Travelling overland from Vancouver gives you the chance to soak up some of Canada before July's Calgary Stampede.

Story By Mark Muller

Kateri Cowley leans gently forward in the saddle and eases her horse into the cold, gin-clear water of Alberta’s Kananaskis River. “Just keep ’em pointed upstream and watch out for big rocks,” she laughs over her shoulder. Rising up to her left like the spine of a fish are the jagged granite monoliths of the Canadian Rockies. Their slopes are covered in deep-green, regimented lines of fir trees; poplars and dappled birches line the riverbanks. The air is crisp and clean in the bright afternoon sunlight. There is a steady, wetly muffled clump and clop as the steel-shod horses push further across 30 metres of running water, soon soaking their bellies and Kateri’s worn boots and faded jeans.

The Kananaskis flows through the Cowley’s family ranch, the “Rafter Six”, which has been open to paying guests wanting to experience something of ranch life in the Rockies since the late-1970s. Kateri’s 22 years have been shaped and guided by these mountains and meadows and she is at home and at ease in the breathtaking environment. “This is where I want to be,” she says simply. “I love horses, love the mountains, love my family and am blessed with the opportunity to share it all with so many different people.”

Kateri’s friendly openness is being utilised further afield this year – she is one of Calgary’s two stampede princesses, who, along with the Stampede Queen, spend the year working as goodwill ambassadors for the world-renowned annual Calgary Stampede, held about 70 kilometres east of the Rafter Six from July 3. It is billed as the greatest outdoor show on earth, not without good reason. Throughout a 10-day period more than 1.25 million people pass through the gates of Stampede Park to thrill to some of the best rodeo action the world has to offer. With more than $3 million in prizemoney up for grabs, the talent pool is deep and hungry, and a handful of the competitors, and hundreds of spectators, are Australian. They punch above their weight, naturally.

It is a fair haul to get to Canada from Australia, although thankfully Air Canada now flies directly from Sydney to Vancouver. This negates the tedium of passing through US Customs, and shortens the trip by several hours. But once in Vancouver, what’s an Aussie intent on seeing the Stampede to do? You can, of course, jump on another plane and fly straight to Calgary, but, if you’ve got the time, there is the lure of one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.

This story excerpt is from Issue #64

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2009