Although the sign on the road proudly proclaims St. Jean-Baptiste is the soup-pea capital of Canada, last weekend the tiny francophone community located 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg was surely the nation's hot spot for ATVs.
Throughout the weekend, more than a thousand mud-loving revellers from across the province converged on St. Jean for its 12th annual ATV Derby.
The event was founded in 2001 by a small group of locals with the intention of raising funds for the local arena. That first derby attracted about 75 riders.
It has continued to grow... and grow.
"We are expecting more than 1,500 participants this year and hope to raise about $50,000," said Kevin Klaasen, one of the committee members responsible for orchestrating the event. To date, the derby has helped purchase a brand-new rescue truck for the local fire department and also presented funds to the Catholic church, a daycare centre and the continued operating costs of the arena.
"We have six committee members and about 150 volunteers who share the duties," said Klaasen. "This year we had a bit of a break with the preparation because the area where our trails run didn't flood, but we still cut approximately 40 kilometres of trail on evenings and weekends in preparation of the derby."
And what a trail it was. The 40-kilometre-long route wound along the banks of the muddy Red River with hundreds of sharp curves and steep hills, and more than a few mudholes for adventurous folks to play in. "Thanks to about 15 generous landowners who grant us permission to ride on their properties we are able to take advantage of the beautiful scenery," said Klaasen.
Depending on how often they stop to play in the mudholes, it takes participants about four hours to do the entire route. "We ran about 10,000 feet of hose to fill these mudholes and we did some rough calculations and figure we put about 300,000 gallons of water in the eight different mudholes along the way," added Klaasen, "but the beauty of our event is we've always got a way around the mud so if you're not someone who wants to get wet or you've got little kids in the group, you can easily go around the mud."
Dale Loewen, the owner of Sandale Fabrication in nearby Grand Pointe, definitely did not go around the mud -- he went right though it, countless times. "If you're not covered in mud by the end of the day, you're doing it wrong," offered Loewen with a mile-wide grin.
Loewen, who is typically surrounded by big-buck custom cars that are as clean as a church kitchen, could be found most of the afternoon in shoulder-deep mud and water manoeuvring his Can-Am ATV around with a level of grace typically only found at the ballet.
Thanks to massive aftermarket tires that provide a surprising amount of both traction and flotation, Loewen delved deep into the mud pit and was literally covered in Manitoba gumbo. "This is really what it's all about," added Loewen with a laugh as he hugged me and plastered a healthy dose of mud on my previously clean T-shirt. Watching Loewen and a good number of other riders master the mud was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
The ATV hobby continues to grow, in addition to traditional ATVs that the rider sits on, UTVs, or side-by-side machines that more closely resemble a dune buggy, have also gained considerable popularity in recent years. Machines equipped with stereos and enough auxiliary lighting to facilitate a moon landing are all the rage and by all accounts, the popularity of both ATVs and UTVs continues to gain in popularity.
My longtime friend, Derek Roth, one of the owners of Adventure Power Products, a Kawasaki dealer located in éles Des Ch�nes, set up a huge display and was offering test rides on all the latest Kawasaki products.
Enns Brothers was also on hand with more off-road samplings from both Can-Am and John Deere, and so was Southland Honda from Winkler and Winnipeg Sport and Leisure. The ATV crowd is much like snowmobile fans, folks are very brand-loyal and if asked, they will sing the praises of their respective rides until the sun goes down.
Klaasen is aware of the negative publicity that sometimes follows the riders of these powerful machines. "ATVs get a bad rap but it really boils down to the users being responsible," he said. "The group we get out here is very respectful and in a small town like ours, owning an ATV is really a way of life."
There are a number of ATV derbies throughout the province each year. There is also a large derby in Quebec that draws more than 1,000 riders annually, but the St. Jean event is the largest in these parts. "It's not just huge fun," added Klaasen, "it also puts us on the map."