• By: Dan Donovan

The Cowboy Trail: A Father and Son Journey to the Calgary Stampede and Rocky Mountain Dude Ranch

I’ve always dreamed of taking my son to the Calgary Stampede, visit a ranch, and then go horseback riding in the foothills and do some white water rafting in the Kananaskis River Valley. I thought it would be a great father-son trip. Knowing that my 10-year-old son loves the outdoors and animals, I figured he would have no hesitation in going on such a trek. So in July we packed our bags and flew direct to Calgary to do the cowboy thing.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Calgary. Upon arrival, you notice the modern and well-designed airport with well-placed signage and lots of coffee shops and other stores. The cowboy culture hits you immediately as you see local Calgarians walking around in their cowboy boots and hats. It was Calgary Stampede time: a 10-day citywide celebration of everything western, where everyone can become a cowboy. There is western dress, country-and-western music, western food, beer and wine, and western attitude and hospitality.

Fittingly, our Calgary Stampede experience started with a visit to the Alberta Boot Company (www.albertaboot.com). For over 25 years, the company has nurtured celebrities and regular folk who are intrigued by the mystique of the Wild West. As Alberta’s only boot manufacturer, the Alberta Boot Company is proud of its product, but what really sets this outfit apart from the competition is that its hand-crafted, custom-fit cowboy boots are actually manufactured on the premises. Such is the reputation of this boot maker that the RCMP, municipal police forces and military units have become regular clients. Of course, the Alberta Boot Company will provide the same service for anyone who walks through the door. To my surprise, my son was quick to identify some nice-looking cowboy boots and put them on within five minutes of entering the store. They were 100% leather with a solid heel and a comfortable look and feel. These boots were priced at S180. My son insisted he would wear them not only for our trip, but also as a regular day shoe when we returned home. So we got them. He is still wearing the boots and absolutely adores them.

We then headed over to the Alberta Hat Company. We got a close-up look at the craftsmen at work. One of the machines used to mould the hats was almost 100 years old… and the process today is pretty much the same as it was back then. We watched as the hat maker made the White Calgary Stampede hats famous the world over as a symbol of Cow-town. We walked out with two – now all we needed was a horse… and we knew that a steed was on its way.

That night, we tried the buffalo burgers at a local restaurant. The taste was very similar to beef – just a little richer, but delicious all the same. My son and I were both pumped for the next morning’s Calgary Stampede Pancake Breakfast followed by the parade. I’ve been to parades many times, but none comes close to this one. The variety of floats is highly entertaining – everything from mini-fire trucks to stagecoaches and mountain men. The Canadian Forces had a great contingent in the parade with an array of armoured personal carriers and jeeps. The parade lasted a good two hours with nary a dull moment. Each year, the City names a Queen of the Rodeo who leads the parade on horseback. This year, past Queens rode in the parade. There were Queens of the Parade from as far back as 1952 and 1953. So if do the math, you have to figure these ladies are now in their early-to-mid-seventies and still roping and riding. That was impressive.

Next it was off to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, with 1,100 events scheduled every year. When an event brands itself as “the greatest,” that is a high calling and Calgary has certainly earned its spurs in this regard. The Stampede Grounds cover a whopping 137 acres. Guy Weadick, a famous working cowboy and vaudeville entertainer, launched the Stampede in 1912. It has since grown to become a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that aims to preserve and promote western heritage and values, while providing programs that foster understanding of the agricultural industry in Canada’s west. On top of that, it’s one helluva big party.

The Rodeo is not to be missed. The Stampede provides the performing cowboys with some of the richest payouts in the rodeo world. From saddle bronc, bareback-riding, bull-riding and the famous chuck wagon races, there is enough rugged excitement for everyone. We were trackside for the chuck wagon racing – a highly skilled sport that requires nerves of steel. There are 32 horses on the track per race between the horses attached to the chuck wagons and the riders running beside them. I think this is where Hollywood got the idea that cowboys were fearless. Then again, if you watch the bull riding, you come to understand the old adage that there is a fine line between courage and stupidity. My son and I were in awe of the bull riders, dedicated sports professionals who have spent years in the saddle to get to this level of competition. We took a tour in the chutes where they keep the bulls. These beasts are big and mean and ready to rumble. The cowboys and their trainers treat all the animals with great respect and it is hard not to notice the bonds between the riders and their horses and their genuine concern for all the animals. We then toured the back gate areas, which encompass all the cowboys’ dressing rooms and on site medical services. Several doctors tended to the injured cowboys, who sustained broken ribs, cracked wrists and banged-up knees. However, the skill set of these cowboys is so high that they are able to avoid most serious injuries.

It you want to find out where Canada’s food really comes from, visit the Stampede Stock Show which provides a critical link between the agriculture business and urban consumers. At Stampede Park, there are hands-on activities for everyone in the family, including hair-raising rides and carnival games at the Great Midway and the nightly Grandstand Show featuring an unbelievable line-up of top entertainers. If you don’t want to take in a show at the Grandstand, then you have a choice of numerous live venues in downtown Calgary. Featured performers this year included George Canyon, The Road Hammers, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Aaron Pritchett and many others. Calgary is the capital of country music during the Rodeo season.

Make sure you visit the Calgary Tower. It actually looks like Toronto’s CN Tower but is not as tall. However, it is tall enough to give you a 360° panoramic view of the city and the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Calgary has an amazing array of shops, boutiques and restaurants; you will not be hard-pressed to find something of interest. My son and I spent several hours looking for one of the very cool embroidered cowboy shirts that are a favourite of the cowboy fashionista crowd. Junior found a western shirt he could wear for our next adventure: horseback riding at the in Kananaskis Country.

The Kananaskis River Valley is a 90-minute drive west from Calgary. The geographic beauty of the area is incredible and we were excited to reach our destination: the Rafter 6 Ranch (www.raftersix.com). It was common in the Old West for ranches to be named after the brand used. When businessman Stan Cowley bought the ranch, he kept the name. It is now home to one of the largest log structures in the world. Here you will find an authentic, relaxed cowboy atmosphere. The ranch has some modern amenities, but you won’t find telephones or television sets in its rooms or cabins. The Ranch is so authentically Wild West that it has been used as a backdrop for many movies, including The Legend of Grizzly Adams, Across the Great Divide and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.

My son was very excited to head out for an afternoon of horseback riding. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was afraid of horses. When I was 12, I was thrown from a horse and had not been on one since. I was also afraid the horse might bite me. Well, next thing you know, my son was on his horse and learning the reins. I figured it was time to pony up, until they brought out my horse, Big Jess. I just kept thinking, why can’t they give me a pony? Big Jess was pretty damn big all right. There were 12 in our group and the ranch hands were really good at explaining the basics of horseback riding. We would end up spending several hours riding up and down the Rocky Mountain foothills and along river bends and up though pastures and forested areas. I was probably so nervous watching out for my son that my equinophobia (fear of horses) vanished. You just need to let the horse know who is in charge, be gentle with the beast and talk to it. You can really feel a bond developing with the creature. The horseback riding was probably one of the greatest enjoyments of my life and it was all the better riding with my son who just loved it. At one point, we came upon an open field dotted with cattle. My son was very excited as we approached the animals. He said: “Look, Dad, there’s a wild cow up there.” As we rode back to Rafter 6 along the Kananaskis River, it started to rain. Thank goodness for those cowboy hats, because the wide brim kept us very dry. We went back to the lodge and had a great meal as our hosts stoked a magnificent blaze. That night, we witnessed a dizzying lightning storm from the safety of the lodge.

The next morning, we were up early to enjoy a hearty breakfast and head out to white water raft the Kananaskis River. The temperature of this fast-flowing river is 46°, so we had to put on wetsuits to ensure we did not freeze when we hit the water. White water rafting in a mountain river stream is one point, we all bailed out to do some body-surfing down the river – protected in our wetsuits as we drifted along. The beauty of the cliffs and mountains as we coasted downstream is unimaginable. My son and I were having the time of our lives.

The hospitality at Rafter 6 Ranch is wonderful; we were sad to leave, but buoyed by our experience. A wedding party was checking in as we left. A young couple would soon marry in the small chapel at the Ranch. I was thinking what a great way to start a life together.

The good news was we were leaving to visit another ranch and do some more horseback riding. We drove to the Brewster Kananaskis Guest Ranch (www.kananaskisguestranch.com) – about a 45-minute drive west of Calgary. With 83 years of ranching, the Brewster family knows how to live the lore of the west. Missy Bigley Brewster started the guest ranch in 1923. It is right next to the Bow River and has both horseback-riding expeditions and a courreur de bois canoe expedition that runs out of its camp. We went horseback riding along the Bow River for several hours. I must say I was not as nervous, except for one stretch where we were riding along a cliff on the edge of the river – which was about 300 feet below us (we were a safe 30 meters from the edge). By now, my son and I felt like pros on horseback.

The Guest Ranch offers overnight trips but we chose to stay at the lodge and enjoy the great hospitality, which included an incredible barbequed meal, bonfire and absolutely amazing country music singer who entertained us until it was time to hit the hay. The next morning, a driver picked us up and we went 20 miles upstream and canoed down the river, back to the lodge in a courreur de bois-type canoe. The Bow is a fast-moving river and paddling was not too strenuous. We saw an array of wildlife, including beavers, falcons, owls and eagles. We arrived back at the camp by mid-afternoon. From June until September every year, guests at the lodge can enjoy golf, river rafting, hiking, group voyageur canoe trips, rodeos and plenty of western hospitality.

Then it was back to Calgary and on to our flight home. What a trip! I think my son and I will both be cowboys for the rest of our lives. I’m also not afraid of horses anymore.We can’t wait to return to Alberta.

Calgary is a boomtown in more ways than one. Billed as Canada’s safest and cleanest city, Calgary enjoys the most days of sunshine per year of any major Canadian city. Westerners call it the Calgary Advantage: Chinooks in the winter account for its great ski culture. The land area is 721.73 sq km (278.54 sq mi) with over 8,000 hectares of parkland and open space within Calgary’s city limits Calgary has the highest percentage of post-secondary   educated citizens (over 60%) in Canada. The population distribution is one of the youngest in Canada, with an average age of 34. Calgary is also the most wired city in Canada, with 67.4% of residents having Internet access. Calgary’s employment rate and per capita income are both ahead of the national average, and there is no provincial sales tax, no capital tax, no machinery and equipment tax, and reasonable property tax on land and buildings. In 2005, Calgary was ranked as the best place in Canada to work by The Globe and Mail which noted that Calgary was second only to Toronto in the number of corporate head offices located there. Calgarians in the corporate world will tell you they are second to none in terms of quality of life!

For more information, contact the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede at www.calgarystampede.com or Travel Alberta at www.travelalberta.com.