodeo action in the world.
Good Grub, Good Music and More
The evening Grandstand Show is a welcome respite after a long day of midway and rodeo action, and this year’s grandstand show is going to be better than ever. Country music superstar, Paul Brandt, the most awarded male Canadian country music artist in history, will be featured nightly with the Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede in a show called “Century.”
“When I heard that Paul Brandt agreed to celebrate our centennial by performing in our grandstand show, I was over-the-top with excitement,” said Mike Casey, president and chairman of the Calgary Stampede board. “He has accomplished so much since he won our Calgary Stampede Talent Search and, now, he is coming back for our biggest show ever.”
“Century” will feature popular songs from the past 100 years in a fast-paced delivery that builds to the climactic finale of fireworks exploding from a three-story-tall birthday cake arriving on a big rig convoy led by Brandt.
The party doesn’t stop when celebrants step off the Stampede Grounds. Area pubs and restaurants will have special menus and host live bands and centennial events throughout the Stampede. Perhaps the most famous of these events and one that some consider a rite of passage is the annual Testicle Festival at Buzzard’s Restaurant and Bar.
Started as a prank, the event is in its 18th year and features a special menu created from prairie oysters (calf testicles).
“I had never cooked a prairie oyster before I came to Buzzard’s,” admitted executive chef Aaron Scherr. “We have a lot of fun naming and creating the dishes for the festival each year. Last year, we had a dish called ‘Crown Jewels’ in honor of the royals, Will and Kate. Surprisingly, they did not stop by the bar for a sample.”
Even though the royals didn’t make it to Buzzards last year, many others did, and the restaurant went through more than 130 pounds of prairie oysters, as well as an undetermined amount of burgers and steaks. During Stampede, advance reservations are essential at both the restaurant and the adjacent bar, which is famous for having the biggest beer list in the city at 272 labels. Those who partake in the testicle festival are welcome to buy the festival T-shirt, which has a different slogan each year. Though they haven’t revealed this year’s t-shirt slogan, past editions have included such catchy phrases as “Having a Ball” or “Going Nuts.”
Finding your clients a place to stay during the Stampede can be a challenge. Tourism Calgary has a special Web page devoted to travel professionals and an accommodation booking engine that can assist with finding hotel accommodations. To get the best rates, it may be necessary to contact individual hotels directly. For package travel, Anderson Vacations or Brewster Travel Canada are top suppliers.
No matter how visitors plan on getting there or whatever they end up doing once they arrive, the Calgary Stampede will surely provide them with a party like no other. Travel agents need to be proactive about making plans as soon as possible — especially when it comes to booking rodeo and grandstand tickets in advance — so it’s nothing but happy trails for clients.