The snowmobile stereotype comes crashing down

Jon Muldoon

Jon Muldoon

I feel just a little bit guilty.

Technically, I haven’t done anything wrong; by most standards, I’m pretty sure I still end up on the ‘actually cares about the planet’ side of the scale. But after having gone on a snowmobile tour earlier this month — and loving pretty much every single moment of it ­ I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit conflicted.

I’ve always assumed (yes, making you-know-what out of u and me) that snowmobilers are all redneck types that don’t care what sort of damage their machines are doing to the environment, or to the experience of that environment by other non-motorized users.

Before you start preparing your letter-to-the-editor diatribe, read on.

A few weeks ago, Dustin Harvey offered to take me out on a half-day snowmobile tour. Dustin worked as a guide for a few years, and moved here to start up his own operation. About two months ago, Harvey Mountain Tours officially started offering sled tours and rentals.

Since I’ve always been sort of biased against sleds without really having researched anything for myself – sloppy, I know – I figured I might as well go along on a tour to see what it was like. I asked Dustin what motivated him to make such an expensive pastime into a moderate living. Turns out he really likes nature too.

“I just like getting out into the backcountry, and the machines are really fun once you learn how to ride them,” he said.

I still half hoped that the veneer would crack, and I’d be able to justify a few of my long-held stereotypes about sleds and the riders that love them. I figured we might do a few shots of rye, then go chase down some moose in the backwoods before tearing up the side of a mountain, high-marking and causing an avalanche rescue. Then we pulled over to radio up the forest service road to inform logging trucks we were on the road.

A moment later we pulled off into a parking lot and I learned the basics of how to use an avalanche beacon and probe. We both also carried shovels and wore helmets, and Dustin brought a satellite phone.

Following that was a quick lesson on the machine — how to start it up, how to stop, the emergency kill switch, and of course, turn and stop signals.

“The industry is becoming more and more safety oriented,” Dustin mentioned partway through the safety orientation.

Just when I feared we were being entirely too responsible, it was time to hit the trail.

So, away we went, along an out of service forestry road near Pine Creek. I switched on the hand warmers, hit the gas, and … holy crap, this thing can go!

After a few minutes I sort of had the hang of driving in a relatively straight line. Almost. This was way harder than I thought it was going to be. Not only did it require skill, it was also hard work. Who knew?

Dustin stopped every few hundred metres to wait for me to catch up. I asked him at one point if he got tired of waiting for me to catch up. He assured me I was actually doing really well for a first-timer, although I suspect he may have been humouring me. I have to tell you, it was fun.

Which brings me back to the conflicted feeling because despite claims that sleds are up to 90 per cent quieter than they were a quarter century ago, they still make noise in the backcountry, and two stroke engines still spew out more pollution than some touring skis and a camp stove.

But they’re so, much, fun.

I think snowmobiling might just have to become one of those ‘everything in moderation’ things for me.