Snowmobiling/Skidooin’ – Haliburton, ON

It’s time for a story, enjoy.

Once upon a time, three men headed north to confront the bitter cold of a far away town known as Haliburton. With a front fender-less rental truck as their steed, the adventurers came to pit man’s finest machines against the ice; the snow; the wild.

They arrived late one afternoon while the sun hung low above the tree tops on the horizon. They found their machines and headed in for supper. It’s poor form to start a conquest on an empty stomach.

The situation was this: Two of the men, myself being one of them, had never ridden a skidoo, nor were they familiar with the local area. One man, Chris, had ridden skidoo’s many times while growing up in Haliburton – the exact area they happened to be in. There were two rented skidoo’s and one truck, all of which had to make two separate journeys to a house roughly 70 kilometres from the restaurant.
The skidoo journey would involve crossing two lakes and avoiding one lake – Redstone – where a man had sadly met his fate crashing through the thin ice the week before.

Night had fallen.

The plan was this: The two brave men who had never ridden before would take the skidoo’s on this journey with their trusty map in hand, but would forego compasses, whistles, flashlights and spare parts. Chris, meanwhile, would take the truck home.

Myself and my brave companion bundled up, cranked the throttle, and put down our visors as we cruised by the Haliburton Wolf Sanctuary and headed into the woods.
Immediately problems arose as our helmets failed to ventilate, and it became clear that internal fog would make it impossible to have adequate visibility while our visors were down. The alternative then was to ride in the -28°C weather with our faces exposed. Awesome.

As we once again began our trek, a loud “beep —- beep—-beep—-beep” began to emit from my skidoo, lights flashed on the dashboard, and the beeping got quicker, more like this: “beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep”. I stopped and yelled at Paul.

Paul turned around.

I went to drive up a few metres to enlighten him about the predicament.

Paul saw me driving, turned back around and drove off – down the road, into the distance.

Still in front of the wolf sanctuary, I turned off my engine and sat alone in the dark of the forest, hoping that Paul would realize he was solo before he got himself into any trouble.
It felt longer, but it was probably only a minute or two later that Paul returned. Realizing neither of us knew why my machine was beeping, and hesitant to begin this already daunting journey with a Vince Carter snowmobile, we headed back to the marina where we had rented the machines.

“Closed”, read the rather blunt sign . Luckily, a young mechanic had stopped by the shop to tune up his sled (the cool way to say snowmobile). We explained our predicament, and he in turn was kind enough to try and fix it.
“I don’t know why they keep them in such terrible shape”, he told us, then took the injured sled out into a field, hit a jump, and flipped the snowmobile sideways onto the parking lot cement.

The man fixed it though, and I was grateful that he existed. However, after all of this, my resolve had taken a hit, or, more likely, I came to my senses.
“I am calling Chris, you and him can take the sleds, I’ll take the truck, and I’ll meet you at the house”, I told Paul as I began dialing Chris’ number.

Chris was already at the house by this point; it had been at least an hour since we split up. When he arrived, he gave me directions back to the house:
“It’s eh a quick right out of the parking lot, then just ahh, stay on that for 25 minutes, and turn left when then road ends.” He continued to point and mime as though he was driving a car. “Then you head 15 minutes that way till you hit a set of lights – that’s Haliburton, the only lights in town. Turn left, then my buddy has got a little white house on the right maybe 300m down. Be careful though, the roads are really bad.”

We went over this three times. I clarified these directions with Chris, in their entirety, three times.

“Ok, got it” I told the two men now assigned to the skidoos.

As he slides on his gloves, Chris tells me, “You should have enough gas for the trip.”
“But seriously, go slow, there are some rough turns.”

Out we all head, the boys veering left to stay along the lakefront, and me, pulling out of the parking lot and immediately turning right, just like Chris told me to.

As I drive down this winding dirt road lined with dark, empty cottages, I feel good about myself. I’ve made a wide choice. “Tomorrow, everyone will be happy and healthy because of my wisdom” I say to no one in particular. With Wake Me Up Before You Go Go playing over the radio, I smile and keep driving – it’s hard to worry when your listening to Wham!’s greatest hit.

Unfortunately that song is only 4 minutes long, and this road went on for 30 minutes before I came across a “no exit” sign.

“What? No exit? But this is the road that goes out to Haliburton!”
Then the road seemed to end. Or, it split into what looked like two very steep, unshoveled driveways to who-knows-where. With a foot of snow all over the road, I carefully turn the truck around and drive back a few minutes to see if I might have missed a turn. Nope. I saunter back up to the split in the road, and then back down the road again to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and finally, back to the split.

I try calling both Chris and Paul. Chris’ phone rings beside me on the centre console, and Paul doesn’t answer. I figure no one else in the entire world would have any idea where I am; “40 minutes right of the marina” is all the detail I’d be able to give.

So, I pick the left side of the fork and decide it has to be the road out of here, despite all evidence to the contrary. My fear is that I’ll get stuck in the snow either turning around or climbing back up the driveway, but I had to go somewhere. All I could think was, “I wish I had a snowmobile”.

At the bottom of the very steep driveway was an unfinished cottage. “Not even a roof to sleep under”, and I try to think about what Les Stroud would do. “I’d drive out of here you idiot, you have a truck!” I hear Les’ comforting voice echo in my head. “Positive thoughts Jamie, you’ll be fine”.

“Ding! – and the gas light comes on”.

Nothing could be more amazing than this. I look at the window for a shooting star, wait a minute or so, then remember that the truck is still running. “No time for wishes you imbecile!” I floor it up the hill, cruise around the fork in the road, and start looking for a cottage with a light on, or secondarily, the nicest cottage with no lights on and no signs that anyone would mind a vagrant spending the night.

Ten minutes back down the road I find a refuge, a cottage to my left – lights on and two cars in the driveway. As soon as I pull in a guy opens the front door and looks at me. I noticed he had a nice sweater.

“I am lost, looking for Haliburton.”
“Haliburton? Like the town? Well come on in for a second.”

Turns out, when you exit the marina, it’s a very quick left and then a right.

To update, I’ve now got roughly an hour of unknown terrain to cover in the dark with a gas light that’s been on for 10 minutes, two friends somewhere in the woods, and I am headed to a guy’s house who I have never met before. I could really use another go around of Wham! right about now. “The radio! Crap!” Flashbacks of Tom Hanks and Apollo 13 suddenly strike my mind like debris hitting the oxygen tanks – “Captain Jamie, this is Houston, you need to shut down everything in that vessel that isn’t essential to your survival, it’s your only chance!”

Off goes the radio, the cappuccino machine, and the brakes, on goes selective usage of the high beams. In my new found silence I hear a wolf howl somewhere off in the distance.

All I remember about the rest of the drive was that it was dark, I didn’t like it, and every time I passed a building with a light on I made a mental note of its location in case I had to hike back. The good news is that you, the reader, can now breathe: I made it. And I’ve never hugged a stranger as hard as I hugged that guy in Chris’ friend’s house. Luckily it was the right one, but I didn’t really care. There was no time for celebration though, my boys were still out there, already going on hour two of what was supposed to be a one hour trip. The minutes ticked by.

As 10pm rolled around, I heard it outside: “beep—beep—beep –beep”. “They’re here!” I yelled. We pulled it off. Chris and Paul walked into the house looking like they had no joints, and I have never in my life seen so much ice built up on a human face.

“The-the d-d-damn lenses kept f-f-fogging up!” Chris stuttered out (Cause he was cold you see, not cause he’s a stutterer).
I was too sympathetic to be mad about our directional differences. I looked at Paul, who seemed completely unaware of the inch of ice stuck to each of his eyelids.
“My face and hands and legs and body are f-f-frozen.”
“I bet”, I responded as gulped down my last bit of hot cocoa and ‘mellows.

The next morning we woke up around 8am, took our sleds down to a local breakfast spot and filled ourselves up with eggs and grease. Chris had to take care of some errands all day with the truck, so Paul and I were going to take the sleds and find our way back to the Marina. After a quick pit-stop in the facilities, a friendly hello to all three of the young Haliburton hotties, and a fill up at the local gas bar, we were on our way.

This journey started out right – we were diving over hills and flying through the woods. I learned quickly that with the narrow paths it’s important to keep your head up for oncoming snowmobilers; 80 metres can disappear quicker than you think when two people are flying each other at 50km/hour. I also thought snowmobilers were the friendliest group of folks I’d ever met. Every time we’d pass a group, everyone would raise their hand and wave at us, though usually the last person in line was lazy, and they’d just sort of point their hand at the ground. Well, after waving back to about 30 different sledders, I realized that it was a signal, people were indicating there were others behind them, and the last man in every group was giving us the all clear by pointing down. We, meanwhile, had been giving terrible ques. I like to think they forgave us.

After playing in the powder under some power lines, we turn back onto the main path and headed what might have been west. I can’t recall what his explanation was, but Paul had some logical reason for suddenly steering off course and burying himself in a foot-and-a-half of powder.

I park my sled, and run back to try and dig him out. After about 15 minutes of digging, pulling, pushing, and lifting, Paul went hulk mode and just deadlifted the snowmobile out of the snow. Lesson learned – reversing a snowmobile in deep powder just takes you deeper.

But what a relief, we were ready to get back on the move. I throw my helmet on, straddle aboard the sled, and turn around as I hear “Ahhhhh *&%!!!” and I see Paul back, crawling his snowmobile through the powder we just dug him out of. This time however, he kept on the throttle, kept his skis above the snow, and thus kept his momentum going forward, and not down.

“That might have been the dumbest thing I’ve seen you do in a long time,” I told him as he pulled up beside me onto the path.
“Yeah, but I did it!”
After a couple of hours of navigating tight trails, we finally hit our highway, the open lake. Not only is it fun to go fast on lakes, but high speed is the safe way to cross. The more you move forward the less weight there is stressing the ice beneath you, and should you hit open water, throttling at a steady rate can keep you dry. I hope there’s not speed limits on lakes, if there is, then let the authorities know this entire blog is a work of a fiction, otherwise, we topped out at 120km/hours, and definitely had our visors down. This was the one shot of the entire trip I was upset that I missed. Flying across gets the adrenaline pumping. We didn’t film it because we were supposed to have a second lake to cross, but we’ll touch on that in a moment.

The plan was to meet Chris and the truck back at the marina at 2pm. After a bunch of fork-in-the-roads and “Ahhh, this way looks good” decisions, we didn’t really know where we were. Well, Paul said he knew, but we didn’t know how to get from where we were to where we had to go. That, and it was already 2:15pm.

Looking at the map, we made our best calculations, and then, realizing those wouldn’t help us, we started guessing. Our first guess led us down a narrow trail to a lake. The problem was that the lakes weren’t all completely frozen, the small ones were fine, but one called Redstone was definitely not safe to ride across, and we had no idea what lake we had just pulled up to.

We stood there, staring at the ice. There were minimal snowmobile tracks – a bad sign.

“Millage, look at the ice there. Does it look like its moving to you?”
“I can’t tell, I see what you mean. It looks like clouds under the ice, but maybe it is just clouds over the ice. You know, we probably shouldn’t drive across this.”
“I agree.”

We turned around and saw our next challenge. It was almost 3pm now and our snowmobiles were parked facing the wrong way – downhill – on a very narrow trail with extremely deep snow on both sides.

“How do you want to do this?” I inquired.
“17 point turn, let’s do it”.

My attempt failed. I was glad to have Paul’s super strength on hand. He decided he didn’t want to have to lift his snowmobile out of the snow again, and showed off his skills making a beautiful 180 pivot on top of the snow. Maybe he did learn something heading back into that powder.

After that, well, you know what? If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done very well. I’ll save the part about how I fought off the wolves with my snowmobile and carried Paul back to safety for another day. The important thing is we made it. Now you need to get outside.