tradition ranch life in southern alberta

There is a tradition here in southern Alberta, a long one, that goes back to a time when this part of the world was still wild, a time just after the birth of our country.

It moved west with the North-West Mounted Police and north from the plains of Texas and the mountain basins of Oregon.

And it coalesced here on the wide-open grasslands and in the Rocky Mountain foothills of what would someday become southern Alberta.

Ranching has been a way of life here for well over a hundred years. Southern Alberta families can trace their ranching heritage back through parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, sometimes even beyond that. And while times have changed, while cities have grown and Alberta has become part of a diverse, world-wide economy, the traditions of ranch life on the native grasslands, forests and mountain valleys of this beautiful land have carried on.

Getting in my car and driving down the highway at the crack of dawn, long before the sun hits the horizon, to meet up with working cowboys and cowgirls, is a thrill, always. The sheer anticipation of nabbing the perfect shot, capturing that decisive moment when the light just works, shooting a picture that tells a story, never fails to drive me.

It’s branding time in southern Alberta and I’m headed south to the Bar S Ranch.

The rope whistles as the cowboy swings the loop over his head and hisses as it leaves his callused palms.

The loop bounces just in front of the calf’s hind legs, the calf takes a step and the cowboy lifts the rope with a jerk. The loop pulls tight and the rope goes taut as the cowboy simultaneously turns his horse and wraps a few tight dallies around the saddle horn. The calf bawls as it’s dragged through the clouds of dust toward an opening in the herd to where the wranglers await.

In a syncopated series of moves danced to the whinnies of horses, the bawling of calves and the bellows of momma cows, the year’s newborns are vaccinated, ear-tagged, castrated - if they need it - and branded before being turned loose to run back to their mothers. It’s all over in less than two minutes and as soon as one calf is hauled over by the wranglers another is being roped.

The scent of burnt hair, wet earth and manure fills the air, blue smoke from both the branding fires and the branding itself tints the scene. Cowboys - men and women - work in shifts roping the calves and manning the irons. In between they rest with the horses, neighbours catching up with each other after a long winter, families making plans to get together in the future.

It’s a true community event, a springtime communion that’s been happening here and on other ranches for more than a century.

Even if my photos fall short of the kind of success I have in my mind, I get to live a little bit of the heritage of my own grandparents, homesteaders from Estonia and immigrants from Ireland, a fulfilling and honest life, even though it’s just for that day. I love every minute of it.

Hopefully, through my work, people can get a little bit of the feeling for this way of life, too. And maybe an appreciation for this living slice of southern Alberta heritage.

Ranching isn’t just a business, it’s a way of life. And even though the world has moved on and maybe forgotten that this tradition still exists, I haven’t. And neither have the ranchers.

The Bar S and other ranches like it have called southern Alberta home for well over a century. And they will still call it home for centuries more.

Traditions. They’re here to stay.



Photos by Leah Hennel

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