Next month, about 1.4 million rodeo lovers are expected to pass through the gates of Stampede Park, keen on chuckwagon races, smoked grub and a raucous carnival, all experienced from under the brim of a cowboy hat. I’m here early, a city slicker (read: Torontonian) come to sample what’s on offer to a “cowgirl” before the mammoth party rolls into town, for the 100th time, this July 6.
As I heave my luggage off the carousel at YYC, I spot my first Calgary white hat. “It’s well worn in,” says the owner, Lyla, an airport greeter nicely bronzed by Alberta’s gleaming afternoon rays.
I start my journey by leaving the city, speeding past the taupe burbs that have mushroomed all over Calgary’s foothills, to where the jagged Rockies pierce the horizon. I’m headed for Boundary Ranch, which offers horse rides through the Kananaskis Valley two hours outside Calgary. The vista’s all sunshine, moss-green pines and limestone mountains creased with lines of coal as the Kananaskis River rolls beside the highway. Deer and big horn sheep graze by the side of the road; the valley’s also loaded with grizzlies, coyotes and wolves whose howls you can hear at night – as well as elks’ cries as the wolves set upon them, one local tells me.
Pulling in to Boundary Ranch, I’m greeted by third-generation cowgirl Haylie Guinn. Her grandfather corralled wild horses in the valley and the original coral still sits on the property. He was also a Stampeder, competing in saddle bronc in the 1930s; Guinn’s father did the same in the 1970s. Put on a horse at an unfathomable one week old, Guinn was riding by the age of 4.
“It’s our heritage, so I think it’s neat for people to be able to experience that again,” Guinn, 30, says of the family ranch, which stables about 90 horses from May to October.
In her black cowboy hat, western shirt, jeans and boots, Guinn’s a bona fide cowgirl, but with a modern twist: When she’s not turning back to gab during my two-hour ride, she takes business calls on her BlackBerry.
The ride weaves up and down through the valley along wide trails cut by prisoners of war during the Second World War. The pines that surround us are more than 70 years old and hung with black and green lichen – “witches’ hair” Guinn calls it.
The perfume of thawing pines blends with the scent of the warm leather saddle, and it’s intoxicating.
Two hours later, I’m bowlegged and thirsty for a beer. I head into nearby Canmore, which exploded in 1988 after that winter’s Olympics. An affluent community of buff retirees, professional athletes in training and golden-skinned Australians working seasonal jobs, everyone appears to be in perfect shape. I watch them on a packed patio at the Woods, which also boasts a ridiculous view of the Three Sisters mountain range, still capped with snow. To complete the portrait, magpies swoop about, all azure markings and majestic pleated wings. Locals complain they’re the “seagull of Alberta,” but to an outsider, they’re magic.
Heading into Calgary the following day, I decide on a cowgirl self-dare for lunch: prairie oysters at Buzzards and Bottlescrew Bill’s, which hosts the “Testicle Festival” throughout the Stampede, luring people to line up around the block for the balls of castrated male calves.
“In Southern Alberta in calving season in the spring, part of the tradition is you fry up the testicles over the same fire that you use to heat up the branding irons,” explains Stewart Allan, owner of the restaurant, which uses an oven.
“When you’re blanching them, it smells like a wet dog trapped in grandma’s house. It’s brutal,” gripes chef Aaron Scherr, who goes through about 60 kilograms of the stuff every Stampede, which he likens to Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. This year, Scherr will do a “bacon-wrapped tender-groin” with whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet corn succotash. Served up, the prairie oysters are sliced up into coins and taste like liver, only blander.