Travelers of a certain age, gender and sensibility -- in this case, a 35-year-old city-dwelling male -- must grapple with a paradox: We try to tread lightly on the earth, yet we reap enormous pleasure from anything with an engine. I've always justified motorcycling with arguments about fuel economy and parking. But snowmobiling? My motorhead side conjured up images of cruising an endless highway of snow through a pristine winter wonderland. My internal tree-hugger wasn't so charitable, wondering if a Quebec snowmobiling trip was the winter equivalent of jet skiing the Everglades.
Last month, the tree-hugger in me lost out. My friend Jan and I chose the Lanaudiere region of Quebec for our first-ever snowmobile adventure, lured by its proximity to Montreal, the promise of spectacular winter scenery and tourism materials touting its extensive trail network and user-friendly infrastructure. Despite several guided tours and resort-based options, we decided on a do-it-yourself approach, seeking the freedom to roam and the novelty of arriving somewhere via a road of snow.
Lunchtime, St. Zenon, Quebec.
(Photo by Jan Vertefeuille)
Animal Tracking (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2001)
Dog Sledding (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2001)
Skijoring Bethel, Maine (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2001)
Sledding Lake Placid, N.Y. (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2001)
At the Polaris dealer in the picturesque mountain town of St. Donat, we picked up our "sled," a 550cc Polaris trail touring double. Instruction was basic: Here's the gas and the brake, here's the kill switch, here's the choke. There was no storage area, so we stuffed what we could into a backpack. Then, armed with a map and a tank of full gas, we headed toward Mont Tremblant Park on what we thought would be an unambitious itinerary, a 60-mile ride northeast to a luxurious lakeside lodge.
I had hoped that years of motorcycling would prepare me for snowmobiling, and for the most part it did. There are, however, two notable differences: A snowmobile requires constant vigilance to maintain a straight line; slack off for a moment and a groove in the trail can jolt you into the woods. And braking is a bit of a misnomer -- squeezing the handle resulted in a slowing action that felt much like Fred Flintstone's feet dragging beneath his car.
But soon I was cruising around 30 mph, with a big smirk on my face. This pace rendered us the slowest vehicle on the trails, as groups of high-performance machines blew by us, leaving clouds of swirling snow and exhaust fumes in their wake.
We blazed through a spectacular mix of mountains, woods and frozen, snow-covered lakes. Our best moments were spent at rest, turning off the machine and basking in the winter serenity. Though we spotted tracks, we saw very little wildlife; the buzz of the machine tended to scare animals away.
As long as we stayed inside the park, the trails were wide and clearly marked, and we began to feel fairly confident about our ability to both ride and navigate. But by mid-afternoon, when we left the park and picked up smaller regional trails, things got dicey.
First we ended up on a trail that wasn't on our map. (Note to mapmaker: Add Trans Quebec 53.) Then we were on a public road (a pickup truck dragging children on sleds tipped us off). We asked directions from another snowmobiler, who led us on a harrowing detour through the woods. As daylight waned, we followed signs to a fishing lodge. Abandoned. Figuring the worst that could happen to us would be pretty bad (i.e., running out of gas after dark in the north woods), we pondered sleeping there. Instead, we decided to backtrack to the last town we'd passed.
Which, mercifully, we found. The trail gave way to public streets, which we followed to a motel. I relayed our story in broken French ("C'etait une aventure mauvais!" -- "A bad adventure!"), drawing a big laugh from the desk staff. They telephoned our lodge, which sent a car for us.
Our lodge, the Auberge du Lac Taureau, was beautiful, set along the shore of a mountain lake, with pine beam construction like an Aspen ski chalet. But we were hardly in the mood to appreciate it. A three-course meal by the fire helped, as did a quiet and comfortable night's sleep. We might have used the handsome glass-enclosed indoor pool -- if we hadn't lost our backpack on the trail.
On our ride back to St. Donat the next day, we took a slightly different route, following smaller regional trails that led past residential areas and occasionally crossed public roads. We stopped for lunch in the town of St. Zenon, where several of our fellow snowmobilers were already drinking at noon. The rest of the ride was a sprint to return before dark. By the time we limped into St. Donat, we were ready to abandon our mount.
So what had I learned about snowmobiling? There are some crazed riders on the trails, so be careful. When you're forced to ride behind someone, you're bombarded by fumes (two-stroke engines yield brutal emissions). At the end of the day, your clothes will smell of gas. And while heated handgrips and a fairing keep the driver warm, the passenger is vulnerable to the cold.
And one more thing: Go with a guide.
As for the guilt vs. pleasure paradox: Traversing a ribbon of snow at high speed is undeniably fun, with the snowmobile affording access to places one couldn't otherwise reach. But somehow it doesn't seem right to seek out some of the world's most tranquil and pristine places, only to bombard them with noise and exhaust fumes. I plan to return to the mountains of Quebec -- but next time, on cross-country skis.