New wave in the backcountry
Growing in numbers and financial clout, snowmobilers are making their voices heard
By Loreth Beswetherick
It was March 26 this year — a Sunday afternoon in the Powder Mountain backcountry — when the snow gave way in the Grizzly Lake area.
The terse news report describing the event belies the drama that unfolded:
At 2 p.m. an avalanche trapped one male snowboarder and buried another. The trapped boarder, covered up to his chest, dug himself out and located the other boarder using an avalanche transceiver. A pair of snowmobilers in the area rushed to the scene, calling the incident in to Whistler Search and Rescue. They helped dig the buried boarder out and performed CPR until a physician arrived.
The victim was pronounced dead.
That victim was 28-year-old Darren Proctor, a vibrant seven-year Whistler resident who worked six months of the year as an electrician, squirreling away enough cash to ride 150 days of a Sea to Sky winter. He had a passion for big-mountain riding, power and speed. His roommate, Shin Campos, described him as a buddy, but one who would burn him in a second for first tracks.
Proctor had used his snowmobile to get out into the backcountry and carve turns in the Grizzly Lake area that day. He was riding the crest of a wave that has been sweeping the sport of snowmobiling around North American mountain towns over the last three to five years.
His love of big mountains and untracked powder had taken him on the same route as most of the pro snowboarders in Sea to Sky country — to the door of a snowmobile dealer.
Boarders who buy machines to access the backcountry are shaping a new and growing breed of snowmobilers — a far cry from the outdated stereotype of beer-swilling sled-heads buzzing the backcountry on pollution-spewing two-stoke engines.
"They represent one of the largest growth segments of snowmobiling in the last three to five years," said Mike Blomfield, outgoing president of the Black Tusk Snowmobile Club.
"In the Sea to Sky area the trend is more concentrated around Whistler than anywhere else but it does happen in Squamish and it is happening in all mountain areas," said Blomfield.
"The snowboarders use a sled to get out into the backcountry to ride and then they discover sledding itself."
This trend comes on top of double digit growth in the number of recreational snowmobilers already being experienced by the industry. And, it is being warmly welcomed by the "old school" which hopes to harness the fresh energy to fuel what is becoming a powerful industry group lobbying for trails and continued access to the backcountry.
It’s a powerhouse that has conservationists quaking at the knees.
Blomfield, a structural engineer turned publisher, is an avid snowmobiler and informal spokesman for the industry.
He has been enjoying the sport since the age of 25 but he is also a CSIA Level II ski instructor. He started skiing at the age of two and still loves the sport. The West Vancouver resident says he has visited all the major ski resorts in North America. His insider knowledge of another user group stands him in good stead with the lobbying he does at the provincial level on behalf of the snowmobile industry.
Nelson Bastien — a self-confessed old-school snowmobiler, founder and past president of the Powder Mountain Snowmobile Club — was in the process of handing the club’s reins over to Proctor and his boarding buddies before the avalanche claimed the young man’s life.
Bastien, in his 60s, said the club needs the new blood. "I was just delighted with Darren… he had quite a following."
The Powder Mountain club held its first annual general meeting since Proctor’s death on Nov. 2. Of the 40 who attended, 90 per cent were snowboarders who have taken up sledding. Bastien said many of the young faces he saw at the AGM were the same ones he saw at Proctor’s funeral.
"You never saw them on the mountain five years ago," he says.
Kate Will, the club’s new secretary, a boarder and one of the three female members, said she bought her sled to get out into the backcountry to snowboard.
"The mountains were getting too crowded for me. Most of these guys bought sleds because the mountain is too crowded," she said of her fellow club members. "It’s more than $1,300 for a ski pass. I did my math when I bought my machine," she said.
A good sled goes for anything between $5,000 and $12,000. Will said she figured she would have paid off the value of a pass over the next couple of years and come out with a machine and unlimited access to the backcountry at the end of it.
Much of the current attraction to snowmobiling can be attributed to pro boarders, like Kevin Sansalone, who have helped glamorize the machines.
"Most of us these days, the professional snowboarders, are not just competition riders," said Sansalone. "We do a lot of editorial for magazines and movie work for films. The mountains we have are beautiful and we can get a lot of work done on Whistler-Blackcomb but sometimes we want to get way, way out there when the mountain is too crowded. We want to get the really pristine shots… the untouched stuff. It’s just heaven out there," he said.
"A regular mountain right in a ski resort and riding a snowmobile out into the backcountry are just two different things."
Sansalone, who rides his machine out into the backcountry a couple of times a week when in Whistler, said what starts as a tool to access the backcountry ultimately becomes fun in its own right.
"It’s like motocross on snow. It really is fun. And there are snowmobile videos now that show snowmobiles as more of a lifestyle than just something for the back hills farmer to use to get out into his field."
Sansalone noted that the snowmobile industry is also doing its bit to promote the sport to new users. "But definitely, the pro snowboarders and that whole lifestyle crossover between motocross racers, snowmobilers and snowboarders has really boosted the whole snowmobile market. It is definitely more youth oriented."
Sansalone doesn’t belong to a local club and he is not particularly concerned about access issues and land use politics — but the boarders who attended the Powder Mountain AGM are.
They are worried motorized access could be banned in parts of Sea to Sky country. It’s happened in Europe, it’s happening in places like Yellowstone — a North America snowmobiling Mecca — and it could happen in the Squamish Forest District.
"What brought you guys out here?" Bastien asked those who turned out for the AGM.
"We are worried we are going to lose space," was the reply.
Some of the boarder-sledders got their taste of bureaucracy when they tried to build a backcountry cabin as a memorial to Proctor in the Tricouni area, which is accessed off Highway 99 just north of the salt sheds. They were shut down by the Ministry of Forests.
But they still want that cabin.
Both the Pemberton club and the Black Tusk club have cabins and the young boarder-sledders are turning to the old school Powder Mountain members for help in dealing with government.
It’s how you word it, executive member Don Gamache told them. "We need to go through the motions of dealing with the bureaucrats… trying to deal with government can be like wrestling with a greased pig."
It was noted Tricouni is too visible and that the proposed hut should be relocated and referred to as a rescue or emergency survival shelter. "It’s all in how we write up the application."
This budding partnership suits the old school just fine.
"We need your names and numbers for when we need to go after the government," Bastien told the boarder-sledders. He said he was encouraged by the turnout and by the boarders’ support.
"The Sea to Sky is a hotbed right now," said Gamache. He noted the region is under increasing pressure from various user groups and there is a fear that commercial recreation could squeeze out public recreation.
He said the Powder Mountain club, in conjunction with the B.C. Snowmobiling Federation, has been cautioning the B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation, the Ministry of Forests and the Ministry of Environment in how they hand out commercial tenures.
"There are operators who have put forward tenure applications for everything from Bralorne to Squamish… if we don’t continually lobby we are going to lose."
Bastien told members that backcountry skiers opposed to motorized access also have a loud voice that could lead to areas being shut down to snowmobilers. "I don’t know if any of you guys like to scare cross-country skiers but they have a bigger voice than you," he noted.
"We have to be on behaviour and stay out of trouble. There can be five of them out there in the Callaghan and they will get more attention than all of you in this room. Victoria likes to listen to them. We have to set an example that we are not a bunch of bad guys," said Bastien.
"We don’t have to have that reputation and we need to stick together. We need every one of you guys riding out there to get behind this."
Gamache told members that the B.C. Snowmobile Federation now has a full-time lobbyist in Victoria.
"If we started getting into a pattern of trouble, facing closed areas, the president of the BCSF (Pat Whiteway) would deal straight with the minister."
But while snowmobilers are worried about the loud voice of backcountry skiers, conservationists are worried about the mounting power of snowmobile industry.
One of the initiatives snowmobilers are lobbying for locally is access through the west side of Garibaldi Park. At almost 2,000 square kilometres, Garibaldi Provincial Park is one of B.C.’s largest protected wilderness areas.
"We are under unbelievable pressure from industry to open up Garibaldi to snowmobiles," Vicki Haberl of B.C. Parks recently told a group of Whistlerites interested in forming a park watch organization.
She said not only is B.C. Parks staff under pressure, interest groups are lobbying politicians; but no one is hearing from those who want to protect the park’s ecological integrity.
"We don’t hear from them," Haberl said. "I don’t know what it is about this community but we don’t have a lot of support for what we may be doing right in our parks," she said.
"We have to realize there is a very strong lobby for snowmobile access. I don’t think we actually realize how strong it is. We get dumped on all the time and the pressure is getting hard to deal with when we hear no voice coming from the other side."
The snowmobile industry in this province is indeed large. The B.C. Snowmobile Federation, an umbrella body to the smaller clubs, now has around 8,500 members. There are an estimated 40,000 snowmobilers in the province. "That’s a fair bit of traffic," noted Blomfield.
"We estimate that before you start considering the spin-off for dealers and suppliers of parts, there is in excess of $100 million of economic benefit to the province from snowmobiling annually."
He said the nine months of snowmobile activity at Brohm Ridge alone generates about $2.25 million of business annually. He said a lot of that cash stays in communities, like Squamish, which cater to the snowmobilers.
Among the destination snowmobilers, some over-night at the club’s Brohm ridge facilities, the rest stay at the Sea to Sky Best Western or the Super 8, said Blomfield. "Those hotels are being filled by spillover from Whistler and by snowmobilers. What we are sitting on here is truly a world class destination for snowmobiling."
Blomfield said the Sea to Sky region rates tops among other popular mountain riding destinations in North America, including Revelstoke, Valemount, Yellowstone and mountain areas of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, California and Nevada.
Stories on Sea to Sky snowmobiling have been featured in high-profile industry magazines and the Black Tusk club has hosted promotional tours.
The economic impact of the sport carries weight at the provincial negotiating table and there are a couple of initiatives on the B.C. Snowmobile Federation agenda.
Blomfield said the BCSF would like to ensure public, motorized access is maintained throughout the three key areas in this region — Brohm Ridge, the Callaghan and the Rutherford drainage. Close off those areas, he said, and you effectively shut down snowmobiling in the region.
"If Garibaldi at Squamish goes ahead and if things around Powder Mountain and the Callaghan happen, like the Olympics, and if somebody was to do something up Rutherford Creek, you would completely shut down snowmobiling in the region because all the access points would be blocked."
All the snowmobilers are really asking for is a to keep those access points open, said Blomfield "It’s not much really," he said.
"We also want to get a corridor along the western edge of Garibaldi Park that joins Brohm Ridge with Whistler."
Lobbying for this particular trail is being stickhandled by the Black Tusk club but is supported by BCSF. Gamache said the Garibaldi trail would link Pemberton and Whistler to Squamish and tie into a Trans-Canada snowmobile trail network.
"We have been leaning on the parks service real hard," he told Powder Mountain members. "It might take a few years but I think we will do it."
Blomfield said the proposed Garibaldi route is scenic. He said it would run parallel to non-mechanized trails but be separated by mountains. "The area isn’t used a whole lot by non-mechanized people. They use the Neve Traverse and this avoids that. There is one place you can see it but that is one spot along the whole route."
Blomfield added there are valley trails that could link the Whistler area with Brandywine and the Callaghan. "This would help ease some congestion and allow people to ride in the valley," he noted. "There are also countless logging roads and power lines… all sorts of ways to get around the valley floors that aren’t very well developed. There are also ways from the bottom of Brohm Ridge into Squamish," he said.
"You basically need to connect communities with trails."
At a provincial level, the BCSF is seeking management agreements with various user groups. "We would like to work out agreements rather than have the government move into and start imposing rules when they don’t understand the problem, or lack of it."
A deal has already been reached in Sea to Sky country between heli-ski operators and snowmobilers but consensus with one user group in particular, backcountry skiers, is proving elusive and it looks likely to remain that way.
"The problem with these non-mechanized groups is they want everything and they are just being stupid about it," said Blomfield. "They forget the fact they don’t ever get to these areas because they are too far by foot."
Blomfield maintains the activists lobbying to ban motorized access in areas like the Tricouni are not representative of the majority of backcountry skiers who get out and enjoy the mountains on a regular basis. He said they are academics who hardly visit the areas they seek to protect.
"There are just a handful of people who have these views and they are people with a lot of time on their hands and can do something about it," noted Blomfield. "But the majority of backcountry users are completely different. They are real and in the field. These academics are making all these plans and they have never even been to these places."
He said snowmobilers often escort skiers into, and out of, remote alpine areas as well as play a role in safety and rescue operations.
The Ministry of Forests is, however, looking to limit motorized access in Sea to Sky country. A draft public recreation plan commissioned by the ministry earlier this year designates parts of the Squamish Forest District for non-motorized use only. It’s a plan the BCSF contends is biased.
The ministry has acknowledged there are problems with the plan, which is why it has not yet been released. "We are still sort of sitting on our hands trying to figure out what to do," said the ministry’s regional recreation manager, Doug Herchmer.
The draft recreation strategy has zoned some areas in such a way that it is incompatible with the commercial recreation strategy finalized by the B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation in February this year.
"The concern is how do we reconcile the differences between our study and the BCAL study," said Herchmer. "There is incompatibility between some of the management direction in some of the units, especially around Whistler where BCAL’s plan may say in winter this should be motorized but not in summer, and ours may be saying the opposing type of thing."
Herchmer said an interagency group comprised of parks, forests, environment and BCAL is now trying to hammer out a solution.
The ministry is, however, using the draft strategy to assess commercial recreation tenure applications in this area that come to them for input.
Herchmer said the goal with the public recreation strategy is to strike a balance between areas designated for motorized and non-motorized access. But the BCSF maintains the draft strategy, is one-sided.
"It’s hugely flawed," said Blomfield. "We just don’t trust the consultant."
Darlene Anderson, who is affiliated with the B.C. Federation of Mountain Clubs, was retained to do the work.
Blomfield said he is not sure what will happen next. "It’s scary. But it is a good sign that BCAL woke up to the fact they have to consider public recreation."
He noted of the $100 million generated by snowmobiling in this province, 85 per cent is from public recreation. "The rental and tour operations, they are merely a door to the sport."
The BCSF is also looking for significant changes to provincial legislation so that a comprehensive snowmobile trail network can be developed throughout the province.
The federation took its lobby for a trail network to the 1999 Premier’s Summit on Economic Opportunity held in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, where senior officials agreed to work with the BCSF. A protocol agreement was subsequently signed and the Land Use Co-ordination Office was designated as a "one window" contact point for the BCSF.
Together the BCSF and LUCO have now developed a review of existing legislation and policy, including suggestions to better facilitate snowmobile trail use and management in B.C. The deadline for public input on the discussion paper was Oct. 31.
The paper recommends several legislative changes. Among them, it suggests that trails, approved after a review, be established in law and that they be governed by both a master agreement and local agreements that recognize a trail pass.
All snowmobilers on established trails, resident or tourist, would be required to display a pass obtained from a local club or the BCSF. A formula would be developed to ensure funds are fairly returned to each organization that is part of the trail pass system.
The paper also calls for mandatory liability insurance and helmets for snowmobilers on Crown land. The insurance could be linked to purchase of a trail pass.
Existing legislation requires all snowmobilers to register their sleds under the Motor Vehicle (All Terrain) Act, but compliance is miserably low. The paper says ways to improve compliance need to be reviewed. It is also calls for a formal co-operative agreement between the RCMP and provincial enforcement agencies and recommends that provincial enforcement agencies recognize a role for BCSF-trained snowmobile patrol officers.
Adults who do not have drivers’ licenses and children aged 12 to 15 would also be required to pass an approved snowmobile operators’ safety course in order to legally cross or ride roads that fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Highways.
The papers recommends that the BCSF and local clubs, in co-operation with various government agencies, provide snowmobilers with information on respecting environmental values and other Crown land users.
Recreation and tourism strategies that identify constraints on snowmobile use also need to be recognized.
The paper states that trail planning across the province needs to be done in conjunction with local clubs and other stakeholders, including First Nations. A dispute resolution process would also be adopted and any area closures due to competing recreational or environmental interests be conducted in consultation with local snowmobile clubs.
LUCO’s Terje Vold said the province had its own motivation for opening up discussion with the BCSF.
"The reason the work leading to the paper received support in government is that there is a real interest in protecting Crown land values like wildlife and non-motorized recreational interests and other values that may be impacted by snowmobile use," noted Vold.
"One of the prerequisites to being better able to manage snowmobile use in the province is to be able to identify snowmobiles that may not be in compliance with whatever the Crown regulations of the day may be," he said. "And the current system of licensing is just not working effectively for a variety of reasons."
Vold said provincial regulations governing snowmobiles are 30 years old. "Since then the use has increased, technology has changed, the number of highways has increased — things have changed dramatically."
He said the paper encourages zoning and resource stewardship.
The province is also conducting a parallel inter-jurisdictional review of snowmobile trail management use throughout Canada and some of the neighbouring U.S. states.
"Every province and state seems to handle management of snowmobiles and trail use a bit differently and we would like to learn from other people’s experiences," said Vold. "For example, one of the recommendations is that there will be a requirement to wear a helmet when you ride in B.C. We suspect that is the case in most places but I would imagine government would like to know what other jurisdictions are doing before it takes action."
Once public input is compiled, final recommendations will likely go to cabinet early in the new year.
But some of the new breed of boarder-sledders, like Sansalone, are still not worried about user conflicts or the politics of access. They believe the backcountry will always be there for the taking, pristine and untracked.
"I don’t think we need to worry about it right now. I am not concerned," said Sansalone.
"I am not a first generation snowmobiler in the backcountry so I have respect for the people who have been there before me and I hope the next generation of snowmobilers will feel the same way towards us."