a backcountry snowmachine manifesto

Sam and I tense, straining to hear the persistent sound in the distance while our dogs sit at attention, sniffing the air, ears perked.

Sam and I tense, straining to hear the persistent sound in the distance while our dogs sit at attention, sniffing the air, ears perked.

As the sound draws ever closer, Sam dashes back into the cabin for the binoculars.

I feel strangely nervous when two dark spots can suddenly be discerned in the distance and the whine of engines gets louder: it’s the first snowmachines of the season.

We only get about 10 machines passing through here at the most, and it is always a bit weird to be all at once loudly connected with that outside world for the few minutes it takes the skidoos to drive by.

Our reactions have become almost moose-like as we minutely observe the smallest details and stand tensely immobile while the machines roar past.

Oh, don’t imagine those lonely bush people in the hidden-away cabins pay no attention to you weekend warriors.

Sam, after studying the two snowmachines through binoculars, notes that they seem to carry no extra gear except for a jerry can .

He gets on the radio to our trapper neighbour Rick to dissect the possibilities of where these guys most likely came from and where they are headed, the make of the machines, speed and lack of safety equipment.

Rick, who drives an old Bravo, is always worried about his trail section out on the lake that he maintains diligently so he can get in and out without having to battle through too much overflow.

He keeps packing down the trail religiously so that no deep snow can accumulate and that any overflow freezes over enough to carry his little machine.

Few things make him more irate than people on big machines who blithely drive doughnuts over his trail or churn it up with their paddle tracks, since this is his only way out into town.

If it gets chewed up so that slush and overflow gets too deep for his small machine thanks to a passing weekend snowmachine enthusiast, he has to wait until it re-freezes before he can drive it again.

The two people who just came by were behaving admirably though and staying off his trail — he reports back later to us with a sigh of relief.

If they had also carried extra gear on their sleds it would have been even better.

It seems strange that so many people go out on snowmachines into the backcountry with no more than the clothes on their back.

Getting stranded only 10 kilometres from the closest house can be a major problem if you have to wade your way through soft snow or overflow with no snowshoes, dry clothing or boots.

Surely throwing on a few items such as extra clothing and footwear, a shovel, snowshoes, food and a pot for melting snow can’t be that hard to do, yet it seems that every winter there’s a guy (this seems to mostly happen to men) on the news who got his machine stuck in deep snow or overflow, and because of a lack of equipment has to spend a few miserable days and nights out in the bush before getting whisked back to civilization by the search-and rescue team.

Rick also had people stop by a couple of times, sheepishly asking for gas. But who knows, maybe most of these under-equipped adventurers carry a satellite phone to call in a plane or their buddies to pick them up in case of trouble.

There also is a bit of a quandary for friends and family if someone isn’t back in time from their outdoor adventure: if the person is ill-equipped it’s fairly obvious that help needs to be sent out.

But if it’s known that the overdue person is carrying all the gear to stay warm, dry and well-fed, there is still the possibility that they had an accident and need assistance anyway.

This is usually our dilemma, or mostly mine since it’s Sam who does the majority of town trips.

While we have VHF radios for communication, they only cover half of the distance into town, so when he is late, the grey hairs start sprouting on my head.

We’ve been lucky so far, not having met up with serious trouble or launched an emergency response, but a few times it was touch-and-go.

We who are strewn about the woods do keep an eye on you snowmobile hobbyists, and we worry when some of you zoom by here ill-equipped, despite avalanche hazards or on very thin ice. It’s us who might have to bail you out, so please pack your safety gear and don’t churn up trails packed for small trapper machines.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.