Can you imagine London without Wimbledon, Boston without its signature marathon, or Pasadena canceling the Rose Bowl?
For many Calgarians, the Calgary Stampede is the equivalent to these major events, ingrained into the fabric of the city. Besides the 1988 Winter Olympics, it's the thing that makes us different.
Sure, it has its detractors: naysayers calling it tacky and gauche for the 21st century, while animal rights activists make their yearly pilgrimage to the gates to decry the barbaric treatment of animals. But for some folks, it's their bread and butter; and the fact that even a world war couldn't stop the event has led many to believe that delaying or canceling the festival would be unfathomable.
The city of Calgary and the surrounding communities prides itself on its western heritage; the 10-day cowboy festival in early July of each year being the jewel in that crown. Its rodeo is world-famous, some even going as far as calling it the world's richest rodeo. The Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races, first held in 1923, is a unique event, and for the drivers competing in the sport, being there can mean financial life or death.
The flooding across Southern Alberta made that unfathomable thought an eerie possibility. The images of the devastation left after the floodwaters receded were heartbreaking: entire communities devastated, homes destroyed, rail lines and roads washed away. The devastation was repeated in many places across the region, from Canmore to High River. For two-time world champion barrel racer and Nanton, Alberta resident Lindsay Sears, living less than 20 miles away from one of the hardest hit towns in High River, means she has seen the devastation first hand during her commute from country to city.
"I've known (the town for) my entire life, and it looks nothing like it was, and likely will never look like it ever did." Sears says, her voice trembling. "Your heart breaks because there are people there that have lost everything, and it seems unimaginable to me, and I don't know how they're handling it...I just can't imagine it."
The ground where the yearly festival is held was not spared either; the Elbow River that cradles the park to the east and south spilled its banks, flooding the Saddledome and the festival grounds. Looking at the images, it was pretty hard to believe that anyone would be able to pull off a major western festival there, let alone be able to get all that floodwater gone.
But as the rivers stopped overflowing their banks, something miraculous happened: armies of volunteers arose from nowhere, gathering from points far and wide to help in the clean-up efforts. Neighbours came together, and strangers simply helped one another without being asked. Basements were cleaned out, flood damaged goods were removed, sandwiches were made and language barriers were bridged. For Calgary and many other Southern Alberta towns, they slowly came back to life.
So it was probably a shock to most casual observers when on Thursday July 4th, the gates were swung open to visitors for the 92nd edition of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Walking around the grounds, one would have to go out of their way to find any signs that a devastating flood had taken place, a feat was achieved thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and staff working around the clock, cleaning out flood damaged buildings, and resurfacing the race track and infield arena. Getting the flooded Saddledome ready in time, despite early claims that it would be, proved to be a task too far. But within a span of less than two weeks after the floodwaters receded, the show was ready to go for a flood-battered city and region, a small miracle that begot this year's unofficial slogan, "Come Hell or High Water".
The on-time opening meant Calgarians and other visitors could play their favourite midway games while wearing their finest western wear; cowboy hats, boots and all, while enjoying fine carnival fare such as deep fried butter and double bacon corn dogs at the time scheduled. But for those who rely on the rich financial rewards of the rodeo and the chuckwagon races, they were breathing a huge sigh of relief.
It's likely many of you have seen the iconic images of the rodeo like the bucking bronco and cowboy, but few living outside Canada's three westernmost provinces have heard of chuckwagon racing. First included in the Calgary Stampede in 1923 by the festival's brainchild Guy Weadick, the origins of the sport come from the wagon drivers of the old west. These days, drivers drive wagons hitched to thoroughbred horses around the track, along with a number of outriders. Daily monetary prizes of up to CAN$5,000 are awarded, along with a $100,000 cheque to the overall champion of the 10-day event; it's a vast improvement from the $25 daily top prize and a Smithbilt hat for the overall winner at the first races.
And as anyone who follows horse racing to any degree knows: thoroughbred horses don't come cheap. It's a fact that's not lost on fourth generation driver Jordie Fike. A former major junior hockey player with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, the 26-year old High River native has been around the wagons for most of his life. His grandfather Ron David and great-grandfather Wilbur David are legends in the sport, while his brother Chad Fike is an outrider (one of the horsemen who follow the wagons.)
I met him and his family at the barns early on a Wednesday morning, as they were finishing up their chores. During our interview, Jordie showed me some of his horses, one of them being Rover, a 5-year old chestnut thoroughbred that he and his wife Tamara had purchased from the Hastings Park racecourse in Vancouver. And as we spoke, Rover couldn't stop nuzzling up to his owner: the love is clearly mutual.
But that love doesn't come cheap; purchasing Rover was one of many huge investments that Fike has had to make in the six years he's been driving, two with the Canadian Pro Chuckwagon Association (CPCA) and four with the World Pro Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) circuit, the two major governing bodies of the sport. 2013 will be his second year qualifying for Calgary, and so far at the show he has pulled some respectable times without garnering any time penalties, but as of Thursday night that puts him in 20th place out of 36 wagons, not enough to get into the higher echelons of the leaderboard but the day money gained will be enough to earn the family's keep for the season.
When the chuckwagons are parked in the winter, he's a welder and a truck driver; a common sight for all drivers in this seasonal sport. The hefty bill for competitors means a steady income in the winter is needed, along with good performances on the tour. The Calgary Stampede, with its rich rewards, becomes massive.
"It's our biggest financial weekend of the year," Fike tells me. "We bank on it, and we have it in our budget. Without it, we'd be in huge trouble."
And what if, heaven forbid, the Stampede was cancelled?
"A lot of drivers would be in very rough shape financially. The horses will still get looked after as good as they do right now, but we would have a lot of shortfalls...we'd be going into pretty heavy debt."
Meanwhile three rows away, fellow competitor and High River resident Jason Glass is also prepping for his day at the races. A three time WPCA World Champion, he has won many awards at the Stampede, including the aggregate award for the fastest time through the first nine nights of the event twice. He's been in the marquee "Dash for Cash" $100,000 final race six times, but the championship that his father Tom has won four times, has so far eluded the younger Glass, finishing first in last year's marquee race before being pegged back by penalties to hand the Stampede crown to Troy Dorchester.
But in 2013, he's in a good place; when we spoke he was riding high in the leaderboard, jostling with fellow driver Rick Fraser. Being at the top has its own perks: not only does the fastest time over the first eight nights win a truck, but they also qualify for "Semifinal Saturday" where the fastest eight wagons will race for a slot in Sunday night's "Dash for Cash". Everyone else will keep running, but only for a share of the smaller daily pot.
Standings aside, other ways the younger Glass is similar to Fike: a fourth generation racer, with many forebears also making a name in the sport. While he's had success at other oval dirt tracks, Calgary clearly remains close to his heart, and he believes that Stampede being up and running shows what the western spirit is all about. "(It can) raise awareness of what happened to Alberta, and for all the people who have come from all around the world to see what has happened to our province."
While the floods didn't affect Jason directly, the same can't be said for his father Tom, a retired four time Stampede champion, who now makes his living working in the movie business and for the past three summers has been in the commentary box with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's coverage of the chuckwagon races. He had shared the story of his and his neighbours' escape with a national television audience during the opening weekend, something he shared again with me on a Tuesday evening before he was due to take the commentators' chair.
"Well, I have a quarter section of land, a quarter of a mile south of the Sheep River that runs into Okotoks and joins up with the Highwood at High River. At about six in the morning (on June 21, 2013) it jumped its banks and came through my property; the whole river changed course from a half a mile north of us, to half a mile south."
With rains continuing to fall and the elder Glass having no clue as to what direction Mother Nature would send the Sheep River next, and with both families having young children (including two of Glass's own grandchildren), they made the call and were shortly evacuated by a helicopter from the local air ambulance service. It was a harrowing escape, one of many that was repeated across the region.
But as the Glasses were being evacuated, when the floods hit High River, it was almost by coincidence that the WPCA circuit was in town for one of its last major tour stops before the sport's equivalent of the Indianapolis 500. Fike, his wife and fellow competitors were furiously trying to get people out.
"We were preparing to race on Thursday night, and then we got the call about 3 AM to evacuate the rodeo grounds, so I was in there with a loader pulling semi-trailer loads of horses out of there, because they couldn't get traction on the slippery mud. Meanwhile, my wife was in town helping people evacuate, including a 93-year old man. He's now living in our house because he's lost his home."
With this kind of devastation, one would expect that fatalities would be high; but all authorities have confirmed so far only three deaths across the region. But the toll on property is huge, with early estimates of $3 billion to $5 billion being bandied about, much of it uninsurable (Many Canadian insurance companies do not offer flood insurance.) While various levels of government have pledged to assist in whatever ways they can, and many volunteers giving their time to helping victims of this disaster, the financial toll is staggering to say the least.
But fortunately there has been no shortage of donations flowing in, and that has included the chuckwagon community. Jason Glass, for one, has been relatively prominent in his contributions. While he hasn't been affected badly by the flood, the fact that he has been away racing on the WPCA circuit means he hasn't been able to help out with the flood relief efforts.
"We've been part of High River for a lot of years, and High River has been great to us. There are so many good people who live in that area, and when something like this happens it's important for everyone to help each other out no matter what you gotta do. And it's hard because you're not down there physically and be helping, so at this point it's all we can really do."
So far, Glass and his sponsor, a local GMC dealership, have kicked in about $60,000 towards relief efforts, of which $6,000 was from the younger Glass's day money winnings on Day 4 where he set a blazing time of 1:13:26 along the "Half Mile of Hell". Other drivers, like Rae Croteau, Jr., have pledged much more; the 14 year veteran driver that counts Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross as a member of his crew and has a rainbow coloured wagon that he has lovingly called the "Badass Rainbow", has pledged about 10% of his winnings over the course of the entire festival towards relief efforts.
But why would Croteau do so? The Bonnyville, Alberta native was nowhere near the floods and had no obligation to give away cash that he could use. But as Croteau explains, the idea of community comes to play.
"I believe in helping other countries and everything, but when it's our own that's in need it's important to give back because they're always supporting us and our sport, coming out to the events and supporting the western traditions and lifestyle. If you think about it this way, it's going to be winter in a few months, and most of the people (still affected) still have their houses destroyed...so I'm hoping whatever we give, will help somebody."
While Croteau hasn't had the best show so far, racking up 10 seconds in time penalties for various infractions that has him sitting 26th in the aggregate standings as of Thursday evening, it's still looking to be a nice chunk of change. But all the money in the world may not be able to heal all hearts. After finishing her run on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon that while the Stampede is going happening, Lindsey Sears provided a harsh reminder that while we are at the festival, there are still folks who need help.
"You come here (to the Stampede) and you kind of forget about it, but then I have to drive home and right by the flood zone...being at the Stampede, you forget all about it, and I feel guilty because High River is under such duress."
But still, despite some comments that the festival is an inappropriate distraction that's taking up valuable resources in a time when so many are still suffering elsewhere, many Calgarians still agreed that it was a necessary distraction that had to go on. So the Stampede isn't exactly a Wimbledon or a Boston Marathon, but it's still the city's big day in the sun.
So while many just see it for its midway games and carnival culinary delights, beyond those glittering lights and fireworks of the grandstand shows; inside the barns past the infield and in farms and towns outside the city, there are those who hold the festival close to their hearts. Even if the attendance numbers are down, the fact that it's happening is a testament to many and a beacon of hope to a city and region affected by the massive flood.
And besides, who can resist deep fried butter, with a side of rip-snorting bull riding and pulse pounding chuckwagon racing? I sure as heck can't. (Maybe not the pastry-encrusted fried fat though...)
UPDATE: In a thrilling final on the night of Sunday, July 14th, Jason Glass became the fourth driver in his family to win the Rangeland Derby, holding off a late charge down the home stretch from Kirk Sutherland to capture his maiden Calgary Stampede championship.
Asked about the High River situation in his post-victory scrum, Glass said that the situation in his hometown put what he was doing into perspective. "The devastation in High River, it wasn't in the back of my mind, it was at the front the whole time we were here... I stress about it so much, and I worry about it. And for some reason, (what is happening in High River) helped relieve some of that pressure. What we're doing here, all of a sudden wasn't that big of a deal."
Rae Croteau Jr. finished 27th in the aggregate, missing out on the 12 automatic qualification slots for 2014; but Croteau along with his sponsors still delivered a $10,000 cheque to the flood relief efforts. Jordie Fike finished in 17th place, a marked improvement from his 24th place standing during his last appearance in 2011.
Lindsey Sears failed to qualify for the Sunday showdown, finishing in 22.59 seconds in a repechage run on Saturday.
Thank you to the staff at the Calgary Stampede for their gracious assistance, as well as Kristin Knowles for her editing help, as well as Ryan Johnston for his photo of the floods. A special thank you goes to Glenn Campbell for pointing this urbanite greenhorn in the right direction at covering his first rodeo (literally!) - thanks, pardner.
If you would like to help out with the ongoing flood relief efforts (or for the recovery in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec) please visit the Canadian Red Cross's site and make a donation today.
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