In 1973, my pal Winston Parker invited me to tag along when he photographed a cattle roundup in the Alberta foothills. I was thrilled because that meant I could shoot the event for my photography class at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary.

Come along to view some of the vintage photos I took that day and read the description below in italics that I wrote half a century ago.

There are still cowboys in the old west. In fact, they rounded up 2,000 head of cattle in the Bow River Forest Reserve about 50 miles southwest of Calgary in October. The cattle were owned by 15 ranchers in the Turner Valley and Millarville Districts, all members of the South Sheep Creek Stock Association. Under the terms of an agreement with the Alberta government, they run their cattle in the South Sheep Allotment of the reserve from June 15 to July 1 to the middle of October.

Lots of Fat White Faces

Individual ranchers pay a per-head fee to the association, which takes out an annual government permit. Part of the money is paid directly for rent and a portion is retained by the association for expenses such as salt, wages for the roundup cook and upkeep of drift fences. The government maintains the high-quality gravel road that spans the reserve.

The cattle are predominantly Hereford, along with Hereford-Angus crosses, straight Angus, Shorthorn, and a small number of exotic breeds.

Before the annual roundup begins, supplies are moved into the cow camp, the home base for the operation. The camp, located in the region where the foothills end and the mountains start, consists of a cookhouse, bunkhouse, 20-horse barn and corrals. Electricity was installed prior to last year’s five-day session.

Easy Does It While Sorting

A roundup boss divides the men into pairs who ride together. He also decides who will search each area – North Coal Creek, South Coal Creek, Wolf Creek, Channel Ridge, Walter Ings Basin, Canyon Creek, Gorge Creek and Indian Oils.

After several days of riding, the men herd the cattle toward the reserve gates, where they are sorted out in a huge fenced holding pen. Usually, the stock is not too hard to find. The grass is becoming poor by the middle of October, and many cows that have grazed the reserve for a number of years are on the lookout for the roundup riders.

Hotfooting It Back to the Herd

In the morning when the ranchers began cutting the herd, the sound effects were a steady chorus of bawling.

By the middle of the afternoon, the roundup herd had diminished in size and some of the cattle that had been sorted were already walking home. The remainder was becoming restless from hunger, so the ranchers called it a day at 3:30. They drove the herd south to graze on the grassy slope over the hill. The next morning, the cows were gathered again and driven to the cow camp, where the sorting was completed.

One Cow/Calf Pair at a Time

The weather does not always behave, as it did this day. At the 1948 roundup held in the middle of November, there was a foot of snow and temperatures dipped to 20 degrees below zero F. Sitting on a horse all day in that weather was a very cold job.

The cattle share the area with an increasing number of tourists every year. However, the land still supports beef for Alberta dinner tables, as well as providing space for recreation. To minimize interference and prevent the cattle from overgrazing certain areas, they were herded for six months last summer.

Keeping the Cattle Together

The presence of the stock is beneficial to the wild game in the region because if the grass if kept short, it remains tender and of high quality. By tramping down the underbrush and eating in it, the risk of forest fires getting away is also diminished.

The roundup is not taken for granted. In fact, the novelty of it prompted an Ontario farmers’ tour to drive out from Calgary in a huge bus to view the cattle being cut out. Several photographers were also on hand.

The Long Walk Home

The cattle stay home for the winter feeding and many of the calves were marketed in High River and Calgary.

Next spring, though, the long trek to summer pasture will begin again. Then, in the fall, the ranchers will trade their half-tons for horses and once more, for a few short days, live the good life of an era almost past.

There was no loud noise or rodeo theatrics at this roundup. Slow and easy described the cowboys’ approach to the task at hand. I was well aware that I was witnessing an authentic cowboy tradition that had become less common over time.

So how did my photos turn out? I earned an A on this action assignment and later sold the pictures and story to a farm newspaper, The Western Producer.

Sharing the Roundup with Readers

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Other photo shoots I shared with my friend, Winston Parker, are:

Don’t miss Winston’s memories of meeting Winston Churchill during World War II:

Elaine Thomas
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