At Sunday's Alaska Sales and Service Rodeo Roundup in South Anchorage, there was a little bit of everything, from bull riders, ropers and rodeo clowns, to cowgirls in glittery chaps and bleachers filled with spectators clad more frequently in cowboy boots than Xtratufs.
But missing from the event, held during the weekend at the William Clark Chamberlin Equestrian Center, were two familiar faces within the rodeo community: Promising Mat-Su bull riders Michael Sunderland and Ryan Palmer. Both are recovering from serious injuries sustained in an auto accident on the Glenn Highway earlier this month.
In Alaska's close-knit rodeo scene, Sunderland, 19, and Palmer, 21, are known as rising stars, said Frank Koloski of Rodeo Alaska, the event's organizer.
Before the accident, both men had been signed up to ride in the weekend's rodeo, which drew more than 100 mostly Alaskan contestants and crowds of up to 2,500 people during its three-day engagement, according to Koloski.
Troopers said Sunderland and Palmer were heading south on the Glenn Highway near Sheep Mountain on June 3 when the 1999 Subaru Legacy driven by Palmer went off the road and rolled down an embankment, hitting a tree. Both men were ejected from the vehicle. A crew of wildland firefighters and a U.S. Air Force physician who happened to be passing were the first to arrive at the remote site of the accident, about 70 miles southwest of Glennallen.
Sunderland, the more severely injured of the two, was on life support until a few days ago, said his mother, Tammy Sunderland.
"He's just really coming back now," she said.
Palmer was released from the hospital earlier this week but faces long-term recovery at home in Wasilla.
Since the accident, members of Alaska's rodeo community have opened their wallets to donate to Palmer and Sunderland's medical expenses. Koloski said roughly $5,000 in donations have come in so far. Other fundraising events, including a golf tournament and spaghetti feed, are planned for later this summer.
The western riding and rodeo community is like a big family in Alaska, said Tammy Sunderland, who also competes in rodeo events.
"They never falter," she said. "They are always here, always supportive."
At the rodeo on Sunday, an announcer told a cheering crowd that Michael Sunderland had improved enough to be transferred out of Providence Alaska Medical Center's intensive care unit.
Doctors have told the family that Sunderland faces at least 12 additional weeks of recovery. His mother says her bull rider son will compete again.
"I don't think there's anything that could stop him," she said. "He's gotta wear a helmet, though."
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS