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Udder mayhem Add to ...

'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.

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