It was a bizarre coincidence. While browsing the headlines yesterday, I stumbled upon a CBC story about the high number of snowmobile deaths in the province. With four snowmobile drownings already since January, we are positioned to break the record of six, set in 1997.
Then I glanced through my ‘to read’ pile and picked up a copy of Sledworthy, a locally produced tabloid about snowmobiling, and concluded that they are part of the problem.
Sledworthy is a professionally-designed publication (their banner looks great) brought to us by Focused Publications, the same people who produce Thrive (formerly Business Dynamics) magazine. There is clearly a demand for this type of publication, given the healthy amount of advertising that packs its 16 pages.
However, in the February/March issue, there are no articles about safety, on the ice or on the trail. Quite the opposite. There is, instead, a focus on machismo, speed and risk-taking that is quite out of step with the current reality. The stat above, don’t forget, is for drownings. It doesn’t include the two people who died on a trail near Gallants, or the man killed by the avalanche on the Northern Peninsula, both during March.
I browsed all back issues, which are available online at the Sledworthy web site, and found a lot of daredevil stuff but not a lot about safety. There was one very good article in the February ‘06 edition, wherein Gary Reardon describes a near-death experience for a group of sledders, stranded in a blizzard on a high plateau in -30 temperatures. It is written in a respectful tone and ends with some good, clear safety pointers. Early issues also ran a series on effective use of GPS systems, and an occasional column about safety.
However, I have not seen any articles about safe snowmobiling on frozen fresh or salt water, nor any expose on that bizarre practice of running at high speeds across open water. I’ve seen nothing about escaping from the water once you fall in. And there is nothing about recognizing potential avalanche situations, or what to do if one strikes. To the contrary, there are repeated references like the following, which you can read in full at the Sledworthy site:
“We spent all day driving into bowl after bowl of fresh, untouched snow, then tearing them up one by one, climbing, jumping and dropping until the once pristine hillside was transformed into a ragged tapestry of snowmobile tracks, waving, weaving, and encircling each other so you couldn't distinguish where one track ended and another began.”
The machismo is evident in this story, which turns a trip across the tundra into an Operation Desert Storm situation:
“Little did I know that this planning would put me in a battle that I was determined to win… This land reminds me of the desert, reaching my destination became a battle, much of what I picture of the soldiers in the Middle East driving through barren, sandy country trying to secure victory… The planning began and at this time I started a battle that I was unaware I had declared… Disheartened I returned, but coming from an athletic background and being a little competitive I was even more determined to win against this country. Seeing what I saw, I believed it was doable, but required a different plan of attack. The enemy had showed some weakness and I planned to exploit it.”
There is the incredible account in the first edition of a snowmobiler who doesn’t attend the safety briefings (“I had to GO – you all know what I mean!”) and then rides up one side of Mount Peyton at full speed, explodes onto the peak to discover an insufficient plateau, and shoots straight over the other side. He jumps off, skids for a while but comes to a stop, as his machine plunges over the cliff and is destroyed.
There is quite a harrowing tale of a wilderness trip in Western Newfoundland that descended into a near-death situation. This lead paragraph sums it up nicely:
“Darkness is falling; we’re in remote and unfamiliar territory; there are no trails, fuel is critically low; the cargo sled is split wide open. There’s only time to pick one route off the topo map and go for it. If it doesn’t work we’re bunking out in the middle of the Long Range Mountains in February! Was I nervous? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Did I regret doing it? No, because you ‘Only Lives Once’!”
Deep into the trip, the snowmobilers encounter major problems. “… steep, tree lined river valleys were cut deep into the mountains and proving very hard to navigate. The sheer size of the group and the challenging conditions made it almost impossible to keep everyone together, or to make up any time… I still remember the concerned look on Geoff and Chris's faces as we poured over the maps trying to pick likely routes through the maze of rocky peaks and river valleys as the sun started to set. I'm sure my face looked the same. Nobody blamed us for the situation, but having organized the trip we did feel responsible.”
I do not dispute that these trips were exciting. But if there is a safety message that I can take away from the above article, I am not sure what it is. Except perhaps, to not plan a trip based on this cursory assessment: “A quick look at the maps showed we could shoot along the edge of Buchans Plateau, swing around the southeast corner of Little Grand Lake, pick our way northward through the Long Range Mountains, then onto woods roads to Gallants where we would take a groomed trail to Camp OLO in the Lewis Hills. It all sounded simple enough!”
When you hear about snowmobilers perishing after becoming lost or disoriented in the woods, look no further than the above for enlightenment. A common theme seems to be lack of preparedness.
Perhaps certain stories should be rejected outright, because there is nothing to be gained from them. In the latest issue, for example, Scott Crosbie talks about a stunt in which he drives hard up a sharp incline to leave a “high mark” around a tree, then struggles to keep his machine from tumbling head over heels as he careens back down the cliffside.
“I expected a big round of back slaps,” the author writes at the end, “but what I got was a whole bunch of ‘Are you nuts? That was the stupidest thing I’ve seen. You were nearly killed!’ They were right of course. I put a sorry look on my face and expressed my embarrassment along with multiple apologies for stressing them out, but deep down, now that it was over, I felt like I had won something. I’m much more careful now of course and wouldn’t do the same thing again, but on that day I had set the bar beyond where anyone else would go.”
Yes, a real inspiration to hot dogs everywhere.
I don’t mean to be too critical about Sledworthy. They can turn this problem around, and quickly, by insisting that writers build clear safety messages – the ‘moral of the story’ or what not to do – into all such adventure articles, and play these messages high. They should either stop celebrating the near misses and death-defying stunts, or at least balance them with an equal measure of sobering information. (You see plenty of glib rationalizations for acts that might easily have been suicidal.) Above all, they should look at the statistics for snowmobile deaths, assess the causes and ask themselves: What can we do to prevent future incidents? By doing this, they will quickly become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
NOTE: The photo above is from Corey Ford’s blog, which is certainly worth a visit. Corey lives in Gander and his interests – besides photography – include snowmobiling. He had his camera with him on the day that this mishap occurred, the result of a snowmobiler stopping in the middle of the trail. There were a couple of broken bones (Corey’s) and several severely damaged machines but, as Corey notes, it could have been much worse. You can read his full entry here.