Follow me…Jason’s first experience guiding
By Jason Silver
Like many others in this province, I started snowmobiling at a very young age, and spent most of my earlier life trail riding on the Avalon Peninsula. Nothing adventurous on a basic machine. Over the years, I have evolved my riding style and expanded my circle of “winter friends”. Today, most of my riding is done on Newfoundland’s West Coast and I am trying to set the bar higher. I have graduated from my old Bravo 250, and last season I upgraded to a full on mountain sled when I purchased a 2016 Polaris SKS 155 800. For most of my backcountry years, I have been more of a follower. I am truly fortunate to have some great friends who know the country and have not only introduced me to so many of Newfoundland’s backcountry destinations, but also been there to get me unstuck or ensure my machine is returned to its intended track side down position. My biggest worry has been when are we leaving and what’s for lunch? In fact, I have learned most of my skills (if you can call them skills) from my riding buddies (many of whom are connected to Sledworthy and Sledcore). Over the years, I have found that every trip means meeting at least one or two new people and expanding my group of “winter Friends” (I refer to “winter friends” because despite the fact that they are all a great bunch of people, I rarely see any of them in the off season).
Well over the last year or two I started to do something that I haven’t done before – introduce others to the sport. And more specifically, what I mean is introduce people to snowmobiling in Newfoundland’s backcountry. And I have to say, this is something that I truly enjoy doing. But it introduces a whole new dynamic to the sport for me. For now, people would depend on me to show them the ropes and to get them in and out of Newfoundland’s backcountry safely. I have to say, my first such experience was a bit of an eye opener. I guess I didn’t realize how much my riding buddies had done for me and truly how much responsibly they had actually exhibited.
My first such trip was with a couple of co-workers and their friends. The job of tour guide would fall to me and to my good friend Mark Shave on that trip. While our destinations started out in Lewis Hills, mechanical difficulties resulted in towing a machine back to the trailers and renting a replacement sled and hitting the trailer to Gros Morne. I was excited to introduce these guys to Gros Morne’s amazing scenery, deep snow and ultimately to my favorite spot in the world, Western Brook Gorge. However, in all my excitement I didn’t consider a couple of key points – mainly the level of riding experience in the group and the weather conditions. You see it was snowing heavily with moderate winds – in Gros Morne that means one thing – white out. I am accustomed to riding in the blustery Newfoundland Weather, as you cannot usually afford to waste the limited time you get on the West Coast, away from family responsibilities and work. But my group was not used to riding in this weather or terrain. We successfully pushed to within a couple of kilometres of Western Brook Gorge, but after one of our riders became very struck in a brook (I could write a separate article on that experience alone!), I became very aware of two things – 1. I was the only one who actually wanted to push forward and 2. Some members of the group were panicking. They were outside their comfort zones by a long shot and were not having fun. While no harm was ultimately done, getting them back out of the country was stressful. In fact, I ended up making a critical mistake that resulted in Mark becoming separated from the group. Unfortunately, he became stuck and had nobody to help. Long story short, it is only an awesome feeling to introduce people to the backcountry if you are truly prepared. I was not.
So while my foray into the guiding world did not go well that first time, I decided a year or two later to introduce someone else to backcountry sledding. This newcomer was my 13-year-old son Michael. While he had some limited experience riding our used GTX touring machine, he had never been West. But this time, I considered his experience and most of all considered the weather. I planned the trip for St. Patrick’s Day weekend, staying in Deer Lake but trailering up to Cormack as our jumping off point. This time, I made sure I planned our destinations and backup destinations based on snow conditions and weather. Well we were very lucky – it called for sunny skies and calm winds. The snow was already in spring conditions yet all the brooks and ponds were well frozen. We set out on the groomed trail toward Gros Morne – and made our way very slowly but surely. While I can’t say I had 100% confidence in his riding ability, weather and snow conditions were perfect. I also adjusted my expectations – we would head North and see where the day took us. Well while it wasn’t my quickest trip in, we made it all the way to Western Brook Gorge. He was amazed at the scenery and terrain and truly seemed proud of his accomplishment. After a lunch and slow trek out, we relaxed at the hotel and reflected on a very large day. I finished our weekend with a trip to the sinkhole and North Arm Hills (another blue-sky day). And of course, we had to climb down into the sinkhole – another awesome day on the snow. So, while this trip was not without its stress for me, it was a resounding success.
So fast forward another season I had another successful guiding trip with one of my close Friends, Scott. Scott was an experienced rider but had never seen Newfoundland’s West Coast on sled. After showing him some of the key spots the West Coast has to offer, I decided I was up for taking the entire family on a trip. The tentative plan would be to use Taylor’s Brook Accommodations as our base and explore Gros Morne. We brought along our two sleds (2016 Polaris SKS 155 800 and 2006 Ski Doo GTX 550f) and borrowed a Ski Doo MXZ XRS 800 from a good friend. I would guide on my SKS while my wife Stacey (who has very limited backcountry experience) and 10-year-old son Collin would ride the GTX and Michael would be the lucky one on the 800 XRS. While Michael’s ability had advanced, I still was unsure how far we’d get with Stacey and Collin. Day 1 we headed toward the Gorge. Snow conditions were fantastic (it was spring like conditions in mid April) and it seemed weather would cooperate – sunny and blue skies. We slowly picked our way through Mattie’s Pond and managed to hit Western Brook Pond – just one problem. It was clear everywhere but at the Gorge – a wall of white (fog). Collin has been begging to drive so figured I’d take him on the GTX and start to teach him. Well what a surprise – he took to it like a fish to water. He’s a natural! Well after heading back out and enjoying the night at Terry’s by the fire, we got some badly needed sleep and decided we’d head back to Western Brook Gorge in the morning. Unfortunately, this time we had to bypass Taylor’s Brook Road as they were ploughing in well past the 37KM mark so I had to get a new GPS track to take us in to Eagle Mountain via the groomed trail and new transmission cut line. Well day 2 did not disappoint – it was warm and sunny. The group of four in the cabin next to us were heading to Western Brook Gorge as well but they didn’t know the way so I offered to take them. We all quickly made the trek to Western Brook Gorge and enjoyed our lunch looking out over my favorite place while the sun warmed us. It was awesome. My favorite family portrait is now one of the four of us sitting on our machines at the Gorge. The way out was just as enjoyable as Collin, now hooked on snowmobiling, drove most of the way out. I rode with him a fair bit while Stacey took the XRS and Michael got some seat time on the SKS. From the smile on his face I think there is either a Pro RMK 155 or another SKS 155 purchase in my not so distant future. Our trip was a success and I can honestly say I was starting to feel better about guiding. I now realized it was so much more than just having a few GPS tracks and some riding experience. Every last rider trailing behind you is totally your responsibility.
So, what did I learn? You need more than just the basics like at least two GPS’s with tracks, spare batteries (and my preference is at least one GPS wired into the sled), spare clothing, goggles, survival gear including first aid, saw, waterproof matches, etc., at least two shovels, a sat phone, extra food, a knife(s), snare wire, and so on. But you also have to know your riders (their experience, machines, etc.) and ensure you plan your routes and have a back up plan. You need to be able to adjust your plans at a moment’s notice and pay close attention to the weather (both forecasts and what you are seeing on your ride). You also have to make sure someone responsible brings up the rear to ensure all riders are present and accounted for the entire day. While I won’t hesitate to guide, I recommend hiring a professional. Their experience and preparedness makes it worth every penny – plus they usually know all the key spots to take you. There was one other thing I learned, though. Despite the responsibility required and stress guiding can cause you, I thoroughly enjoyed showing either newcomers to the sport or experienced riders some new terrain and scenery. In fact, introducing others to those attractions is like seeing them for the first time all over again for me. And seeing a smile on a face that just had a whole new world of riding opened up to them and knowing that they’ll be back is a truly awesome feeling. So, this winter, I challenge all, anyone who has some experience in the backcountry to introduce someone new to the sport and/or some of our amazing scenery and terrain. You won’t be disappointed.