The rumble of Sturgis North

St. John’s writer braves the heavy metal thunder of a B.C. bike rally

Published on July 27, 2011
Bike rally

There was plenty of “heavy metal thunder” from the 18,000 motorcycles that rolled in to Salmon Arm, B.C. for the inaugural Sturgis North Motorcycle Rally and Music Festival held from Wednesday, July 13 to Sunday, July 17. I wasn’t able to rumble into town on my own iron, I had to settle for a gentle humming entrance on Saturday afternoon in a rented Toyota sedan with my sleeping two-year-old granddaughter lashed into her CSA-approved car seat.

Salmon Arm is a British Columbia southern interior transportation hub and tourist town on the Trans-Canada Highway about halfway between Vancouver and Calgary. Many Vancouver and Calgary residents are familiar with the beaches and campsites of Salmon Arm and the area around B.C.’s giant Shuswap Lake.

Forestry is the backbone industry of Salmon Arm, but the 16,000 residents of the 100-year-old city are comfortable hosting large numbers of tourists each summer who dole out their holiday dollars at its many restaurants and hotels, and for campsite and houseboat rentals. 

Every summer, history buffs are thrilled by the artifacts displayed at the pristine setting of R. J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum, and crowds of up to 20,000 come to town for the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival where local acts (such as the Salmon Armenians) share the stages with music greats like the Pointer Sisters. In May of this year, scribblers flocked to Salmon Arm for the Shuswap International Writers’ Festival. The area is a hotspot for visual artists, too, perhaps because of the breathtaking scenery of the Shuswap and its guardian, Bastion Mountain — featured for years on B.C. drivers’ licenses.

But this July, Steve Hammer, site manager for Sturgis North, and his team shook the tranquil Shuswap by flinging Salmon Arm into a far noisier festival — a motorcycle rally inspired by the famous annual gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota, first held in 1938 by Indian Motorcycle franchisee, Clarence (Pappy) Hoel.

“(Sturgis North) was kind of an event of its own,” said Hammer, “basically it was designed for riders and motorcycle enthusiasts ... it ended up being a classic rock and roll show ... geared for motorcycle riders”

And it was a noisy affair. By far, most of the din was generated by the familiar gurgling of thousands of Harley-Davidson V-twins. A couple of tanned young women riding flashy Harleys stood out, but by far, most of the leather was stuffed with well-inked bodies sporting paunches and graying beards.

The noise of the music acts was pitched for the Harley demographic, too. Two of the most popular acts were aging rockers, Steppenwolf and Nazareth.

“Those two bands reported it was top shelf and one of the best venues they played in a long, long time,” said Hammer.

There were toys on display and events that appealed to younger boys, too, or at least the young at heart.

There was stunt riding, pyrotechnic equipped bikes, a Biker Build-Off where competing teams built functional custom bikes from the ground up, and a Show and Shine competition featured machines on two and three wheels with 500 hp V-8 power plants. A 20-year-old company from Tennessee called Boss Hoss showcased a line of big horsepower V-8 trikes, the motorcycle front forks and handlebars grafted onto a stern modeled after the sweeping fins of a ’57 Chevy with plenty of chrome — a fast ride, but not cheap.

Hammer said most of the participants were from Ontario and west and ranged from four chapters of Hells Angels to the Christian Motorcyclists Association (they camped at Five Corners Pentecostal grounds). Participating vendors included a booth run by the Hells Angels White Rock Chapter and a busy breakfast and bike wash fundraiser operated by volunteers of First United Church in the spirit of “creating a community where all people are welcome.”

Hammer downplayed opposition to Sturgis North, but when his request for the use of farmland for a music venue was declined earlier this year by Salmon Arm’s Agricultural Land Commission, Hammer’s team made alternate arrangements with a neighbouring First Nations band, the Neskonlith. 

“We worked with the Neskonlith Indian Band and they had a big piece of property and we partnered with them and it worked very, very well.”

While July in Salmon Arm usually brings sunshine and pleasant temperatures in the mid-20s, last year was an exception when the interior of B.C. was parched from an extended hot dry spell leaving the interior plagued by forest fires. This summer is exceptional, too, for its record rainfall.

“Mother Nature, she rained on our parade a bit every day,” said Hammer. “I’ve been involved in outdoor events for the past 17 years on this same weekend and this is by far the worst I’ve seen.”

The Saturday rainstorm even kept the Kelowna Hells Angels from making the one-hour ride to Salmon Arm. (I’m not saying they “wussed out” or anything — we’re all getting older, right?)

It was a sudden and spectacular squall that tumbled down the mountain Saturday afternoon, real thunder drowning out the metal thunder of the man-made machines and sending all of us scattering for shelter. The temperature dropped from 28 to 18 in 15 minutes and everywhere you looked Harleys of all styles and riders of all shapes huddled under awnings and gas station canopies while many other riders, already on the road, dodged pools of water gathering quickly on the pavement, and roared back to their hotels and campsites.

“No one got really hurt and no one died,” Staff. Sgt. Kevin Keane, head of the Salmon Arm RCMP detachment, told reporter Tracey Hughes of the Salmon Arm Observer on Tuesday, July 19, as he reflected on the five-day event.

Hughes wrote in The Observer that 43 people were arrested, mostly for being drunk in public or assault. There were 16 drug seizures, two bikes impounded for stunting and another two for street racing, 24 driving prohibitions for suspected impaired driving, 145 tickets issued, and a woman wearing a hat, socks and not much else was “spoken to by police for public nudity, but was not arrested.”

“There’s the odd one that says it’s too loud, there’s too much drinking, too much profanity,” admitted Hammer, but he wants to do it again next summer, bigger and better. “I would like to see it back in Salmon Arm, personally, and I think the people of Salmon Arm would love to see it here again, or the majority of them.”

All parties are still crunching the final numbers for the inaugural Sturgis North, but early reviews seem to support Hammer’s take on the event. In a Salmon Arm Chamber of Commerce survey published in the Observer, 85 per cent of those who responded said Sturgis was a positive event for the town and they’d like to see it return in 2012.

And Hammer would like to see riders from all across Canada, so he extended a special invitation to St. John’s bikers:

 “We’re inviting you to the west coast … take your time and ride on out and see what the west coast is like.”

So, get your motor running …

Born-to-be-mild biker Rick Barnes lives and rides in St. John’s.