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The inside track on snowmobiling in Atlantic Canada

From the powder of mountainous backcountry climbs to the smooth groomed speedways four lanes wide, Atlantic Canada is a haven for snowmobiling. Some areas are more endowed with consistent snowfalls and have been developed to accommodate snowmobilers more than others, but each province has unique features that keep them coming back for more, always offering new experiences.

Newfoundland and Labrador: Point your skis and go

Heading north into the Long Range Mountains, we thread our way, single file, among snow-ladened spruce and fir, climbing until the forest begins to thin. We stop once to examine the cracked bones and bloody snow of a coyote kill. Finally, we burst onto the powder of a trackless highland, and spread out like a posse racing across a brilliant white tableau. The more daring among us gun their sleds up the sides of snow-corniced hilltops and over ridges, crossing and recrossing each other’s paths, flinging up snowdust that settles on our faces like mist. I hunch down behind the windshield, and open the throttle.

While Newfoundland and Labrador’s advertising boasts 5,000 kilometres of groomed trails, in Labrador snowmobiling is as much a mode of transportation as it is a form of recreation. On the island, the Newfoundland and Labrador Snowmobile Federation (NLSF) comprises more than a dozen clubs, and operates a small fleet of groomers on trails such as the 900-kilometre Trans Canada Trail, which runs from St. John’s in the east to Port aux Basques in the west, although generally only Goobies to the Bay St. George area is groomed.

The island is divided into four regions: Eastern, from St. John’s to Clarenville; Central, from the Terra Nova-Glovertown area to Baie Verte; Western, from Hampden to Deer Lake, south to Stephenville, and north to Woody Point; and Northern, from Hawke’s Bay to the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. Much of the island and most of Labrador is remote, uninhabited crown land. Little wonder Labrador—otherwise known as The Big Land—is host to Cain’s Quest, the longest endurance snowmobile race in the world. (See events, page 13.) All but the eastern region have snowbelts, making them popular sites.

The Caines brothers, Tom, Michael and Jonathan, know all about the snowbelts. They now live in Gander, but grew up snowmobiling on the island’s West Coast.

As soon as they could afford them they bought big, powerful snowmobiles. “I did a lot of snowmobiling in the Lewis Hills and Blow Me Down Mountains,” Tom says. “We’d go to the West Coast eight to 10 times a year to go backcountry snowmobiling.” They’d make their first trip into the western hills the weekend after New Year’s, and their last trip usually in May—although one year it was June 4th.

Fast forward to 2012 and, with young families to consider, the brothers looked for places closer to home. That’s when they met Joy and Paul Rose, and discovered Hodges Hill.

The Roses operate Riverfront Chalets on the Exploits River, an hour west of Gander, and run snowmobile tours into the Gaff Topsails and Hodges Hill. “We are in a colder snowbelt, so we get an extra two weeks at either end,” Joy says.

Even though the groomed Trans Canada Trail runs nearby, most of their tours are on ungroomed trails. “When you leave from Grand Falls to Badger you deal with a lot of bumps, or ‘yes ma’ams’ as we call them, on that trail,” Joy says. “Instead we take logging roads and other open trails.” To the west of the chalets is the famous Gaff Topsail plateau—“for people used to snowmobiling all day, under more extreme conditions,” Joy says. The Hodges Hill tour is a little more versatile: the terrain and the snow provide something for every group, from extreme technical to family fun. “We take a groomed trail for seven kilometres and then it is all backcountry skiing,” says Paul. “People love it.” Tom Caines did.

“It was early April. No snow on the ground in Gander,” Tom says. “I’d already put fuel stabilizer in my tank because I figured the season was done. But Paul insisted there was snow.” Despite their doubts, the brothers met him at the chalets, crossed the bare highway and entered a trail through the spruce.

“Twenty minutes from the TCH we were on Hodges Hill. We even found powder and got stuck,” Tom says, with a laugh. “The temperature was in the teens, we had blue sky, and we rode until dark.”

But for many snowmobilers, there is no substitute for the mountains. In Newfoundland that means the Western and Northern regions. Deer Lake is a hub, and the town is abuzz with snowmobiles—so much so that the council enacted regulations this year to quieten sledding in undesignated areas. To the south of this mid-sized town is Marble Mountain, the Blow Me Down Mountains and even farther south, the Lewis Hills. To the north is the spectacular Long Range Mountains and Gros Morne National Park.

“It’s the best snowmobiling east of the Rockies,” Tom says. “If you want to play on the side of a ridge or test your limits then that is the place. It is an awesome feeling to know you can go wherever you like. All you have to do is point your skis.”

Nova Scotia: three solitudes

The snowbelts of Nova Scotia include three discrete regions: Cape Breton, the Annapolis Valley and the Northeast Region. Each of these areas, with a combined total of 4,200 kilometres of groomed trails, offer several days of unforgettable sledding.

In Cape Breton, snowmobiling means backcountry sledding with lots of powder and heavy drifting. It’s a good two-day ride from Cheticamp in the northwest to Port Hastings, south, at the causeway—provided you have a local guide. Otherwise, with the limited signage, you risk going astray on the frosty web of logging roads.

At the northern-most tip of the Island, the Highlands are a popular destination for experienced snowmobilers, says Stan Slack, president of the Snowmobilers Association of Nova Scotia (SANS). Although they may have sun one minute and a storm the next, the Highlands offer the longest season for Nova Scotia snowmobilers, from mid-December to late April. Over the past few years the numbers of people snowmobiling there has levelled out, says Stan, but the demands for services and amenities are growing. The Inverary Resort in Baddeck, for instance, is now open year-round and has recently installed a hot tub and sauna facility in response to snowmobiler traffic.

Mike Eddy, general manager at SANS, says 25 years ago mainly guys were beating their way through the snow on cold, noisy snowmobiles. Modern machines are engineered for comfort and efficiency, he says; there are more families and couples out on the snow now. “That’s why we are focusing our efforts not on making new trails but on supporting restaurants, hotels and other services on or near the existing trail system.

“The demand for services helps businesses stay open in winter,” he says. Stan admits, however, that the industry is still in early days for servicing sledders; he believes there’s “room for improvement with the signage and wayfinding in the area.”

From Port Hastings, it’s a 340-kilometre drive, with the trailer rattling behind, to Kentville—a staging point for the Annapolis Valley region. Here the Annapolis Valley Lake and Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club maintain more than 700 kilometres of trails on abandoned rail lines and wood paths. You pick up the east end of the trail at Kentville and follow the old rail line west as far as Bridgetown and then loop back through the South Mountains following a combination of rail lines, fire roads and wood paths. To help you along the way the club has installed new metal-post signage for the 2014 season, and decked over three bridges in the Loon Lake area.

The northern area snowmobile clubs have the art of grooming down to a science. From Antigonish in the east to Amherst in the west, the trail follows former logging roads and rail lines for much of the route, passing through remote areas, so keep a sharp eye on the gas gauge. Some of the vistas—such as the view near Pictou north out over the Northumberland Strait to where PEI sprawls across the horizon—will linger long after the trip is over.

So how does Nova Scotia rate for snowmobiling? Excellent for local riders who can access the trails by sled from home when they want, and know their way around; and for locals who want to familiarize themselves with an area by trailering their sled for weekends and holidays away. With active clubs and a proactive association, the trails are well maintained and varied, increasingly resulting in a growth in tourism.

Travelling on the Trans Canada Trail past Amherst, you leave Nova Scotia behind and head into its westerly neighbour, which has the most mature snowmobiling industry in the region. But before we traverse New Brunswick, there’s an important trail system in PEI, a venue for a special event taking place this year.

Stan Slack and a number of his friends have registered for the 2014 Celebration Ride, February 19-21—one of the activities in a year-long celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of the Island as host for the 1864 confederation delegation. Snowmobilers will sled from one end of PEI to the other. The joke among SANS members, Stan says with a chuckle, is, “Then what will we do in the afternoon?”

PEI: towns & hamlets

A long-time snowmobiler and president of the PEI Snowmobile Association, Dale Hickox has heard the jokes before. He’s confident visitors will be surprised at how much winter PEI has to offer. “We’re not Northern New Brunswick, but our season runs from February to mid-March—and we’re often rolling by the middle of January,” he says.

Unlike neighbouring provinces, PEI has no snowbelt. Western PEI, from Tignish to Summerside, gets the most snow, and in the higher elevations around the Brookvale Provincial Ski Park, snow usually has an extended season.

The Confederation Trail, built on the former rail line, runs 375 kilometres from Tignish in the west to Elmira in the east. That main line, plus an additional 500 kilometres of trail—including several spur lines and trails across private lands and wood lots—are groomed by the 1,500 member association. Dale says there is some off-trail riding but, he says, “We don’t encourage that. There’s plenty of trail for everyone.”

It’s a matter of pride for Dale that many businesses in the towns linked to the trail stay open during the winter, or extend their hours to serve the snowmobile community. He says they are slowly rebuilding their numbers to the peak of the 90s after a few bad winters discouraged riders.

During the event in February, after the first day along the eastern trail system and visiting fishing villages and historic sites, guests will kick back at the host hotel for an evening of history about all things snowmobile.

“On our second travel day we’ll sled the West Point Loop,” Dale says, a trip across drifting, open fields and under the shadow of huge windmills before we reach Summerside.

“Our last day of sledding will be in the centre of the island, following backcountry trails through logging roads, and along the coast. It’ll be some of the most spectacular scenery of the whole trip, before heading back to base for the final evening.”

New Brunswick: at the centre of the storm

With a network of more than 7,000 kilometres of groomed trails criss-crossing the province, some as wide as a four-lane highway, New Brunswick gets the heaviest consistent snowfalls of the four Atlantic provinces—especially in the Appalachian northern region and the Fundy Highlands. The Northern Odyssey Trail is 1,000 kilometres of trail packaged into a loop that links Campbellton, at New Brunswick’s northern border, to Edmundston in the west, southeast to Miramichi, northeast to Bathurst and back to Campbellton. So important is the business that downtown Campbellton streets accommodate snowmobile traffic during the season.

Following this network, snowmobilers gaze over coastline vistas, follow narrow riverside trails, slalom single file through groomed forest trails, race along roadside paths and spread out on uninterrupted section of trail—like the legendary 24-kilometre-long Piston Alley, where snowmobile manufacturers test drive their new models. Such a complex system, used by a community of more than 15,000 snowmobilers a year, challenges the resources of the area’s clubs and their volunteers. But according to Ross Antworth, general manager for the New Brunswick Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (NBFSC), the provincial government is stepping up its commitment to the industry.

Last November, New Brunswick announced a major trail development and maintenance project for the Mount Carleton Provincial Park-Christmas Mountains region. Ross believes this area, encircled by the Northern Odyssey Trail, will have a significant economic impact, similar to a system that has been “running successfully in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 30 years,” he says. Once in operation, says Ross, “the new Mount Carleton Park-Christmas Mountains system will benefit the small lodges in the region, the private outfitters and the small communities on the outskirts.”

However, Ross adds that New Brunswick’s other snowbelt is underrated. “Right up against the stunning coastline of the Bay of Fundy, the Fundy Highlands get snow early and it stays late,” he says. “You can snowmobile right down to the beach and touch the ocean, or look across Fundy to Nova Scotia.”

One gateway into the Fundy Highlands is Shepody. “You drive 15 to 20 kilometres and that puts you instantly into the snow,” says Ross. “The little phrase we love to use is ‘white gold,’” says Ross. “We have a long season.” The proximity of services to the trails is key to tourism in New Brunswick, he adds: “Lodges, places that people, families, can stay, eat and refuel.”

Ross says the province also has another, a geographic advantage. To the south is Maine, where snowmobiling is popular, and to the north Quebec, “with the best trail system in the world… We are in the middle of quite a system.”

Winter weather 101

Snowfall in the Atlantic Provinces is heavily influenced by the coastal climate. Winter systems tracking north along the eastern seaboard, through the Bay of Fundy, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or east across the Laurentian Channel and the Grand Banks, bring mild weather, with a rain-snow mix. However, systems tracking from the north are heavily influenced by the cold Arctic air and the Labrador Sea, bringing snow that settles in enormous swaths over the more northerly regions, at higher elevations, and across the interiors of the larger provinces. Those areas where the snowfall is heaviest are known as snowbelts.

Read before you go

  1. Be sure to contact the governing association in any province to see if there are any trail interruptions, bridge outages or other issues that might interfere with your plans: Snowmobilers Association of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador Snowmobile Federation, New Brunswick Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, Prince Edward Island Snowmobile Association.
  2. Make sure your vehicle registration and insurance is up to date.
  3. Each province has a trail permit system; passes are available for various durations—daily, three-day, seven-day and seasonal—usually from the provincial associations and from snowmobile clubs province-wide. (If you are going on a guided tour or renting a machine, it’s likely the operators have taken care of this, but check first.) As a general rule, stay on the groomed trails when crossing privately owned land and protected areas.
  4. Safety is top priority while exploring any trail system and even more so when going off-trail. Plan your route, make sure others know when and where you’re going and always travel in groups, obeying the same rules as on a highway. Know the basic hand signals, observe speed limits where posted and understand how hazardous it can be to ride after dark or to cross on ice with heavy sleds.
  5. Wear the right safety gear including approved helmets and goggles. Dress comfortably in layers for sub-zero weather; wear windproof and waterproof outer clothing, and warm boots and mitts. This greatly reduces the risk of frostbite, and helps to ensure you’ll get the most out of your adventure.

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