Tamed By the Beast
A snowmobile is basically the biggest, meanest chainsaw you’ve ever seen, with two skis bolted to the front and a seat slapped on top. It roars. It spits diesel fumes. It wants to go faster. My mistake was listening to it.
A couple nights before I met the beast, I was at a New Years Eve party in Ottawa, a small town that also happens to be the capital of Canada. I was there because it’s Heather’s home town and her sister still lives there, so we’d come for a holiday family visit. The next door neighbor was having a small gathering, so we walked the ice to their house bearing gingerbread cookies.
The house had two rooms on the first floor, and the men and women instantly sorted themselves between the two by gender. The children took to the basement, intermittently bundling up and going outside to skate on the ice rink that stretched between the two houses.
As the newbie in the group, the Canucks took it upon themselves to tell me all their favorite authentic Canadian stories. They all seemed to be about drinking too much. There was the one where they locked their keys in the car with an open beer, and the locksmith let them in before it’d gone warm. There were several about falling into the ice and barely surviving. And there was one about something called the “Full Ferguson,” the moral of which is, if someone asks you if you know what it is, say yes.
I mentioned that the family and I were going to Chateau Montebello the next day. Montebello is a beautiful old hotel and gathering place, built around a huge four story stone fireplace, where one can take in all of the traditional Canadian winter pastimes, which include curling, skiing, and, of course, drinking.
The men said I could rent a dog sled there. I thought about it for a moment, but realized I’d sooner rent the sled for a day and take the dogs inside to sit by the fire. This is the equivalent of hiring a prostitute and talking to her all night. I was not earning macho points.
So they suggested a snowmobile instead. Many stories of snowmobile mishaps ensued. One guy said, “I don’t think I’ve ever gone out sober, now that I think of it.” I was sold.
That’s how, a couple days later, I found myself at Montebello with my brother-in-law Owen, handing over my credit card to a disinterested girl half my age. She gave us snow suits that could’ve kept us alive in space, gloves, boots, a helmet with a full face mask, and one of those ninja hoods.
We received instructions from a burly Quebecois guy with an accent so thick I caught about every fourth word. But there wasn’t much to understand. One lever made it go, the other made it stop. The most complicated switches were for the hand warmers, which had four positions for each handle.
And then we were off. There were signs pointing us to the lake, frozen over, where we cranked the things up. At one point when I looked down, I was going 40mph. I suddenly wished I’d had something to drink beforehand.
We wove through the snowmobile trail, Owen first (he’s Canadian, so he had an inherent right of way). The trail curved up and down and I grew more confident. The sun was shining and everything was covered in white. When the wind blew, snow drifted off the trees, floating across the trail.
Owen’s a great guy and I love him like a brother, but he’s also the father to two young kids and drives a minivan, so my need for speed soon got the better of me. He pulled over and let me pass. I really wish he hadn’t.
I hit the throttle and the beast roared. Riding a snowmobile is a little like sitting on a rocket. The handles turn the skis at the front, but they’re more like suggestions than steering. The beast goes where it wants, however fast it wants. I rocketed through the course, with Owen long gone from the rearview.
I am not, by any means, an outdoorsman. I do not play sports or go to the gym. So when I make the following analogy, understand that it’s the highest form of compliment among my people. With the speedometer rising, racing through the curves, and the gentle snow glinting in the sun, I thought to myself, “This is just like a video game.”
That’s exactly when everything went terribly wrong. I was going far too fast for a first-timer. I made a fast turn and wound up going downhill in the shade, where the snow suddenly turned to ice. Gravity and hubris threw me toward the right edge of the trail. I turned the handles hard left, but I just kept drifting.
One thing the instructor should have stressed is that the snow on either side of the trail is like fluffy cotton candy. It basically evaporates when touched, and I was now touching it, hard.
As the beast fell to the right, with me leaning left, one bump was all it took to send me flying off of it. I put my arms out on instinct, and they passed right into the snow grasping at nothing. I faceplanted in the soft white, burying myself up to my shoulders. The beast kept right on going.
I lifted my head out of the snow and it slowly dawned on me that something bad had happened. I checked my extremities, and they all seemed to be attached, but I couldn’t move my left hand. I wondered if this is what it feels like to be in shock.
I clamored to the side of the trail, which was now was above me. I pulled myself out, leaving a boot stuck in the deep. I reached in for it and lost a glove. I was clearly not thinking straight.
I got the boot and glove back on, even though they were both full of snow and I couldn’t feel my fingers. It occurred to me that I could still save this. I’d been a few minutes ahead of Owen. All I have to do is get the snowmobile.
That’s when I followed the tracks with my eyes, down the hill beside the trail to where the beast lay, broken through the ice, face-first in a rolling stream, surrounded by frigid water. If I’d held on for just a little longer, I’d be hypothermic by now … or worse.
Owen arrived, and suddenly I was happy to have a minivan-driving father of two in front of me. He gave me his gloves, called the burly Quebecois, and said reassuring things like “I’m sure this happens all the time” and “I think that company makes outboard engines for boats, too, so it should be fine underwater.”
When the rental guys arrived, they kibbitzed in French for a while and then said to me, “You’re lucky, eh?”
It took three burly Quebecois, plus Owen, to fish the beast out of the creek, using a combination of rope, skill, and what I’m sure were a metric ton of French curse words. But in just a few minutes the beast was back on the trail, idling.
We drove back to the shop. This time I drove like a father of two. Three, perhaps.
When we got back to the rental shop, the main guy, who’s name I never did get, said to me, “That’s just a machine, are you okay?” Yup, I’m okay.
He gave the beast one walk-around and said “Good!” He put the next tourist on it, gave him the same 2-minute intro, and sent him off into the snow.
When I evened up with the girl behind the counter, she said, “So you’re the lucky guy.”
“My new nickname,” I said.
I was lucky. I walked away with just a few scrapes and bruises. I didn’t even damage the beast. I guess that’s the way it works. Sometimes you tame the beast, sometimes the beast tames you.
At least next time I find myself in a gaggle of Canadians telling manly drunken wintertime stories, I’ll have my own snowy near-death tale to tell.