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Ride 'em cowboy; KEN BENNETT goes wild in the west - but not in America. He joins the movie-making crowd and heads for the Canadian badlands of awesome Alberta.

Byline: KEN BENNETT

THE Key Ranch drover dipped the new white straw hat in a bucket of water, knocked it into shape and stuck it on my head to dry in the hot Alberta sun.

Now, I felt like a fully-fledged cowboy in this swirl of blue jeans, bucking broncos and bull-roping buckaroos.

And where better to mingle with names like the Rocking P and Round Top T ranches than the dusty, charging crowds at the annual Medicine Tree Ranch Rodeo?

Here, other white-hatted ranchers and family supporters cheer and chide the competitors as they heave, buck and ski to the envy of all would-be cowboys like myself.

It helps that the event is staged in Nanton, which, at first glance, seems to be a one-horse town on the road to nowhere.

But beneath a vast open sky beloved by fans of Brokeback Mountain, much of which was filmed in Alberta, lies a clue to the success of The Cowboy Trail.

It's around 434 miles of open road where the brochures promise: "Cowboys still tip their hats, and ranches stretch right up to the mountains."

Three huge grain elevators lend colour to film set streets where wooden stores are stuffed with western ware. It's gritty and it's all so very genuine.

Yet Nanton lies just 40 minutes from Calgary where, for the 10-day July Stampede, everyone from lawyers to refuse collectors dons blue jeans and giant cowboy hats to party Western-style.

It's not just the thrill of the chuck wagon races, in which four teams of thundering thoroughbred horses bid for a haul of the $1.6 million overall prize money, that makes the Stampede the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

It's the carnival atmosphere that counts in this high-rise city of oil and finance.

Swanky hotels turn lobbies into makeshift corrals while free pancake breakfasts are served by colourful volunteer clowns in the likes of Rope Square, starting place for the parade.

Away from the grandstand, the city sizzles with lots of other temptations, including succulent steaks at The Ranchman's where many Brokeback Mountain scenes were shot.

You can bone up on wildlife from bison to bears, cougar to caribou, at Calgary's renowned zoo or wind back time at Heritage Park with a glimpse at the pioneering past, including a steam train or sternwheeler ride.

All this primes you for The Rockies, which are reached via the Cowboy Trail, no horse required.

You can simply hire one and join exploratory day-rides at Moose Mountain Adventures, Bragg Creek, taking you deep into the mountain foothills of Kananaskis County. Calgary may be less than an hour away but in terms of solitude, capped by the awesome beauty of the distant Rockies, this is a world away.

Further north, at Saddle Peak Trail Rides, in the company of a family with two young children aged five and eight, I followed horse trails to lakes and hidden falls in the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch and Bighorn Campground.

The wow factor is truly enormous, which is why Alberta is a winner when it comes to filming.

River Of No Return, starring Marilyn Monroe, was shot here. So, too, is the Assassination Of Jesse James, which stars Brad Pitt and is due on our cinema screens at the end of the year.

Legends Of The Fall and The Edge, both starring Anthony Hopkins, were also filmed in a province where amazing big skies and mountain vistas don't just dominate but create storylines of their own.

It was at the appropriately named Head-Smashed In Buffalo Jump that the Blackfoot tribe herded buffalo to their death over sandstone cliffs before the use of horses for hunting.

The name derives from the day when a young brave, eager to watch the cull from a ledge on the cliff, became buried as the carcasses mounted up.

And at Frank Slide, a re-enactment shows how, on April 29, 1903, 90 million tons of rock crashed from Turtle Mountain to bury part of the sleeping town of Frank.

Surprisingly, 17 miners working at the rock face survived, while 70 of the 100 or so people living in the path of the slide died.

It is said that the native tribes knew the mountain - part of which still remains unstable today - as the Shaking Mountain.

To learn more about native folklore, head for the Tsuu T'ina Reserve outside Calgary where you'll get an intriguing insight into a group that relied on buffalo for food.

You can follow this up with a more formal visit to the Blackfoot Gallery at Calgary's Glenbow Museum.

These are just a few of the attractions along The Cowboy Trail which, whether you're an outdoor type or prefer the comfort of a car or campervan, panders to travellers with a pioneer spirit.

The difference is that while the cowboy of old lived - as Lane Moore from The Lazy M Ranch explained - "a generally miserable life, worse in some ways than that of a dog", we can now do it in style.

In the rustic comfort of Highwood River Inn, Longview, with stunning views of pink-tinged mountains, I lingered over a freshly home-cooked breakfast of feathery omelettes.

And later, back in Calgary, in the cool wooden-panelled comfort of the Wildwood Grill, I tucked into buffalo patA followed by elk medallions served with a mushroom and elderberry sauce.

Yes siree, this really is life cowboy-style!

SundayMercury@mrn.co.uk

TRAVEL FILE

For general information on holidays in Alberta visit website www.travelalberta.com or call 0906 871 5000 for a vacation planner.

Canadian Affair, who offer tailor-made breaks, fly direct non-stop to Calgary from Gat-wick and Manchester from May until October. Check out www.canadianaffair.com or call 0207 616 9999.

For more on Calgary, click on www.tourismcalgary.com.

For accommodation on the Cowboy Trail, visit website www.thecowboytrail.com or www.highwoodriverinn.com.

For more about trail rides, try www.lazymcanada.com. For Moose Mountain Adventures visit www.packtrips.ca and Saddle Peak Trail Rides at www.saddle-peak.com

Other attraction websites are www.calgarystampede.com, www.head-smashed-in.com and www.frankslide.com

CAPTION(S):

REIN OF TERROR: a cowboy rides his luck at the country rodeo, Nanton Pictures by JOHN RULER' BRAVE FACE: a native rider at the Calgary Stampede' RELAX: a family in the grounds of the hotel at Drimsynie Estate
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 10, 2006
Words:1055
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