Visitors to Williams Lake in the heart of B.C.’s Cariboo-Chilcotin may quickly discover that the cowboy hats and boots worn by locals are no fashion affectation — they are the real thing.
While logging and mining help anchor the economy in Williams Lake, ranching and agriculture are both historic and continuing economic forces in the region.
This ranching history is a source of pride for the area, and nowhere more so than at the annual Williams Lake Stampede held every year on the July long weekend.
This year is a special one for the Stampede; it’s the 90 year anniversary of the historic B.C. rodeo. Founded in 1919, the rodeo has run continuously aside from an eight-year break (1939-1947) during the Second World War.
Tim Rolph is president of the Stampede and a former rodeo bull-rider who competed in the amateur circuit through British Columbia and Washington State.
Rolph’s personal favourite event — bull-riding — is no surprise given his past. He’s also a big fan of the Let R’ Buck Saloon with live entertainment happening every night.
But the Stampede is important to the region for more than just its entertainment value. It’s the biggest annual event in the area and provides an economic boost to the whole Cariboo-Chilcotin.
“More importantly, with all the events going on — the parade, rugby tournament, stock car racing etc. — it’s a chance for Williams Lake to showcase its hospitality, and the natural beauty of the area,” said Rolph.
Asked what he would like visitors to take away from their visit to the Stampede, Rolph said.
“The hospitality of the area … it’s a great city with involved citizens who welcome visitors and friends with open arms.”
He also said he hopes people take away a sense of the historic importance of the event.
“This is our 90th anniversary, making the Stampede one of the oldest annual events in B.C.,” he pointed out. “The Stampede was started by the rugged pioneers who opened this part of the country up. I think we still have a lot of that spirit and ambition present in the area. With the majority of the population now living in urban areas, we are a direct connection to that pioneer spirit and western heritage.”
He also hopes visitors will join in and become part of the local atmosphere.
“We encourage people to get into the spirit of the weekend; dressing the part is one way to enhance the experience.”
Rolph likes to stress that volunteers are the engine behind the Stampede.
Around 400 volunteers work directly on the event throughout the year.
“They are the heart and soul [of the Stampede]; their enthusiasm is contagious. Without volunteers, the Stampede would be hard pressed to continue,” he said.
Local First Nations are also heavily involved with the Stampede.
Many are competitors in the rodeo events and every year the Xeni Gwet’in hold a week-long wagon ride from their home in the Nemiah Valley to Williams Lake, arriving in time for the Stampede.
The ride gives local youth a chance to improve their horsemanship and to learn more about their culture.
A special guest entertainer this year will be famed hoop dancer Alex Wells, a member of the Mt. Currie Lil’wat Nation.
The Stampede’s annual Daybreak Rotary Parade takes place July 2 this year, running through Williams Lake’s downtown core to the event grounds. Fittingly, the theme will be a “Salute to 90 years of Stampede”
One unique Stampede event is the Mountain Race. Originally, competitors would race their horses down the side of Fox Mountain, across Highway 97 and into the Stampede Grounds. The current race has been scaled down, but a maximum of 10 riders still ride the course, a route that includes sharp turns and steep hills each day.
Winners of the daily race take part in the final.
The Stampede web page states that there is a dress code for the race — everyone must wear jeans, shirt, coloured vest and cowboy hat. Socks and underwear are optional, proving that a sense of humour is part of the event.
While many rodeo competitors are top pros in their fields, the Ranch Challenge is an amateur event, open only to local ranchers. The event sees teams competing at Cattle Penning, the Cowhand Trailer Race, Trailer Loading and Ranch Branding. Ranchers compete for cash prizes and bragging rights.
Visitors should note that this year’s 90th Anniversary Williams Lake Stampede runs June 30 to July 3. There is a campground on site that can accommodate everything from tents to motorhomes, but campers should be aware that spots sell out early.