feature 307 

By G.D. Maxwell You've skied your buns off for the last three days. Your thighs felt like cement this morning and you just can’t face another 30,000 vertical feet day. Whatcha gonna do? Your mama don’t dance and your daddy didn’t teach you how to rock & roll. The nightlife scene isn’t for you but night time is the right time. Whatcha gonna do? You’ve been there, done that, in the finest restaurants in the world. You want a new dining experience. Whatcha gonna do? Saddle up, saddle up, and saddle up. Wrap your aching legs around a snowmobile, head off into the night and dine at the most secluded spots in Whistler. If you want to go in the snow, chances are one of the three snowmobile companies in town has a tour for you. Snowmobiles were always an enigma to me. They’re noisy and smelly and sometimes you have to chip the ice off your knees before you can straighten your legs after a long ride. But they’re thrilling, exciting and more fun than you should be able to have with that many clothes on. So after being asked for, oh, the hundredth time this season, "What else is there to do in Whistler?" I decided it was my civic duty to go forth and spread the word on snowmobiling. At least it was the best reason I could think of to hit up Graham Norris at Whistler Snowmobile Guided Tours, Doug Washer at Canadian Snowmobile Adventures and Shawn Wilson at Blackcomb Snowmobiling for gratis sled rides. Blackcomb By Night Although Canadian Snowmobile Adventures is the youngest of the three companies in Whistler, Doug took my bait first. So one unseasonably cold, sparkling clear evening, we met at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, along with co-owner, Allan Crawford. Allan and Doug led the company’s first trip in January, 1993, while both were still driving grooming machines for Blackcomb. "I’d lead trips on the days Allan worked and he’d lead them on my days on and we’d both book trips on our cell phone while we were driving the groomers," Doug explained. Encouraged by the feedback from riders the first season, Allan leapt into the job full time the next year while Doug continued to groom and guide. Now, in their third winter, both are working full time in the business and feel they’ve turned the corner. It was already dark when Larry, our guide for the evening, trotted the group of us out for a safety talk. While all the companies take safety seriously, Canadian pushes the point further than the others. It might have something to do with the powerful machines they run — Ski-Doo Summits — or the steep descents or the side-hilling, or, just maybe, the hundred-thousand dollar grooming machines running up and down the mountain that can squash a snowmobile like a bug on a sidewalk. I don’t know but, being a novice, I got the message and felt just the tiniest bit intimidated as my sled warmed beneath me. Doug told me they run Summits because of the steep pitch and tight switchbacks on some of their trails. That may be the case but it may also be because they go like stink and are a hoot to ride. A little bit of throttle goes a long way; lots of throttle goes a long way fast. In a flash, we left the ski out on the lower mountain and snaked our way up the west side, several hundred meters above Fitzsimmons Creek. About the time I was beginning to feel comfortable with my sled’s power, which is to say when the cramping in my left arm began to subside, we pulled out for a breather and scenic view. The last few shades of pink were turning magenta in the sky behind the Tantalus Range; blue velvet and starlight were taking over the sky behind us, and lights up and down the valley punctuated our elevation gain. Any night’s a good night to be on the mountain but a clear night is truly awesome. Our ride followed long traverses into the enveloping darkness. We rode through snowfalls from roaring guns and among groomers. The experience was other-worldly and just a little science fiction. Near the top of the Excalibur Gondola, Larry stopped us and explained the physics of side-hilling, that is riding and turning while traversing a pitch. I was uncomfortable with the word pitch because that is what the machine threatened to do to me if my weight was on the wrong side. So we practised, at slow speed, left turns and right turns. Stretched out on the hill, one behind the other, we looked like a drunken, mechanical conga line, snaking our way to nowhere in particular. Having mastered side-hilling, we proceeded up to the Jersey Cream Flats, the football-sized — CFL of course — flat track between the Jersey Cream and Glacier Express chairs. For the next quarter hour, we raced each other around the impromptu oval circuit, growing bolder with each lap, leaning further into the slipstream to keep the sled down in the corners and scaring the bejesus out of ourselves. Larry wisely called a finish to the race probably one lap short of one of us becoming a display fixture in the lobby of the Glacier Creek restaurant. The ride on up to Crystal Hut was just an adrenaline blur of steep hills and tight switchbacks. A hot bowl of chili and mug of chocolate brought my heart rate back to normal, and gave everyone a chance to meet each other and argue about who won the race. The argument was inconclusive but there was immediate agreement on the beauty of Whistler Village from our vantage point, high above the lights below. Making our way back down the mountain, I finally figured out why my sled had a brake. I forgot two stroke engines don’t generate much in the way of braking power and there were a few pitches, including one where I felt I was in a movie chase scene with a groomer, where I also learned just how ineffective the brake really is once the machine passes a certain speed. Fortunately, it was a wide run, and we all arrived back safely. The Old Hands With my maiden voyage and a subsequent trip up Fitzsimmons Creek behind me, I was ready to take on Whistler Snowmobile’s challenge. Graham Norris had suggested I wait until the ice on Cougar Lake was thick enough to offer the "real experience." Graham didn’t know the thought of actually venturing out onto ice — frozen water I irrationally feared would give way underneath me immediately even without the additional weight of a snowmobile — thrilled me about as much as getting squashed like a bug by a grooming machine, and seemed several orders of magnitude more likely. Whistler Snowmobile is leading trips for their 12th season. This makes them not only the Granddad of Whistler companies but the oldest operating snowmobile company in Canada. None of their 8,000 guests last year fell through the ice. Owners Eric Sinclair and Rob Meilleur run a fleet of 52 sleds out of their Sixteen Mile Creek base and maintain some 50 kilometres of trails, including a track through the magnificent giants in the ancient cedar grove on Cougar Mountain. After a short shuttle from Whistler’s office in the Royal Bank building, we gathered on a bitterly cold afternoon to go over safety procedures. A tourist from Winnipeg was bragging that it was so warm, he’d considered wearing shorts. So call me a weenie. Whistler’s fleet of sleds are brand new Ski-Doo LE Touring machines. They turn their stock over every year — much to the appreciation of locals looking for a well-maintained snowmobile — and our mounts hadn’t seen many miles. The LE’s are a bit less daunting than the Summits: a little easier to start, a taller windscreen to hide behind, and, with a smaller engine, less propensity to leave you flailing in the wind with a death grip on the handlebars when you goose the throttle. Our group split up — all the companies maintain a rider-to-guide ratio of about 6:1 — with the more timid heading one way and the more foolhardy the other. Trailing the other hardy fools, we meandered up Sixteen Mile Creek, to a rise in the shadow of Rainbow Mountain, in time to catch the last rays of the sun watermeloning the top of Mount Currie. It was a crystal night, the Icecap and the whole of Pemberton Valley was haloed in pink and yellow alpenglow. Even the hardiest fool wanted to stay until the last shade of pastel prismed out. A tight, downhill ride in the gloaming led to Cougar Lake, Whistler’s flat track race course and my moment of truth. I was on ice before I knew it and not breaking through. We were warned to avoid thin ice where water enters and leaves the ends of the lake — gulp — and given a chance to wind our sleds out in the growing darkness. In no time, I’d lost my fear of thin ice, hell, at these speeds, we’d probably just fly over it anyway. Didn’t Jumpin’ Jim tell us a story about doing just that on the drive out? After a 10-lap elimination race, we ducked into a cabin, hidden at the Northwest end of the lake, to warm ourselves around the stove, refuel with a Smokie and some hot chocolate, and get ready for our overland ride. Leaving the fire was tough but we remounted and followed a circuitous route that bought us down into the Soo Valley. In the clear, dark night, a fingernail clipping of moon and the Milky Way lighted the landscape around us. Cutblocks shined like badges in the surrounding forest — we don’t need no stinkin’ badges — and I kept wishing we could turn the headlights off. On a full moon ride, you probably need sunglasses. We rode for a very long time. Once we got out of the Soo, we wound our way along maze-like trails that left me at a loss to know where exactly we were. I was beginning to have serious thoughts about sitting on my heated handlebars when base camp appeared around the next corner. On the ride back, internationally-known fishing guide Jumpin’ Jim was plugging winter fishing. One of the boys in the bus asked where he fished in Winter. "Mostly in the water," Jim replied. "Yeah, but where do you catch fish?" he pressed. "Usually in the mouth," came the taciturn reply. "I mean where is the fishing located?" he asked cluelessly. Like the magician he is, Jim answered, "If I told you, I’d have to kill you." Who’s On First Incredibly cold weather delayed my trip with Shawn Wilson of Blackcomb Snowmobiling. To dispel any confusion, Blackcomb Snowmobiling doesn’t do trips on Blackcomb, that’s Canadian. Whistler Snowmobile doesn’t do trips up Whistler, nobody does. But Blackcomb Snowmobiling does trips up Brandywine Valley and that’s about as stunning a piece of real estate as exists around here. When the weather finally settled back into the moist, mild pattern we know and love, I met up with Shawn for the 15-minute ride south to Blackcomb’s base camp at the Brandywine Forest Service Road. Shawn explained the company runs 35 sleds, also Ski-Doo LE’s, and does about 5,000 trips a year, mostly first-time snowmobilers. A small group of us listened to guide Wayne’s safety talk as a light rain started to fall. After a quick climb to 1,200 meters, the rain turned to snow and we were surrounded by winter. After a couple of rides in clear weather, it was fascinating to watch the big flakes swirl and dance around us as we briskly rode through them. During a long, steep climb, we caught the last glimpses of Black Tusk on the other side of the valley before clouds and snow enveloped it and us. When the climb crested out, we were in Brandywine Meadows, a stunning open valley surrounded by high hills. Wayne explained some of the more subtle nuances of floating a sled through deep powder and cut us loose to play. Our playground included an oval track, mostly ignored, and lots of untracked snow. It also included a nice riser where the more adventurous got airborne, gentle and not so gentle hills to climb and get stuck on, deep snow pockets to rock through and soft landings when we fell off our machines. This was another completely different snowmobiling experience and we all followed our separate senses as daylight slipped away and darkness crept up on us as it only can during a snow storm, this time of year. We were dancing with ghosts and howling like banshees through the snow and fog. After exhausting ourselves playing and pulling our stuck machines out of deep powder, we headed back down to Blackcomb’s high, alpine cabin to refuel on hot cider and smokies. The cabin sits on a precipitous slope and looks East, across the valley. Groups of six to 12 can arrange catered dinners — steak or salmon — in the cabin for a truly out of the way gastronomic experience. We descended back into the rain all too soon, happy with our ride and comforted to know there’d be fresh powdies on the slopes the next morning. If You Go While the companies’ offerings look deceptively similar in their brochures, they offer distinctive riding experiences. Each provide helmets and warm boots and, if necessary, warm clothes. But wear your ski clothes, bring your mitts and be ready for an exciting ride. Tours range from Canadian’s one hour ride up Fitz Creek to custom outings of your choice. The most popular rides are two to three hours. Prices start at $65 and vary depending whether you ride solo or tandem. Private tours are available as are safari rides for more experienced riders. To book, call: Blackcomb Snowmobiling 932-8484; Whistler Snowmobile Guided Tours 932-4086; or, Canadian Snowmobile Adventures 938-1616.

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