David Abel has been fighting fires for 35 years and has been working at Fort Wainwright for the last 14, but this past weekend his job was different: He was a rodeo dad.
“My job is to hold the horse and pay the bills,” he said, laughing outside of his RV parked on the east side of the Sunrise Arena at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds.
Abel’s RV was one of the 20-plus horse trailers and RVs that lined the far side of the arena that was playing host to the Northernmost Rodeo in America from Friday through Sunday. Fairbanks marked the fourth of six stops on the Rodeo Alaska summer circuit.
Abel had four children competing between the Junior Rodeo Alaska competition on Friday and the Rodeo Alaska competition on Saturday and Sunday, which includes everything from barrel racing and pole bending to team roping and bull riding.
“The kids love it,” said Abel. “It gives them a good foundation; it’s a good community and they get some responsibility out of the horses. Everybody has fun and that is the biggest part of it. It is a fun family thing. My wife is on the Shovel Creek Fire today but she was here until yesterday, so it is something we can do as a family.”
Although there are only four Fairbanks families who compete in Rodeo Alaska, the competitions draw hundreds of competitors from across the state and some from the Lower 48.
“We have a really strong contestant base, particularly in our junior rodeo program ranging from right around 150 kids and we pick them all up along the way from different areas that we travel and we open up opportunities for the youth to be a part of (rodeo) in the local communities that we go to,” said Frank Koloski, owner and operator of Rodeo Alaska.
The Junior Rodeo Alaska program is open to contestants ages 15 and younger. The Rodeo Alaska events are for everyone else and draw around 200 competitors throughout the summer.
Rodeo Alaska is sanctioned by Junior National Finals Rodeo, High School Rodeo Association and Junior High School Rodeo Association, allowing youth athletes to qualify for national competitions in the Lower 48. By working with each other, the associations are able to share livestock and arenas, making the logistics of organizing a rodeo season, which has to fit into a short span of five months, easier.
“In the Lower 48 you go to a rodeo and they will have cattle and they will have everything of their own, and up here we are such a small community that we all work together,” Abel said.
In addition to participating in Rodeo Alaska, the Abels also compete in Alaska High School Rodeo, a series of rodeos that qualify high school aged riders to compete in the National High School Finals Rodeo, which brings together the top high school rodeo athletes from each state in July. David is also the sitting president of the board of the AHSRA.
Georgia Abel, one of David’s daughters who competed in barrel racing Sunday, qualified for this year’s NHSFR. The NHSFR was held in Rock Springs, Wyoming from July 14-20, overlapping with this past weekend’s Rodeo Alaska event.
“It’s really hard on the horses to come from somewhere up here and then acclimate down there in such a short amount of time … We just didn’t have the money to be able to drive all the way down there and lease horses and stuff,” the 16-year-old said, explaining why she was running barrels in Fairbanks this weekend as opposed to Wyoming.
Unlike Abel, barrel racer Linda Perkins from Anchorage will be making the trip down south in October when she will compete in the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association World Championship Rodeo, but she wants to make sure she gets the most out of her trip. “That’s why I’m practicing break away to learn something new,” she said, walking off with her rope to go practice. “I’m not going to go all the way to Topeka Kansas to compete in one event!”
However, the cost of traveling to the Lower 48 is just one of the many challenges local riders face. The rest, unsurprisingly, come from keeping horses alive and healthy in the harsh climate that dominates Alaska for most of the year. In the winter, horses in Alaska are fed nearly double that of horses in the Lower 48 to help maintain their body heat. And because hay prices are nearly three times the cost in Alaska as they are elsewhere, the cost of feeding is about six times that of feeding horses down south.
“Pinch every penny you can,” said David Abel regarding how his family overcomes the financial burden of owning horses in Fairbanks. “We do a lot for ourselves. The girls help us work on a hay farm and we get some cost reduction for hay by helping put it up and we just do what we can.”
But beyond the expenses, local riders are faced with riding in temperatures below zero degrees.
“They don’t ride hard because they don’t want the horses to build up any sweat and then get cold, but they will still be like, ‘We are going on a horse ride,’ at 20 below,” Abel said.
One of those riders who takes on the cold conditions is Caitlyn Berrian, who ran barrels in the Junior Rodeo Alaska on Friday. The West Valley High School student recalled a time when she went on a ride with a friend where she wore snow pants and a jacket and just rode bareback through the snow.
“In the winter sometimes your tack will get cold and it’s really stiff so some people will just throw their bridle on and ride bareback,” she explained. Some riders also own larger pairs of stirrups for the winter so they can wear bigger, warmer boots. But even with all the winter gear she says she’s still cold.
However, this past weekend it wasn’t 20 degrees below. The temperature was 70 degrees above and the sun was out. Fans packed the grandstands on Saturday evening, some wearing shirts reading, “Rodeo Alaska: Ain’t No Fear in the Last Frontier!” And Sunday morning riders were milling around the arena in tank tops, preparing for the last day of competition. The grills were running, country music was playing and two hours before the competition began, a voice came over the loudspeaker welcoming fans to the last day of the rodeo.
The loudspeaker voice belonged to Steve Smart, who hails from Red Bluff, California and has announced at rodeos grounds across his home state, ranging from fairgrounds in rural communities to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. This was his first time in Alaska.
“This is one of the better rodeos I’ve been to,” said Smart, taking a break from the loudspeaker before the Sunday afternoon events began.
“When the fans are involved, when that thing is full like it was yesterday,” he said pointing across the arena to the grandstand, “and they are listening, are into it and you hear the ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ and when you ask them for a response and they participate, that’s what makes the rodeo.”
He also says the competitors make it easy for the fans to cheer.
“When you see someone trying hard to do … what they love to do and to put all their money and heart into it,” said Smart looking down from the announcer’s stand at the arena filled with riders and horses warming up for the last day of the Northernmost Rodeo in America. “It’s fun to watch them get it done.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 495-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.