Seven Days Until Stampede
How Calgary’s most important annual festival fought to rebuild after the flood – and became an icon of the city’s strength in the process
It wasn’t the first thing people thought about. But in the aftermath of this past June’s record floods, after the waters finally receded, and after people took stock of what they’d lost and told their neighbours that they were “just thankful it wasn’t lives that were lost,” a shared concern floated to the surface. What about the Stampede? If the Stampede, the event that defines Calgary, was cancelled due to the flood and the damage it created the water would have won. You could almost sense the city steeling itself for the fight.
Photography by Joey Podlubny
The Stampede was going to happen, and the motto that was selected to drive that home was note-perfect: come hell or high water.
When the crisis was at its worst, an image circulated the Internet that was almost – almost – enough to drown the city’s spirits. It was a picture of the world-famous Stampede grounds submerged beneath a brown slurry of the same river water that had poured over the banks of the Bow and the Elbow and invaded basements, muddied stores and soaked corporate lobbies across the city. It was an image that Calgary, once it started drying out, needed to get out of its mind, to replace with something better. And to accomplish that, what it needed to do was simple: Roll up its collective sleeves and put the Stampede back together again.
An army of workers working 12-hour shifts around the clock for two weeks took on the challenge. But the hurdles were gutting. The stadium track, which had been rebuilt in May, was submerged by the flood. Afterward, it all had to be done again. A track 70 feet wide, three feet deep, and nearly one mile in length needed replacing. It meant 88 million pounds of dirt needed to be taken out. And then 88 million pounds needed to be brought back in.
But that wasn’t it. Not even close. The chutes that guide animals into the ring all needed to be re-built. The basements of countless buildings were filled with what looked like playdough and smelled worse than words can explain. They all needed to be sprayed, squeegeed, scrubbed. Then they needed new drywall, plywood. Water had decimated the electrical and fibre-optic grids, now critical for a modern fair. Tens of thousands of feet and endless connections had to be re-worked, re-wired, re-strung, in less time than should be possible.
But it was done.
At its core the Stampede is Calgary. It is fun, raw, real. And it is these while also being a big business – worth $320 million annually to the city’s economy. Making sure that business bounced back required labour, materials and investment. And despite attendance figures that were down from the highs of years past, the fact the show went on at all made the price tag seem miniscule.
Here’s what Calgary’s effort to save the Stampede looked like as the clock clicked down in the last week before opening day.
- Blue Bird Construction replaces the infield track. It took 88 million pounds of dirt to do it.
- Disaster relief workers from the U.S. prepare at dawn
- Workers dispose of a palette of popcorn soaked with water.
- “Every day is the best day ever,” says Deborah Rose. “That way the universe always has to outdo itself.
- Workers wash some 400 hardhats daily
- Rob Connelly, who ran away from home at 14 to work as a carnival roadie, cleans up after washing muddy ticket booths.
- Squeegee time
- Workers take a rare opportunity to rest after being told to leave the basement of ‘Building Four’ because of concerns about its air quality.
- Rod Castro, in Canada from Chile on a work visa, rubs his eyes after a long shift
- Workers leave the Peoples’ Centre as crowds arrive
- Early ‘sneak peek’ visitors still have to dodge puddles
- Grandstand show producer Bill Avery watches the first dress rehearsal of Century 2. Avery has produced the show for the past 13 years but this one, nearly stopped by flooding, is his last.
- A cowboy and bull in the ring, one day before the Stampede officially opens on July 5
- Choreographer Brian Foley (left) and stage show manager Brian Conrad watch grandstand rehearsals for the show, Century 2, which required a few changes because equipment had been submerged in water
Click here for more photos of the Calgary Stampede cleanup effort