'Next up, rodeo fans, are three boys all the way from Toronto!" the announcer bellowed cheerfully. "So let's give 'em a real Bentley welcome!"
Up in the stands, packed as they were with the rookie contestants' friends and relatives, no encouragement was needed. Cameras flashed, cowboy hats waved and cans of Kokanee collided in anticipation. But down in the chutes, where Buttercup lurked, a decidedly hostile reception was brewing.
Wild-cow milking sounded like a bit of a joke when compared with the bull-riding and calf-roping I had already witnessed during the first two hours of the 2004 Bentley Elks Indoor Rodeo. Yet the event is a staple of Alberta's smaller rodeos, which draw fans to towns such as Strathmore, Pincher Creek and Olds, to name just a few. Here, locals kick up their heels at square dances, barbecue just about anything that moves and show off their new pickup trucks, livestock and steer-wresting injuries.
These annual summer spectacles are a far cry from the roller coasters, pyrotechnics and chuckwagon races of the Calgary Stampede, which starts on Friday with a rodeo purse of $1-million and draws around 300,000 out-of-province visitors a year.
But outside the city limits, in cattle country, you get the unexpected: a chance to mingle with the brave athletes who ride, rope and wrestle; a long look at a Prairie sunset as it fades behind the Rocky Mountains; and a taste of lesser-known ranchland delicacies such as buffalo carpaccio and sweet Ukrainian sausage. And if you're lucky, a wild-cow encounter you'll never forget.
I was one of about two dozen visitors from Ontario who had come to this small Alberta town last August for the union of a local beauty queen and a jock from "out East." Happily for us, Bentley's annual must-see event coincided perfectly with the wedding. It had been more than a decade since I had seen my last rodeo -- unlike the neophytes around me, I had attended dozens, both large and small, over the course of 16 childhood years spent in Calgary, two hours due south by car.
For a small fee -- usually around $30 a person -- just about anyone can assemble a team and sign up for wild-cow milking in hopes of winning the accumulated prize money. Some rodeos supply safety equipment such as bull-riding vests and gloves, while others are strictly "bring your own gear" affairs.
Even the rules, which vary from place to place, make it sound like a walk in the park. At the Bentley rodeo, for example, a team of three -- two "muggers" armed with ropes and a "milker" with a bucket -- had to restrain a cow and obtain "enough milk to pour" in the shortest time possible. Three teams, each with their assigned animal, competed simultaneously.
Like all rodeo events, wild-cow milking was born of necessity -- when a cow died giving birth on the open range, the newborn calf would need milk from another, often more cantankerous, animal.
The first of two go-rounds featured three local trios outfitted with helmets, Kevlar vests and gloves. Team One made short work of the task: Their cow, while cool to the procedure, offered little resistance, and in about 90 seconds the bucket made its way to the timekeeper's booth.
The other two squads seemed less focused than their rivals. After a few half-hearted lunges at their fleet-footed animals, they appeared content to jog along behind, tipping their hockey helmets to the crowd.
The timekeeper's horn sounded after two minutes had expired, and they loped out of the ring to a mixture of laughter, sarcastic cheers and good-natured catcalls.
Knowing looks passed between many of the Easterners in the stands. The Toronto trio -- Sandy Fraser, Kyle Nichols and Aaron Mittler -- were members of the championship winning Balmy Beach Rugby Club. It seemed inevitable that these twentysomething athletes would have their beast producing milk faster than they themselves produced concussions.
At this point, I was cursing myself for not having assembled a team of my own. A Calgary boy at heart, I felt certain I could have milked these not-so-wild cows with ease and walked away with the $540 prize. My "official" excuse was that my wife had forbidden me to enter, mainly because I was wearing flip-flops.
The Ontario contingent leaped to its feet the moment our three friends stepped into the ring. Indeed, the excitement was such that no one seemed to notice that their safety gear -- which was cobbled together in the arena's hockey dressing room -- was a far cry from the other teams'. In place of bull-riding vests, they sported jock straps over their jeans. In place of gloves, their hands were bound with hockey tape. We later chalked this up to home-field advantage -- and the fact that the Bentley rodeo was BYOG. Fraser even elected to ditch his helmet in favour of a white cowboy hat.
The other two squads, who in a few seconds would be all but forgotten, smiled knowingly and adjusted their armour.
As soon as the Torontonians' cow charged from the chute, it became clear that the event was dubbed wild-cow milking -- versus tame- or mildly-annoyed-cow milking -- for a reason. Buttercup -- as we named her from the sidelines -- was considerably larger than her counterparts; her general demeanour was more aggressive; and, most important, she appeared to lack udders.
In short, she looked like a bull.
"Naw," laughed a local who had overheard our protestations. "She's a milker -- take a closer look."
We squinted, adjusted our zoom lenses, and finally spotted our team's shrivelled goal.
For the hundreds of shocked onlookers, the next two minutes unfolded as though described by a pair of Stampede Wrestling colour commentators:
Announcer: Mittler makes, one, two, three stabs at ropin' Buttercup, but she'll have none of it.
Announcer's sidekick: She's runnin' around like a bat outta hell!
Announcer: She sure is. But hold on now, he's got Buttercup around her neck with his rope. And he's diggin' in his heels. But, wait a minute, he's lost his footin' and now Buttercup's draggin' him along behind!
Sidekick: He's gonna feel that in the mornin'!
Announcer: You got that right. But look out! Here comes Fraser!
Sidekick: What's he doin'?
Announcer: He's tryin' to wrestle her down! He's grabbin' Buttercup around the neck, but she won't budge.
Sidekick: She's shakin' him around like a rag doll!
Announcer: She sure is, but he's hanging on for dear life. And now Buttercup's runnin' and flailin' all over, and Fraser's being tossed around like. . .like. . .
Sidekick: Like a rag doll!
Announcer: Yes (sigh), like a rag doll. But wait a minute, he's falling off, and now Buttercup's rollin' him along the ground with her nose, just like a barrel. . .
Mercifully, it was just as Fraser was being rolled along the ground like barrel that the horn sounded. The rodeo clowns sprang into action, skillfully manoeuvring Buttercup out of the ring.
The Toronto trio, muddy and dishevelled, hadn't come anywhere near Buttercup's udders. Nor had the other two teams -- they had spent most of the two minutes gawking at their embattled rivals. Nichols' bucket, which was discarded within the first few seconds of the encounter, lay dented in the dirt. Fraser's white cowboy hat, which had glowed so brightly moments earlier, was crumpled and covered in crud.
But the trio was smiling, and the crowd was loving it.
A half-hour later, while Fraser's forehead was being stitched up in the waiting ambulance, the crowd was still buzzing with the exploits of the Toronto trio.
Never, some locals said, had any cow displayed such ferocity. Never had a wild-cow-milking team acted so fearlessly. As we were leaving the rodeo grounds, a few Bentlians even claimed that the excitement of the Calgary Stampede paled in comparison with what we had witnessed that warm August afternoon.
And that's no bull.
Pack your bags
There are scores of rodeos held across the Prairies each summer, with adult admission generally ranging from free to around $20. Several organizations host rodeos of varying sizes, such as the Canadian Cowboys Association and the Central Alberta Rodeo Association. The Bentley rodeo, this year on Aug. 5 and 6, is a CARA-sponsored event. For more information, call 403-748-3988 or visit cararodeo.com. Relatively comprehensive lists of Western rodeos can be found on the websites of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (rodeocanada.com) and Alberta Rodeo (albertarodeo.ca). Here are a few of the most enticing Albertan events:
Strathmore Heritage Days Stampede: July 28 to Aug. 1; 403-934-5811; http://www.strathmorerodeo.com. Incorporates live entertainment, a craft show, beer gardens, parade, midway and fireworks.
Olds Fair and Rodeo: Aug. 11 to 14; 403-556-3770; oldsagsociety.com. A motor-cross demo is a new addition to a lineup that includes a parade, midway and pancake breakfasts.
Lethbridge Whoop-Up Days Summer Fair And Rodeo: Aug. 24 to 28; exhibitionpark.ca/whoopup.htm. Visitors can buy a $10 all-access pass to get up close and personal with cowboys and take in the RCMP's musical ride. For a few dollars more, they can sample the midway and accompanying on-stage entertainment.
Pincher Creek Rodeo and Fair: Aug. 19 to 21; http://www.pincher-creek.com/agsociety. Small-town atmosphere, lots of activities for the kids -- such as a carnival and parade -- and a Friday-night street dance.
Calgary Stampede: July 8 to 17;
Travel Alberta: 1-800-252-3782; travelalberta.com.