To Sled or Not to Sled: Boundaries and Borders in Canada’s Winter Playgrounds

Snowmobiling. Credit: Jonas Bengtsson.

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A cross-country ski trail at Elk Ridge Resort, Saskatchewan, December 2014. Photo by Merle Massie.
A cross-country ski trail at Elk Ridge Resort, Saskatchewan, December 2014. Photo by Merle Massie.

You haven’t seen Saskatchewan until you’ve seen it from a snowmobile. Explore millions of acres of open land, zip across thousands of kilometres of groomed and signed trails, and be treated to a variety of landscapes that you could never see from the car, and that most people will never see.

We take snowmobiling seriously in Saskatchewan. [1]

Snowmobiling is a prototypical Canadian pastime. When just a teenager, Canada’s Joseph Armand Bombardier jury-rigged a Model T engine to twist an airplane propeller and push a sleigh frame, and the mechanical ‘snowmachine’ was born. His father promptly ordered it taken apart, but Bombardier remembered his idea. After one of his children died – tragically unable to get to a hospital through roads closed with snow – Bombardier went back to the drawing board, reworking his early ideas to build a machine that would ignore, or even use, Canada’s harsh winter snows. By 1937, the first Bombardier machines were rolled out.

Since then, land-based vehicles designed for winter travel across snow and ice have been a Canadian mainstay. From delivering mail to working traplines, rescuing Canadians stuck in their cars during blizzards to bringing Santa down Main Street, snowmachines have grown and changed along with the country in the past one hundred years.

The snowmobiles (‘sleds’) I grew up with on our farm in northern Saskatchewan were used for both work and play. We zipped across the snowy hills and through the woods, pulling screaming cousins and terrified-but-delighted baby sisters (me) with equal alacrity. We loved it for ice fishing, and how it pulled us and our catch efficiently across the ice to and from our favourite bays and points. Dad hauled a lot of bales out to the cows with the sled, and brought many newly-born almost-frozen calves back to the barn, tucked up in the toboggan behind the snowmobile, its mom trotting behind.

Nonetheless, these sleds of my youth would be buried in the snowdust of today’s fast and powerful machines. They’re fancy, too: handwarmers and thumbwarmers and toewarmers, MP3 connections for your tunes, holders for your coffee cups, and heated helmets and visors take riders through new galaxies of luxury. Cell phone plugs on the sled? Wow.

Today, snowmobiling is a major Canadian industry. The numbers are staggering. Of about 130,000 machines built in 2012 by the four big companies (Arctic Cat, Polaris, Bombardier/Ski Doo, and Yamaha), just under 50,000 were sold in the US while over 40,000 were sold in Canada. Per capita, Canada has a sled addiction. There about 700,000 snowmobiles in Canada – that’s at least one for every seventeen people.

Ubiquitous in rural, remote, and northern areas where they remain both practical and fun, snowmobiling is a growing tourism trend. The economic impact of snowmobiling is estimated at seven billion dollars. There are over seven hundred snowmobile clubs in Canada who voluntarily groom over 100,000 kilometers of trail.

But there is one place where the trails end: Canada’s national parks. In the US, snowmobilers can sled on marked and designated trails within some of the national parks, even though this practice is controversial. In Canada, with the exception of Gros Morne National Park, which allowed snowmobiles from its inception, snowmobiling is generally not permitted within national parks.

Excluding snowmobiles is an environmental decision that protects water, wildlife, vegetation, and terrain. All engines emit fumes, and snowmobile emissions could change water runoff. Sensitive terrain or plants can be damaged if trails become too packed. Snowmobiles are loud, and potentially scare wildlife.

But snowmobilers ask: why some engines/uses, but not others? Why an ever-expanding network of electrified and full-service summer RV sites, but not snowmobiles? Motor boats, yes, snowmobiles, no? Is there a seasonal bias built into the Canadian story?

What’s really curious about the Canadian national park/snowmobile country controversy is the practice of reverse advertising. Snowmobiling is a significant draw. Park visitors are encouraged to stay within the parks, but go sledding offsite: “Banff National Park is the gateway to many other mountain adventures, including snowmobiling! This adventure awaits you outside of the park itself, but nearby amidst beautiful, snow-clad peaks. A vast wilderness beckons you and your snowmobile and a ride through it just might be the highlight of your winter vacation!” And at Prince Albert National Park: “Snowmobiles are not permitted in Prince Albert National Park but there are hundreds of kilometers of excellent, groomed trails outside the park.

Clearly, Canadian national parks recognize that, increasingly, Canadian tourists have a) snowmobiles; b) money to spend; c) a growing interest in spending money on snowmobiling during the traditionally cold winter ‘off-season.’ In fact, for a growing number of resorts, the ‘off-season’ is summer, while winter is where it’s at. Elk Ridge Resort, next door to Waskesiu and Prince Albert National Park, just north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, is a great example. Built right along the park edge, the boreal forest retreat capitalizes on its not-park-but-exactly-like-it proximity. In fact, the land on which Elk Ridge is built was, once upon a time, part of the park [2] – boundaries made and unmade by pen strokes on paper.

Happy slopecutters at Elk Ridge Resort, December 2014. Photo by Merle Massie.
Happy slope cutters at Elk Ridge Resort, Saskatchewan, December 2014. Photo by Merle Massie.

On a recent trip to Elk Ridge, we met friends, visited, did some slope cutting (tobogganing) and cross country skiing. There was skating and curling on the little lake, and a pool and waterslide for the kids to enjoy. There were also snowmobiles. Roaring lines of enthusiastic sledders, dressed head to toe for the weather, slid and swerved and skidded along the hundreds of kilometers of packed and groomed trails – all carefully outside the park boundaries. Elk Ridge was hopping with people.

Waskesiu, just a few kilometers across the border inside the national park, was a virtual ghost town.

That got me thinking. All national parks are struggling with issues of budget cuts, relevance to Canadian newcomers, and balancing people and environment. So I wonder: is it time for a re-evaluation? Should environmental historians engage in a discussion of land use and season? What are the winter histories of national parks in Canada – and was snowmobiling ever a part of that? Should snowmobiling have a place, along with cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and snowshoeing, within national parks? Have we compared the environmental impact of snowmobiling with its summer counterparts? Is it time for the line in the snow to move, just over the border into the national parks? Should some snowmobile trails be opened up within the parks?

What do you think?

[1] Tourism Saskatchewan website, accessed January 2, 2015.

[2] For an overview of Prince Albert National Park history, and the changes to the park’s borders, see Merle Massie, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan (U Manitoba Press, 2014).

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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.


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