Let me put this as simply as possible.

The Writing-On-Stone Rodeo is the best rodeo in the world.

You can have your National Finals, your Calgary Stampede, your Frontier Days. None of those comes even close to Writing-On-Stone. Oh sure, you might find a bit better stock, maybe a few more skillful riders and ropers at some of the bigger shows.

And you'd be a lot closer to city-style amenities like restaurants and hotels.

But what you'd never find at any of those places is the combination of closeness to the action, scenic beauty and the warmth of neighbourliness you get at Writing-On-Stone.

The image that most of the world has of Alberta consists almost entirely of the mountains and lakes around Banff and Jasper. But of course, that's just a tiny part of our vast province. An exceptionally beautiful part, true, but a very small part.

The rest of the world, though, is missing out.

Tucked into a bend of the Milk River right next to the petroglyph-packed Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, the rodeo grounds sits on a sagebrush and buffaloberry flat surrounded by honey-coloured sandstone cliffs. Off to the south-east, the towering summits of Montana's Sweetgrass Hills dominate the sky while a flawless bowl of blue arches overhead and the silty waters of the Milk River whisper by.

The whole Milk River valley, in fact, is spectacularly scenic, a true gem tucked into a piece of Alberta hours away from the nearest cities, just a little, tiny bit off the beaten path. If you've made it to the Writing-On-Stone Rodeo, chances are you made it because you planned to be here. This isn't necessarily an event you just happen to stumble upon.

One of the best things about Writing-On-Stone is how close you are to the action. Sitting in the stands or lounging in the dry prairie grass next to the arena, you'll be near enough to hear the horses hooves, to feel the thunder of the bucking bulls, to inhale the livestock-scented dust in the air. No need to bring binoculars or sit in the stands staring at a huge electronic scoreboard and screen to see the action like you would at a place like the Calgary Stampede.

And if you're photographer, bring a wide-angle lens. You're going to need it.

The rodeo itself runs over two days, the Sunday and Monday of Alberta's Heritage Day long weekend at the beginning of August. The rodeo is great on both days but Sunday's is the best for photography.

You will literally never find a place with better light than Writing-On-Stone.

In addition to the scenic beauty and closeness of the action, the Writing-On-Stone chutes and arena are lined up so that the whole place faces to the southwest. When the rodeo begins at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, the light is amazing.

And as the rodeo rolls on, it just gets better.

There are all the events you'll find at any rodeo - bronc riding, steer wrestling, breakaway and tie-down roping, team roping. And because everything is so accessible, you can get right up close to the action.

By early evening, the rodeo is wrapping up. The sun is beginning its westward descent and the temperature - often well past 30C on rodeo days - has hit its zenith.

Time to buck some bulls.

And that's it for the day. The rodeo contractor gets his stock watered and fed while the cowboys dust themselves off.

But that doesn't mean it's time to head home.

No, that means it's time to head to the river.

The warm, silty waters of the Milk River wash away the sweat and the dust of the arena and the river turns into a social event just as popular - at least with the young folks - as the rodeo itself. Golden light streams across the prairie grass as the warm air carries the laughter of the teenagers and the whinnying of the horses across the campground. Saddles, boots and bridles are forgotten as the horse are ridden into the water to splash in the shallows or swim across the current with laughing riders astride them.

And as the sun finally sets, time for one last ride.

Up on the ridge above the grounds, the bucking horses are turned loose and graze placidly as that big copper ball spills its last light on the hoodoos and cottonwoods along the river valley. It will be their turn tomorrow to perform with the cowboys and entertain the crowd but for now, they're happy just to be here nibbling on that native prairie grass.

I know I already said this but I'll give it to you again.

The Writing-On-Stone Rodeo is the best rodeo in the world.

And next year, I'll be back again!



AUGUST 7, 2017

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