a tradition stampede time in the city

The rain came slashing down, cold and and sudden, pushed by a vicious wind.

The clouds had been building for a while, the white masses turning gradually darker as they built. Most of us greeted the shade with thanks. The day had been warm, not as warm as the previous couple, but enough to start a sweat with minimal effort. Now, though, the temperature was starting to drop.

I and my pals Al and Leah were watching the chuckwagons circle around the track, our lenses aimed toward the Saddledome as the wagons roared into the final turn. The light levels had dropped dramatically and the infield lights had been turned on but there was still just enough illumination to shoot with my slow lens.

The wagons surged past, the rumble of the wheels and the clatter of harness and rigging barely audible over the thunder and sudden gusts of wind. Then the rain started to fall. By the time the wagons turned around and came back to the stage area to salute the fans, it was a nearly horizontal downpour.

But ya know, it really wouldn’t be the Calgary Stampede without at least one horrifying downpour. Over the last 30-odd Stampedes I’ve been around Calgary for I would be hard-pressed to remember a single one where I didn’t get soaked at some point.

I’ve always, more or less, enjoyed Stampede time. When I was younger, back in the Fifties and Sixties - yes, I’m that old - the visits were just single-day trips, jaunts to the big city from Crossfield or Gleichen. We’d always check out the the agriculture exhibits and go to the rodeo and the chuckwagon races. Sometimes we’d come in for the parade.

It was a different show back then, much smaller than it is now. I remember the gates being part of a stockade like you’d see in a cowboy movie of the era and, generally, a lot more wood. Like, wooden everything. Not just that ridiculous slab lumber that businesses slap on to make them look more “western” - lumber mills must stock up all their scraps to sell at Stampede time - but the booths and portable seating and fences around the arena.

Even the chuckwagon barns used to be wooden. I don’t know how there was never a major conflagration.

The chuckwagon barns were always our favourite places to visit during Stampede. We had neighbours in Gleichen that were in the wagon business and we kids would play in the hay and pet the horses - those that would let us anywhere near them, at least - while Mom and Father had “coffee” with the drivers and crew.

But it wasn't really until I came to work at the Sun that I spent more than just a few hours at a time at the grounds. Can’t say as it was always a pleasant experience.

Shooting rodeo is always fun but keeping track of names while trying not to shoot too much film was a chore. Before the era of the big electronic scoreboards, we had to write everything down on the day sheets. And then try to read it afterwards. Fun.

The midway was better. You could just shoot stuff that looked cool. Same with the all the merchandise stuff in the Big Four. I shot a bunch of agriculture stuff, too, because that's what interested me the most. But the editors, not so much. Never understood that. Unless you could find a kid spraying water in a horse’s mouth or sleeping in the straw beside a steer, they just wouldn’t run agriculture stuff.

The curse of city life, I guess. Thank God I’m a country boy.

None of that, though, truly detracted from the fun of being at the Stampede.

The push of the crowd, the constant roar of sound coming from the barkers and game-booth hawkers, the smell of the oak and hickory smokers and deep-fried everything, the rattle and clang and flashing lights of the rides, all of it so typically Stampede.

And more. The almost frightening good cheer of the Stampede bands marching and playing their instruments - massively talented, these kids - and the patience of the folks in the ag barns explaining livestock husbandry to the genuinely curious folks stopping to chat. The dark coolness of the art exhibits in the BMO Centre and the dignity - and laughter - of the Indian Village.

True, I spend most of my time shooting around the rodeo and the chuckwagons but really, for pure enjoyment, its the rest of the Stampede that keeps me wanting to come back, camera in hand.

That’s why my pal Leah and I exchanged glances as we watched in awe as the storm lashed the infield and sent all but the most hardy - or stubborn - spectators scrambling for the inside of the grandstand. Nasty as it was, we knew the storm wouldn’t last and when it backed off, we’d have lots of lovely reflections to play with.

Back off, it did, but not before it dumped enough water to cause the cancellation of the last three heats of the chuckwagon races. As the sunset glowed briefly beneath the storm clouds and then faded quickly away, we gathered up our gear and headed for the midway.

The rain was still falling and the place was nearly deserted but the sky was cobalt blue and the lights of the midway were bouncing off every wet surface. Reds, yellows and blues scattered across the damp pavement and contrasted with the evening sky. There were very few people on the rides but the workers kept them churning anyway.

Leah and I wandered around shooting pictures as the rain dribbled down but after a bit it started to get torrential again. Soaked, we headed for the exit.

But as we walked, I remembered all the other evenings I’d spent at this place, at this crazy event. I remembered all the fun times - and a few of the not-so-fun ones - over the last six decades as, soaked and shivering, I paused to shoot one last picture as the rain pelted down on the Banks of the Bow sculpture. The bronze horses actually looked like they were swimming with the blue light and the rain splashing on their metal flanks.

Chilled through and covering up my cameras in a vain attempt to keep them dry, I walked on trying to catch up with Leah. And as I did, I realized, not for the first time, that if this was all gone, if I couldn’t come here and wander around taking pictures - even while cold and wet - I would really miss all of this.

No, I really, really would.

Wet, tired - and smiling - I walked on back to my truck to head on home.


JULY 16, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300 and the Sigma 150-600C.

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