Williams Lake Stampede: Inside British Columbia’s Cowboy Culture
From lassoing calves to bucking broncos, photographer Mike Lane gives us a glimpse into his home province’s love of cowboys.
The Williams Lake Stampede
I had been taking photos for almost an hour before I decided to look at them on the monitor on the back of my camera. Oh no! They were all blurry! The rodeo action was too fast and I would have to increase the shutter speed to get crisp photos. I was at the Williams Lake Stampede and the action was fast and furious. Cowboys and cowgirls galloping in, lassoing calves, hanging on to bucking broncos and trying not to get bucked off onto the unforgiving dirt. I loved every minute of it.
Actually, my love affair with B.C.’s cowboy country, centred on Williams Lake, had started years before. My dad, a quiet, even-tempered Englishman, used to get together with his buddies every fall and head off to a ranch close to Lone Butte, B.C., where they’d clamber aboard sway-backed ponies, load their rifles and go hunting for moose. To my knowledge they never bagged anything, but they came back full of stories about “cowboy country.” So my favourite book when I was 12 years old was Three Against the Wilderness, a book published by Eric Collier, about homesteading in the Cariboo country and making a life in the wilderness.
The Gang Ranch
Many years after Dad gave up hunting, I decided to return to some of the places that he had told us about, and I retraced his footsteps, starting in Clinton, B.C., at the southern edge of that part of the province known as the Cariboo. From there, I drove up the Jesmond Road, a well-maintained gravel road, heading towards Cougar Point lookout. I found the lookout and was amazed at the sight of the valley of the broad Fraser River, as it rivalled the Grand Canyon in splendour. Then, on up dusty backroads and across a high suspension bridge to the Gang Ranch, founded in 1863, and for many years the largest ranch in North America. Now it’s the second-largest in Canada, after the Douglas Lake Ranch. This really is cowboy country. The landscape is generally rolling with grassy hills interspersed with stands of aspen and pine. Cattle dot the hillsides, and fences and gates are common features. There are even warning signs about cattle-rustling.
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If you’re not properly prepared, this country can be unforgiving. As I pulled into a lodge-style motel in Clinton, a warning light blinked on my dashboard indicating a loss of tire pressure. Sure enough, the soft hiss of escaping air meant a flat tire. Late on a Thursday afternoon in a small town, I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about finding a tire shop that was open. “Just knock on Darcy’s door” was the advice from the desk clerk. Hesitantly, I approached Darcy’s home next door. Sure enough, he took me out to his shop in the back and had my tire fixed in no time. “All the boys in the countryside around here come into the town on the weekend and they all get flat tires and need them fixed before they can drive home. I do most of my business on weekends,” he said.
Back on the road the next day, I drove on to Williams Lake. It was a Friday morning and I drove to the stampede grounds on the outskirts of town and bought a ticket in the VIP section at $25 each. There was a pretty long wait until the grand opening at 12:30 p.m., so I looked at the cattle, listened to the country western music and just sat in the shade until the start.
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Cowgirls Lead the Way
To start the rodeo, cowgirls in a drill team came riding horses into the arena, all flying flags for the various sponsors. It was a great introduction and I was taking photos like crazy. My seat was the best in the house, as I was right at ground level, front row. I could look down into the area where the cowboys were doing their exercises and pulling on their boots and protective gear, and straight out in front where all the action would take place.
The rest of the afternoon was taken up by the various rodeo events. Time went by in a flash. I watched bareback riding, bull riding, saddle bronc, the wild cowgirls race, barrel racing, team roping, tie-down roping, mountain race, the wild horse race, ranch challenge, and ranch bronc riding. I hadn’t watched any of this before and it was an eye-opener. I now have the greatest respect for those cowboys and cowgirls who make their living working on ranches. As I left the stampede grounds I questioned a
cowboy about why the grandstand seats were half empty. “Oh, the real action starts tomorrow, mister. Today was just a warm up.” I guess that was true, but to my eyes, the action was just as fast and furious as it could possibly get.
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