If this is your first rodeo, so to speak, then Williams Lake is the place for you.
Small when compared to its Calgary cousin (the exuberant Calgary Stampede,) the rodeo at Williams Lake punches above its weight by providing a rich, authentic atmosphere when the cowboys are in town.
The people here are passionate about what they do and still find foreigners a novelty so it’s easy to ask questions to help understand the rules.
Rodeos themselves are timed (a set order of events need to take place before a deadline) and the set pieces are flanked by extras like Freestyle Motorcross stunts and after-parties in saloons.
It’s worth touching on any animal rights concerns, which are usually dismissed by attending a behind the scenes tour (this exposes, for example, the myths that barbed wire and beatings form any part of the rodeo experience.)
And although there’s plenty of testosterone around, rodeo is not an all male event by any means. While most of the athletes are men, women take part in barrel racing, for example, and teens have dedicated events too. Besides, the whole day out is meant to be a family friendly affair.
Food-wise, expect pancake breakfasts with lashings of maple syrup followed by chips and burgers and a range of other foodstuffs that end up deep-fried.
Rodeo and western culture can feel like another world if you hail from a European city but it’s a fascinating world, full of friendly people and definitely one that’s worth seeking out to explore.
Williams Lake may be the largest urban area between Kamloops and Prince George in the Central Interior of British Colombia, but a visit to this part of the world is definitely an outdoor affair.
The easiest way for most visitors to arrive here is by air. Flights from Vancouver pass over mountains, rivers and sparkling lakes in a dazzling aerial display as seen from a notably small-sized plane.
The Williams Lake welcome sign features both a lake and a super-imposed cowboy hat, which pretty much sums up the essence of the place.
It makes a great place for exploring the Great Outdoors and serves as a bastion of authentic rodeo culture, as celebrated by the Williams Lake Stampede that is held in a dedicated arena each year.
Life in this city of only 10 000 knows plenty about the conditions that produced the rodeo in the first place: as a way for young bucks to burn off some of that testosterone and hone the skills they’d use every day on the ranch anyway.
I spent most of my time at the rodeo, talking to athletes and volunteers and trying to understand this world that was so new to me but so well established to this community. I also had the chance to visit a ranch where a local athlete grew up, witnessing his purpose-built chute and the everyday chaps, horseshoes, and saddles that make up life around horses and cattle.
You’ll need a car to get around (or a bicycle and sturdy legs) as well as some local knowledge of how to watch out for bears and even the occasional cougar if your exploring takes you too far out of town.
One popular drive is to follow the road to Riske Creek in the Chilcotin, where frothy mint-blue water tumbles over stones at the base of creamy, rocky cliffs. There are sacred First Nations sites, dilapidated houses and sporadic ranches where real cowboys live and train.
The city itself can seem a little characterless, with its standard issue malls and chains, making staying outside in the countryside all the more exciting.
I stayed at Juniper Trails, a B & B with owners passionate enough to keep all the advantages of a hotel and combine them with the intimacy of a B&B. (Home-made chocolate brownies anyone?!)
Williams Lake is a place to indulge in pancake breakfasts, maple syrup and swinging saloons on the one hand and pristine scenery on the other.
Money Saving Tips
Ride a bike around town instead of driving a car!
Bring sandwiches to the rodeo if you don’t fancy paying for the burgers and fries on sale from the caravans.
Did You Know?
Williams Lake began life in 1860 as part of the Cariboo Gold Rush.
Williams Lake gets its name from the Secwepemc chief William
Williams Lake is a one hour flight or six hour drive from Vancouver
The great spirit and generosity of the genuine cowboys I met.