Fri. Sep 22nd, 2023

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I love lying in the dirt at the Writing-On-Stone rodeo.

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I love having my face just inches above the ground as the barrel racers go blasting by or crawling around behind the chutes to get low-angle pictures of the rough-stock riders and the ropers. I love the smell of the dry prairie grass and crushed sage and the dust kicked up by the horses and cattle that fills my nostrils when I’ve got my cheek pressed to the soil.

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And I love the sounds that bounce off the ground. Down low I can hear the thud and thunder of the hooves, the squeals of the gates, the nickering of the horses and complaints of the cattle. I love how the churned-up ground of the arena takes the edge off the over-amplified hollering of the announcer with his Okla-berta accent drawling out the play-by-play of every event.

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Barrel racer for Drew
Dirt flies as the sun sets on barrel racing at the Writing-On-Stone Rodeo near Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park east of Milk River. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

I love lying on the wet sand along the mighty Milk River while kids and horses splash in its warm, silty flow as cowboys water their mounts.

Yeah, I pretty much love everything about the Writing-On-Stone rodeo.

Isolated as it is out on the great southern Alberta Serengeti, you have to make a real effort to get here. But when you come off the benchland and rattle down the dusty trail into the Milk River valley and catch that first glimpse of the arena and the river, you’ll know you’ve shoved aside a boulder and found a nugget of gold.

I’ve rattled on here before about the setting, about the honey-coloured sandstone cliffs and outcrops that surround it, about the bends of the Milk River that caress it, about the angle of the arena that takes such great advantage of the afternoon light.

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I’ve mentioned less often about the sense of community it embodies and how nobody is a stranger here no matter where you come from.

It is a truly special place.

River for Drew
Sophie Metheral’s horse blows out a nosefull of water as they have fun in the warm waters of the Milk River before the Writing-On-Stone Rodeo. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

The rodeo runs for three days through the August long weekend with a mix of afternoon and evening performances. I usually opt for the 5 p.m. start where the light starts out perfect and then just gets better but this year I — and my pal Leah and her husband Scott — showed up for the Saturday, 7 p.m., show.

So with the evening sun shining through a thin bank of cloud tinged by the summer’s ever-present forest fire smoke, the rodeo kicked off with the saddle-bronc event and the fun began. Leah and I shot high up and low down, from dirt-level along the rails to between the boots behind the chutes. We hit every angle we could as the sun lowered and finally sank below the horizon.

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Chutes for Drew
Getting ready to ride broncs at the Writing-On-Stone Rodeo. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

When the lights came on, I put up my little drone for a shot of the arena and flew through clouds of moths and mayflies and flying beetles attracted by the lights. Back on the ground we angled our way among the riders and horses and the barrel racing, break-away roping, team roping and steer-wresting events ran their course.

And when that was done — right around 11 — there was ostrich riding. Kinda fun to watch but, well, it was ostrich riding.

Ostrich fro Drew
Ostrich riding at the Writing-On-Stone Rodeo. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

It was full dark as I drove out of the river valley. In other years I might have just folded down the seats in the truck and snoozed by the grounds but this year I planned on shooting the night sky after the rodeo and I wanted to get away from any extraneous light. I also desperately needed a cellphone signal — of which there was none at the grounds — to upload and post my previous week’s yarn.

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Which messed things up on two levels. First, I had to drive 40 km to the town of Milk River to get a strong enough signal. And second, the clouds rolled in.

Once my stuff was uploaded, I headed back out into the country to try for night stuff but it was too cloudy close to town and it didn’t seem like it would be any better closer to Writing-On-Stone. So I pulled over, parked and tried to get some sleep.

The eastern glow got me moving again and by 5 a.m. I was down by the river at Coffin Bridge, about 20 km east of town. Wish I’d thought to spend the night right here. A long tongue of cloud was stretched across an otherwise clear sky and the first blush of dawn was reflecting off the river as it flowed by.

Sunrise for Drew
A Swainson’s hawk watches the sunrise east of Milk River. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Just like at the rodeo grounds, the air smelled of river-damp air and sage and animals but the only sounds were the moving water and the morning songs of birds. Up on the flats, ripening fields of wheat and barley stood ready for the combines while deer and cattle shared the dry pastures. The sun cracked the horizon as a big orange ball just after six and seemed to hang there as the world got brighter.

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Down along the river I found little cottontails, this year’s babies, bouncing around the buffaloberry thickets and dozens of young mourning doves. A bald eagle sat on the river bank taking in all those easy pickings. At a dugout — surprisingly full of water in this dusty land — there was a pair of pelicans. First time I’ve ever seen any there. Not exactly pelican country.

Cottontail fro Drew
A young cottontail in the Milk River valley. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

For a moment — and I mean just for a moment — I thought about sticking around, maybe hitting the day’s rodeo performance. But that wouldn’t even start for another 10 hours. So I decided to take a tour along the border instead.

The Sweetgrass Hills are the most dominant landmark in this part of the world and they — West Butte, Gold Butte and East Butte — rise mountain-like right out of the sagebrush plains and fill the southern horizon.

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While the northern arms of West Butte stretch across the frontier, they are the only part of the hills that are in Alberta. All the rest are in Montana. To my eye, they look like they should be part of Alberta, the way the land slopes up to them from the Milk River valley but, alas, thanks to ancient political machinations, they are not.

Sweetgrass fro Drew
Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills just across the U.S. border east of Coutts. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

But they did make a nice backdrop as I followed the roads back west again, past pastures with big buffalo-like Angus bulls and stands of sunflowers. I found owls in a granary and, past them, I stayed on the same road until I hit the U.S. border and the road that runs right along the 49th parallel. It’s perfectly legal to drive on it as long as you don’t make any turns to the south but I didn’t want to run into some crabby American border patrol officer, so I cut a little ways north again.

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Though there is a belt of cultivated land close to Milk River and down toward Coutts, most of that lies to the east. To the west, great tracts of land are native prairie on both sides of the border. And it is glorious.

The land rises to the south a bit, off toward 1-17 and on into Montana, but it levels out around the south fork of the Milk River. Unlike its northern sibling, this branch runs pretty much dry in the summer with not even enough water to nourish the cottonwood trees that grow along pretty much every other prairie stream.

South Fork Drew 13
The nearly-dry south fork of the Milk River. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Out here the tallest thing is an antelope — or, sometimes, an elk — and at this time of year it is an endless yellow landscape that shimmers in the heat and runs out of sight into summertime haze. It is wide open and empty and as vast as the sky above it. Needless to say, I love it.

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But as I continued west, that vast sky was filling with clouds.

I could see at least three storms building up, two to the north and one right in front of me. Trying to anticipate their movement, I set up a camera on a tripod to shoot a timelapse of the clouds and waited. Within 20 minutes, the sky filled and rain started to fall.

It stopped, momentarily, by Del Bonita but came roaring in again over by Whiskey Gap. It was dry to the east but wet to the west.

Whiskey Gap for Drew
Big bends in the north fork of the Milk River near Whiskey Gap. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Which was kind of appropriate, seeing as I’d crossed the Continental Divide.

From the Pinhorn, past Black Butte, Writing-On-Stone and the rodeo grounds and west beyond Del Bonita, all the water — what little there is — flows down the Milk River to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the rain falling barely a kilometre west of the old Whiskey Gap townsite, will end up in the St. Mary River and go on from there to Hudson Bay. The rise in land that separates the two drainages is barely a hundred metres high. But little things can make a huge difference.

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I’d passed under the storm now and found myself between systems. The mountains were just to the west behind another storm and rain was falling to the north and east but here in the bowl between the Milk River and the St. Mary, things were calm and dry.

Storm for Drew
A storm blows in over the north fork of the Milk River near Whiskey Gap. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Two rivers, two different landscapes. Here along the St. Mary, pothole ponds abound, lush country compared to the sagebrush plains back east, with springs popping up all over the place. The river valley is very different, too, the grey, twisted sediments here folded and bent like somebody tried to squash a stack of napkins, not the orderly layers of compressed sand like at Writing-On-Stone.

And these rocks are younger, too, about 15 million years the junior of the 80-million-year old Milk River formation. But they look every bit as spectacular as their older brothers on the other side of the divide.

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The road ends here, the river blocking the way to the west and the border stopping travel to the south, so I turned around and headed east again. Rain was starting to fall and the sky was churning so I turned at Del Bonita, crossed the continental divide again by the McIntyre Ranch and rolled on north.

It was late afternoon, now. Back at Writing-On-Stone, the rodeo would be about to start again. The broncs would buck, the horses would run, the crowd would cheer and the kids would splash. And, weary from two long days and and an even longer night, I would miss it.

But I’ll be back next year, back to the best rodeo in the world and back to the border country where it reigns.

Man, I love this place.

Especially when I’m lying in its dirt.

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