Snowmobiling 50-plussers

A new breed of Canadian retiree has broken from the ranks of the Snowbirds. Like the saucy blue jays who brighten the winter landscape, these people are not migrating, they’re staying put.

“Why go to Florida and sit in an air-conditioned room when you can be out snowmobiling?” says Irene Lane of Port Carling, Ont. She and husband Ed represent a segment of the over-50 age group who have grown to love winter as snowmobilers. Their outings can be as simple as a half-day to their favourite restaurant, or a seven-day adventure taking them clear across the province.

“It’s a rising trend,” acknowledges Paul Shaughnessy, manager of the Muskoka Snowmobile Region. “When you’re touring from community to community, you find a large percentage of snowmobiles are in the over-50 age bracket. They have the disposable income and time to enjoy the sport.”

The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) estimates there are 175,000 active snowmobilers in Ontario. A good portion of those are retired, says OFSC communications assistant Lisa Graham.

Chuck and Mary Ann Taylor are new recruits. They ignored snowmobiles for years, preferring to walk the three miles to their isnd in the middle of Lake Muskoka on winter weekends. But when they retired three years ago to become full-time island dwellers, the snowmobile became necessary winter transport.

Chuck still remembers the first time Mary Ann tackled their machine. After a few tentative circles on the snow, she took off like a colt. “It was exhilarating,” she says, surprised at her own reaction. The snowmobiling experience has made winter their favourite time of year. “We now take our holidays in the summer so we don’t miss winter,” Chuck says.

They see parts of the country they could never see in the summer, riding a network of trails that takes them past striking landscapes. “You haven’t really seen how beautiful a marsh can be until you’ve seen it in winter with the dead trees casting long shadows on the snow,” Mary Ann says.

Ed Lane has found himself surrounded by deer in a remote stretch of trail. “They put their heads up and looked at us,” he says. “We admired each other for a while. That’s a sight we’ll always remember.”

The sheer number and diversity of the trails has changed the sport entirely, Lane continues. With 49,000 kilometres of trails in Ontario alone, there’s lots to see. The Lanes put about 3,200 kilometres on their snowmobile each year, a bit more than the average sledder who clocks 2,432 kilometres annually.

An influx of money from the NDP government back in 1992-93 gave snowmobile clubs the assistance they needed to build and groom the 12-foot wide trails that are now “mini highways” in the bush. Prior to that, the trails were short, narrow stretches full of tortuous hills and dangerous obstacles.

As trails improved, so too did the snow machines, notes devotee Jack Fenn of Port Carling. He and his wife Lorna have been snowmobiling since the 1970s. Back then, they spent as much time fixing their snow machines as riding them. The machines are more reliable today. Comparing the old and new models would be like comparing a “Model T to a Lexus,” Fenn says.

Machines come with cushy suspensions, hand warmers and comfortable backrests for passengers. “You could ride all day, and not feel it,” Fenn says. Active retirees, the Fenns enjoy it so much they wouldn’t dream of going south during the peak snowmobiling season (December through March).

In 1996-97, snowmobiling generated $932.5 million in economic activity in Ontario, $73 million in tax revenue alone. Resorts and hotels in the snow belt areas are cashing in on the snowmobiling craze as more of their winter clientele arrive by trail, not highway. Many have built fenced compounds to house the snow “horses” at night. Ed Lane calls these enclosures “corrals.” The wild west analogy is not misplaced. Snowmobilers are in many ways modern voyagers who punctuate their long wilderness rides with stage stops in civilization. They lodge anywhere from rustic cabins to five-star resorts. “There’s a sense of excitement wondering where you’ll be staying each night. It’s an adventure,” Lane says.

Whatever winter once was, it certainly isn’t boring to snowmobilers. “We endured winter before,”says Mary Ann Taylor. “Now we love it.”

Getting equipped for snowmobiling
Gearing up for snowmobiling eats a good hole in the pocketbook. Depending on the accessories, a new machine can cost $7,000 or more. Most of the 50-plussers I spoke with preferred to ride separately — which means buying two machines. Riding double isn’t out of the question, though, since modern machines are roomy and have hand-warming grips for the passenger as well as the rider.

If you’re cold, you’ll be miserable, so don’t skimp on the snowmobile suit. They come in all shapes, sizes and designer fashions (including leather), starting at around $300. Boots cost $100 to $150, while helmets (mandatory equipment) start at $75 and go up to $300.

You’ll also need a trail permit (preferably purchased from your local snowmobile club as fees raised locally go towards local trails). Bought before December, a seasonal permit costs $160. After Dec. 1, the price goes up to $195. Insurance for the machines can run from $300 to $500.

Anyone with a driver’s licence is eligible to drive a snowmobile. If you don’t have a licence, you’ll have to take one of the snowmobile operator’s courses offered by some of the local snowmobile clubs in the province.

Novice riders should consider renting a snow machine to see if they enjoy the activity before splurging on the whole shebang. Your local snowmobile club (there are 281 in Ontario) can likely point you in the right direction. For the name of the one nearest you, or for any other information on snowmobiling, contact the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs at (705) 739-7669.