Off The Grid

Instead of taking pictures of places, what if you take pictures of people and ask them for a story?

I spent the last week doing something a bit unusual: traveling across northern Quebec on a snowmobile. The trip can best be summarized in three numbers:

  • -27 degrees Fahreinheit

  • 101 miles per hour top speed

  • 1,200 miles traveled

If you’ve never done it, snowmobiling is an interesting sport. It’s a solitary activity that’s best done in groups. Solitary because you spend most of the time strapped into your helmet, with no external stimulation except the sound of the engine and your own thoughts. Despite this, it’s best done in groups for safety reasons and to share the experience of the trip.

It’s not unusual to end up in a situation where your machine is buried in feet of powder, with no way to move it except by digging yourself out. This can be complicated by the fact that most trails are miles from traditional roads. Ask a snowmobiler about a time that they “missed a turn” and you’ll get a story — guaranteed.

Snowmobiling is enabled by a community of volunteers in places with high snowfall who maintain extensive trail systems. The trails are (usually) well marked and have rules, just like highways and streets for automobiles. Some of the big ones:

  • Rule 1: Stay on the right side of the road. This seems obvious, but corners can come quickly and trails often narrow. If you need to pass someone, you do it at a stop sign or a straight-away.

  • Rule 2: Use hand signals when passing another group. Snowmobilers travel in packs that can stretch out a half mile or more. Because of this, hand signals are common when passing other groups going the opposite direction. These signals let people know how many other people are behind you, and are designated by holding up fingers to indicate how many more are coming.

  • Rule 3: No tailgating. Snowmobiles are good at going very fast in a straight line, but don’t stop well. The track “locks” when the brake it applied, which often pitches the snowmobile into a roll if done too quickly.

I’ve been snowmobiling for years, but this was the first time I’ve gone for an extended trip. The trails in Canada are completely different than the local system at home in Western New York. It’s like going from a cul-de-sac to the Autobahn. The most surprising part of the trip, however, was not the physical activity, but the people we met.

Instead of taking pictures of the scenery, I took photos of the people, and asked them to tell me a story. Here are a few of my favorites:

“I used to haul cargo cross-country. You name it, I hauled it. Paper, timber, didn’t matter. But now, it’s gotten too expensive. A ticket that used to cost a few hundred dollars now wipes out the whole trip. Too hard to make money these days. Me and the Little Girl here are about done with it. Besides, I’m going to be 65 this year. I found some work taking care of the lodge here and helping with the lake in the summer. Sounds like a pretty good retirement to me. It’s important to stay busy.”

“Our family settled here a hundred years ago when the railway was laid. Back then, there was a lot of work to do. Now, not so much. Everyone here still works in the forest in some way or another. The restaurant started for the loggers, and recently we’ve gotten some tourists too. This time of the year is normally busy, but have been less and less motoneige [snowmobile riders] in recent years. Don’t let the snow fool you, the summers here are beautiful.

“I’m the Treasurer for our local riding club you know. It’s a volunteer position, but they pay for my postage and letter paper. I told them I’d do it, but not if it’s going to come out of my own pocket. It’s not really a desk job. I'm in charge of checking if riders have registration for the trails. I tell people, “You have a day to go get registered, otherwise I’ll go on the computer and check.” People sometimes try to give me a hard time, so I started to bring my boyfriend with me. He’s a big guy, and can be persuasive. [laughs] They listen when he’s with me."


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