My four-year-old grandson sat on my knee, snuggled into my chest, and looked up at me. He wasn’t listening to his favorite story anymore. Eyes wide open, a mix of incredulity and questioning, he asked “You’re going to do what, Grandad?”
“I’m going to go snowmobiling… with Grandma.”
He thought for a moment. Then came the clean, rapier-like thrust… “Why?” I furrowed my forehead and tried to think of a good answer -- for both of us. Before I had been able to rationalize a coherent response to satisfy a curious four-year-old, he delivered the body-blow. “But you’re old.”
“I’m only 60,” I reposted, somewhat crestfallen, “and why not?”
Out In The Open
Why not indeed. Two weeks later, my wife and I were somewhere in Wyoming -- not sure exactly where, but we were just outside Yellowstone National Park. For all I know, we may have been in Montana or had possibly even strayed into Idaho. We were standing under a greyish sky with bursts of bright azure, the sun working hard but failing to take the edge off the crisp, winter air. We were in a forest of lodgepole pines that were standing tall and proud, wearing a coat of diamond white snow. There was not a breath of wind, and snow was gently floating down, each unique flake doing its own dance and adding to the couple of feet of snow that had already fallen. We listened to the silence of falling snow. We gazed up and let the snowflakes land on our faces like we were six-year-olds in the schoolyard catching the first winter flakes of the season. It felt as though we were inside our own snow globe -- we were relatively warm, relatively relaxed … and I needed to pee.
Next to us on the trail, turning slowly white, stood our snowmobile. In this solitary place, amid towering pines and surrounded by majestic, snow-covered peaks, this was our horse and (please God, let it start) way out. We were 35 miles from civilization, and it was a walk I did not fancy. We climbed onto our two-man Ski-Doo Grand Touring 600 snowmobile, pulled the starter button, and the engine burst into life, crushing the silence.
Getting The Right Gear And Good Advice
This was my 60th birthday, and along with my elderly wife (she’s ten months older than me), what better way to start the next decade of life? We had rented our snowmobile from Backcountry Adventures -- a family owned and run business who not only told us everything we needed to know (including that 90 percent of snowmobilers in Yellowstone are first-timers -- I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse), but they were super accommodating, checking to see what boots and clothes we were wearing to make sure we would stay warm. They offer boots, gloves, and full snowmobile suits for rental, as well as the obligatory helmet. We were OK (thermal underwear and five layers just about covered it). We had bought black cotton balaclavas that made us look like Bonnie and Clyde but were absolutely the best investment we made. Don’t leave home without one.
We strode out of the Backcountry Adventures office holding our helmets like a couple of astronauts heading to the launch pad. We had a date with destiny. We listened attentively as we were shown the controls. Pull the red knob up and depress this switch to start. Gently squeeze the throttle lever on the right, brake on the left just like a bicycle. Flip this lever for reverse. And the most important switch, the hand warmers (what luxury).
“That’s it. Off you go. Have fun,” and our instructor disappeared back inside.
“What, no practice around the parking lot? You want me to go straight onto the road... with real traffic on it”? I’m not sure if I actually voiced these concerns, but no one answered. So, in the spirit our grandson would have expected of us, I took a deep breath, turned to my wife, and in my most confident voice, squeaked, “Let’s go, grandma.” We straddled the ‘mobile and the first thing we noticed was … wow, how comfortable the padded seats were. A flick of a switch and the engine roared into life. I pulled down my visor, set the hand warmers to max, and felt like the head of a Hells Angels gang. Suddenly, the theme music from The Magnificent Seven started running through my head. This was it. A gentle squeeze of the throttle and we were off. The access to the nearest trail was only 100 yards away, and my wife, armed with a trail map, made sure we didn’t miss it.
All the trails we were to follow were groomed and well-marked. For the first mile, I don’t think we went over 15 miles per hour -- it was a pleasant jaunt. I kept checking my mirrors but saw no-one behind us. The speed limit was 45 miles per hour, so I accelerated rather bravely to 25 miles per hour. As the trees started to sweep by in a blur, I gripped the handlebar tighter and wondered why my gloves were melting. The hand-warmers were getting seriously hot. We came to a fork in the trail, but it was pretty clear which way the main trail went. Others (probably mad youngsters in their 50s) sometimes took shortcuts for an off-piste thrill -- and if you’re not attentive, you can end up going where you hadn’t intended.
Becoming Experts In No Time
As the miles flew by, our confidence grew (we hadn’t yet fallen off or hit a tree), and the digital speedometer inched upwards. We stopped frequently to take pictures, stretch our legs, and check out the scenery. We slipped gracefully among snow-capped trees, powered up hills, zipped along the top of a high ridge, negotiated tight, twisting zig-zags, and checked for blue flashing lights as we hit 46 miles per hour on a long straight (well, you just have to, don’t you?). At one point, we pulled over and walked to a nearby river only to sink thigh high in snow! A passing snowmobiler stopped to ask if we needed help but realized we were fine as we couldn’t stop laughing and were behaving like teenagers again.
We covered 75 miles that day and made lots of new friends -- oncoming snowmobilers would wave as we passed. I assumed this was the etiquette and not a warning that there is a steep drop-off ahead that should only be negotiated by experts. We waved back nonchalantly and smiled.
As we pulled into town, it felt like we had been doing this for years. The snowmobile was easy to handle, the trails are pretty well marked, and it was just such fun. I had always eschewed snowmobiles, thinking they were noisy, polluting, environment-busting toys. I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable and relatively quiet they were (although I can’t wait for electrically driven versions to appear) and how, after five hours of riding, I didn’t feel like I was walking like John Wayne. I’m sure frequent stops and lots of layers helped.
Things To Consider Before You Go
Age or general physical condition should not generally be a barrier to enjoying snowmobiling. As long as you can lift your leg over the seat to get on and off, the rest is just sitting. Do wear lots of layers and stay warm, as this would be a miserable experience if you are cold or wet. A helmet is a must and a balaclava highly recommended. If you’re not sure that your clothes will be warm enough, rent from an outfitter that has snowmobile suits available for rent. Take your time (this is not a race), and take in the scenery. Finally, take water, make frequent stops to stretch your legs … and don’t forget your sunglasses. The snow, even if the sun is not out, can be dazzling.
I can’t wait to tell my grandson about our snowmobiling experience… how we raced at 70 miles per hour, got caught in a total whiteout with only sheer drops on either side, and how we had to defend ourselves against a grizzly. Life is full of making memories… and telling tall tales.
Further winter reading: