A day at the races

by Julia Kuzeljevich

NOTRE-DAME-DU-NORD, Que. – It normally isn’t thought of as a city, this spot on the map that sits near the border of Ontario and Quebec. Barely 1,500 people call it their permanent home.

But every summer, thousands of truckers and fans with diesel in their blood transform Notre-Dame-du-Nord into a city of tents and trucks, serenading it with the sound of rumbling diesels and blaring air horns.

The four-day Rodeo du Camion promises the show and shine, a flea market, truck pulls, plays, music and a lights and sound show, and brings its own mobile economic boom to the local economy. The annual event pumps some $4 million in revenue into the surrounding communities; it’s invested more than $2.8 million in net profits into Ontario’s Timiscaming region and Quebec’s Temiscamingue since 1981. Look around and signs of that cash can still be seen. It helped pay for a new fire truck; a tennis court; baseball field; work on a new marina and riverbank cleanup; specialized equipment for the hospital, such as electric beds and a defibrillator; a renovated church; a new tourist information booth and museum; annual scholarships; and a share of a park for senior citizens.

There’s probably 60,000 people in town this weekend, a storekeeper tells me as I roll into the area. She hasn’t had a chance to see the events herself, but merrily rings up six packs and bags of cheese curds for that gooey Quebec specialty, poutine.

This big rig event can even mean big business off site.

My editor had loped into my cubicle with finger firmly planted at a spot on the roadmap, exuding about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where the drug-addled author is on an assignment to cover motorcycle races. He wants me to focus on the color. He wants to know how it sounds, how it smells. My senses are at the ready.

Hopes of actually staying in town quickly evaporated when I tried to book a hotel a few weeks ago. The regular Rodeo-goers know to book ahead. But I’ve found a pleasant room at the Auberge Country Inn in New Liskeard, Ont., less than a half hour down the road.

My mother is along for the company (she has a great spirit of adventure), and we’ve left our respective spouses cutting trees and fishing back at the cottage on this Simcoe Day Weekend.

Sunday, Aug. 6

8 a.m.

Driving through a purely bucolic setting in the northern lowlands, there’s no sign that, just across the border in Quebec, the Rodeo is in full swing. Grazing Holstein cows, farms, more fields. It’s a peaceful morning on Hwy. 65 heading east into la province de Quebec. A small, painted sign showing a cowboy swinging a lasso is the only guide pointing the way.

During this Sunday morning, the day’s beginning at the Notre Dame du Nord Church in the centre of town.

Truckers’ Mass has become an annual tradition here.

Members of the crowd are decked out in their Sunday best, some of it reflecting the rodeo-like theme with elaborately stitched Western shirts and Stetson hats, polished “shitkicker” cowboy boots, and shiny belt buckles. The Truckers’ Mass is about to begin.

8:30 a.m.

To be honest, I had thought it would be a non-event, with a few stragglers and the devout locals who regularly support such a massive church in a little town; that few would have emerged from the motels, campsites and tents squatted higgledy-piggledy on residents’ lawns.

I was wrong. Hundreds have packed the church, with Father Gerard Lecomte in the pulpit. Fire department volunteers help us to find seats near the front.

I had just married into the Catholic Church, so luckily I knew the ritual ropes. It helps. Even though I speak French, I hadn’t stopped to learn many prayers in the language.

No matter. Many elements of this ceremony have been customized. Country-music-style harmonies ring out from the choir loft:

“‘Salut, trucker’, one began,

‘Listen to my songs.

When you’re in your nice truck,

bring my music along.

Salut, trucker,

then you’ll have some company,

On the road, so far from your home…

You cross the country, with your loads,

Canada and the States.

From Atlantic to Pacific,

from Alaska to the Mexican border.

Think of your family, of your wife and your kids,

You miss your relatives – you don’t see them nearly enough.

Listen to my music. You know, I understand, ‘Cause you’re really a cowboy of the road.'”

It flows better in French, but you get the idea.

The altar, normally marked with more religious fare, also includes truck paraphernalia, framed pictures of rigs, items that were there perhaps to be blessed, some carried as the offertory.

During the liturgy, special prayers are said for truckers on the roads, alone, fighting loneliness and fatigue. But there are also wishes for the holiday time, especially that of the Rodeo, to be enjoyed and shared with family. When the mass ends, we approach the altar for a better look at the displays.

We chat with an Oshawa, Ont.-area family who has stumbled on the event. They are staying with a Francophone family, and we meet the matriarch, who speaks to us in a mix of French and English. There’s no tension of the solitudes here, that “Why should I speak this or that when you should speak the other?”

9:30 a.m.

As we leave the service, there’s still a smell of stale beer in the streets; signs of a good time the night before. But the aroma of bacon that’s frying for Sunday breakfast is quickly overtaking it.

The church’s ringing bells are being upstaged by a sound that really brings people to the region. It’s the horn blasts. A cacaphony of horns that soon become synchronized, echoing James Brown’s backup brass.

If you weren’t already up, you are now.

In a line-up stretching some two or three kilometres down the town’s main drag, trucks of every color and adornment are literally gearing up for the annual parade. Visitors line the streets with camp chairs, and I sit back to soak it in. It’s obvious that girlfriends or spouses played a role in preparing some of the entries, now wrapped in ribbons and garlands, with bouquets of silk flowers stuffed into the arms of the West Coast mirrors.

Local homeowners are in on the event, too. One is covered with huge painted Rodeo signs and an overstuffed scarecrow-like cowboy propped up in the chair.

“It gets reactions from the crowd,” says Eric Pleau, the homeowner’s son. “And since we’re in the middle of the fun, I started doing it every year.”

11:00 a.m.

We’re getting peckish, so we head over to the flea market grounds, next to the Show and Shine and truck campsite. It’s purely festival fare: burgers, fries, slushies, and the ubiquitous poutine – fries and cheese curds, gravy on top, and, in this version, ground beef and onions. Diets be damned. We’re walking around a lot today.

A retro-country band is setting up on a grandstand. It looks like the rain will hold off for awhile longer, which is good for the crowds and vendors alike, especially for Rolande Bastien, whose Vetements Country Nashville stand of Western clothing is a popular stop.

“It really goes well with the trucking lifestyle,” says Bastien, promoting the Western look that she’s brought for the last two years from her shop in Boisbriand, Que.

“There’s about 50,000 or 60,000 visitors a day here this year, but we haven’t been blessed with good weather at all this summer, and last year we had many more,” says Bastien.

I leave Bastien with a Truck News “casquette” (baseball cap) and I leave somewhat poorer, with a beaded, braid-rimmed lady Stetson. I’m a sucker for flea markets.

Across from Bastien, Annie Lafrance, from Abitibi, is selling trucker bedding: bunk-sized quilts and fleece blankets, embroidered with your favorite OEM logo, mascot, or perhaps something more imaginative. The black comforter with the embroidered femme fatale in a merry widow is quite popular.

“I suppose you don’t want a picture of that,
though,” says Annie, giggling.


We follow the crowd yet again to the site of the truck pulls. The racers will turn off the main drag, left of the waterfront, and head up a steep little incline off the main road. Above the drag, there’s a white banner with Start/Depart, and race organizers are lining up the contestants.

It’s like Hockey Night in Canada with a bilingual Don Cherry and Ron McLean. Pump-up-the-volume music blares at regular intervals while the announcers – one for the French, one for the English – rev up the crowd in both official languages. The music and the voices reverberate across Lake Temiskaming.

Two little boys next to me make “vroom, vroom” noises and grip imaginary gearshifts with small, candy-sticky hands.

There’s a bit of a slow start when one of the trailers in the loaded category comes unhitched and the driver is disqualified. But then we’re back to a furious revving, a green signal, and two bobtails shoot by, clouded in blue smoke, the crowd in ecstasy. Shania Twain’s twang shouts out to the crowd: “That don’t impress me much!”

The race heats up further as more bobtails zoom by as my amateurish fingers fumble to work the camera.

We’ve found our way to the “press box”, a wooden platform that offers a pretty good view. There, the anointed ones – the press and VIP bracelet-holders – mingle in the mist of exhaust smoke and the rain that’s beginning to fall.

Kevin Beatty and his buddy Jamie Burnett have come from North Bay, Ont. for the weekend. Both are Peterbilt mechanics, and they are VIPs today because Peterbilt is sponsoring one of the race lanes and raffling away two Peterbilts by the end of the night. Beatty says his Peterbilt dealership typically spends half a year preparing for the event. The other race lane is sponsored by Temisko, which has set up, with Peterbilt, a display of goods back at the fairgrounds.

“The Peterbilt’s an owner/operator truck, so we’ve got a lot of customers here. And it’s interesting, as mechanics, to see what kind of abuse these trucks will take,” says Beatty. He was once a hot-rodder, but finds trucks much more exciting to work on.

We head up the hill for a clear look at the winning trucks. A tractor-trailer roars by me at top speed, its tonnes of load bearing down on the asphalt.

At the top of the hill, the checkered flag wavers are going crazy. The crowd is bopping up and down under rainbow-patterned umbrellas, the rain forgotten.

4:00 p.m.

As luck would have it, the rain begins to clear as the races come to an end and we take the chance to take a look at the show and shine displays.

Gaby Bouchard seems to be the only driver hanging around a display truck, in this case a purple 1989 Peterbilt 379 from Marfranc Transport in Beloeil, Que. It’s Bouchard’s first time at the Rodeo du Camion, but he’s already made his mark with the rig highlighted by an oil painting of a mountain scene and locomotive on the side. He’s won honors for Best Paint, Best Chrome and Best Interior.

5:00 p.m.

Many truckers are loading up already, preparing to head back to wherever home is. We stop at a family picnic of sorts. An entire trucking family from Keswick, Ont. is seated on camp chairs, taking a break after the day’s events.

It’s Jamie Graham’s first year here, but his father’s been coming for about four. Graham poses for Truck News atop his truck, seated on a camp chair. He’s made it up there several times today for several camera holders, he tells me.

5:30 p.m.

We prepare to head out ourselves. The sky is overcast yet again, and we have miles to go before we sleep.

We bump into a smiling gentleman on the road, Raoul Thibodeau from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He tells us he’s been pleasantly surprised by all the events at the rodeo. Here to visit his wife’s relatives, he wasn’t even aware the festivities would be so extensive. “You’d expect it a little more rowdy and raucous,” he says. “But it’s been very pleasant.” n

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.