They were having the second day of the annual Chuckwagon Races when we arrived in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada. It's an event which began in Alberta in 1923 and is one of the big summer events in this little ranch-and-farm town. A red chuckwagon is lined up while the outrider holds the horses from dashing off At the starting line

The town was empty but the bleachers were full. Little kids climbed up and down, visiting cousins and friends, while their parents and grandparents chatted, purchased their tickets for the Lions Club raffle (50/50 - winner gets half, the Lions' Club gets the other half of a bit over $900), and enjoyed pop and candy. The summer prairie breeze deposited chips of paint from the upper bleachers on those sitting down below.

Chuckwagon racing is complicated! Each entry consists of chuckwagon with a team of four horses and driver, plastic "cookstove," and two outriders on their horses. The first outrider holds the wagon team still. The second outrider throws the cookstove into the back of the wagon as soon as the starting horn sounds.

Then the team threads a path between a half-dozen barrels, and races around the track. The two outriders leap onto their horses and gallop alongside. The outriders must finish within 125 feet of the wagon or there is a penalty (which frequently happened). The outrider stands at the back of the blue chuckwagon trying to insert the cookstove Loading the cookstove

Each race is a heat of two or three teams. It's a good thing there aren't more, because they fill up all the available space on the track! At the end of the day, the team with the fastest time gets the first prize money - times are within about a minute of each other.

Meanwhile everybody else in town sits and talks and eats and laughs and makes token bets on each heat, which are real gambles, because there's absolutely no way of telling who is going to win any particular race. These things happened:

a) an outrider lost the reins of his horse and had to chase it a bit before he could climb on - he finished far behind the field and cost his team a one-second penalty.

b) another outrider was so excited that he finished far in front of any of the wagons - another one-second penalty.

c) twice, one of the horses in the team just wouldn't line up and ended going a different way, seriously impeding forward progress of the wagon. A driver in a yellow parka and black hat guides a blue and white chuckwagon around a tight turn Rounding a turn

d) the hat of the driver in the lead blew off on the final sprint, and he kept turning around to see where it went, while another team passed him.

e) one team absolutely wouldn't start. It just stood still in the middle of the barrel area while the outriders pulled on the harness and the driver did whatever drivers do. They didn't leave the starting gate until the race was over.

f) a couple of times, the horses knocked over the barrels, or skimmed by so closely that the plastic cover flew off. They are very resilient, and after having been stepped on by a horse can be popped right back into shape. But it is a penalty nonetheless.

And those were just the things that happened in the first five races! This is definitely a don't-miss event!

Oh, yes, there's a time-honored history behind chuckwagon racing. When a big roundup was going on, the last ranch to get their chuckwagon into town by the saloon had to stand the drinks!