Life’s Journey – The Highs and Lows
I’ve been on snowmobiles since 1978 when I was almost four years old; sitting up front with my father on a 1977 Ski-doo Olympique. Snowmobiling has been my passion and my get-away from the real world ever since; whether it’s a getaway road trip to the Lewis Hills of Western Newfoundland or a getaway to my shed to work on the machine. It has gotten me to places that many people will never see and has introduced me to life-long friends who I would have never met otherwise. It has also helped me get through rough times in my life.
I’ll fast forward to 1987. I was old enough to ride the Olympique around a large field behind my house. That summer my health started going downhill. I didn’t have much of an appetite; I was losing weight, and had little energy. I also would get bad stomach cramps. After some tests and doctors visits, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (bowel disease). It has been something I have had to deal with all my life. I’ve had a pretty normal life otherwise but as I grew up and entered adulthood, a “Crohn’s flareup” was something I experienced one or two times a year that lasted for 2-4 weeks. Steroids would typically settle the disease down (not the muscle building steroids but medical steroids). Through it all, I still rode a sled. My father helped graduate me to my own sled in 1990, a used 1988 Ski-Doo Tundra (which we all called a Tumbler, that thing would roll for no reason!) It was around this time that my specialist didn’t think I was going to grow because I had not in a year. Crohn’s can stunt growth in kids and delay important manhood development if you know what I mean. My specialist then decided to start me on a “space-age treatment” called tube feeding. Every night for almost four years I would insert a long tube up my nose and down to my stomach to allow a medical pump to send 2L of high calorie and nutrient liquid into me over a 12 hour period. In addition to my regular meals, I was consuming 3-4000 calories a day. Over those four years I grew like a weed and gained 30-40 pounds and my manhood developed as normal!
After a year of tumbling on that Tundra, my father bought a 1991 Arctic Cat Lynx 300. Not a top of the line Arctic Cat at the time, we looked at that machine as a Cadillac of snowmobiles. Dad continued to ride that old ‘77 Olympique until he sold it and bought a 1992 Lynx. It gave me something to look forward to and kept me excited during the winter months, at least it didn’t make being tied to a pump in the evenings and nights so bad.
So as I progressed in life through high school, university, early adulthood and marriage, my Crohn’s was always there. Every day I had to deal with it in some way; anywhere between mild bloating to severe cramping. But I managed to live a mostly normal life and continued to ride. After the Lynx, my father traded it for a 1995 Arctic Cat Bearcat 340 and he traded his Lynx for a Bearcat 440. I recall one Christmas, 1998, I was going through a bad flare-up. We got dumped on with snow and I was determined to get out for a ride. I remember being out for a couple of hours and telling Dad I had to go home because I just didn’t have the energy. But I was glad I got out that day nonetheless.
Once I graduated from Memorial University in 1999 I landed a job in St. John’s. I decided to get my own machine, a brand new 2004 1M 570 that was later turned into a 600 liquid with twin pipes. This is when I learned how to work on sleds and can now swap tracks or fine tune a clutch with the best. It was on this machine I was introduced to the exciting and beautiful Lewis Hills (a mountainous region on the West Coast of Newfoundland). I recall many trips to Lewis Hills saying to myself that I need to savour and enjoy this ride because snowmobiling could come to an end if my Crohn’s decides to get out of control. My specialist had told me during this time that it was amazing I had not needed surgery yet but that could change any day where losing my entire bowel may be a possibility. These are words that keep repeating in your mind and encourage you to live life as much as possible. After five seasons with that machine, it bit the dust at the bottom of Judge Ridge in Lewis Hills when it seized a piston after many highmarking attempts. This would also be my last ride for almost two years.
Nightmares came true during the summer of 2008. On July 31, I returned from a work trip to the UK. I had been feeling fine and had no complaints. The next morning I felt completely exhausted and was extremely tired and I had lost weight. I didn’t know why at the time. I saw my physician and he blamed my Crohn’s but this was like no flare-up I ever had. There was no pain. Typical medications were not working. After a few weeks of seeing my doctor, I started feeling a mass in my abdominal area that I had not felt before. I knew then that this was trouble. After an x-ray and a CT scan, I was told on September 12th, 2008 it was a tumor (Lymphoma of the small bowel) and a large one at that. I also needed surgery as soon as possible. It was not looking good. I remember thinking that I might make my wife of two years a widow and what a horrible thought that was. I also remember thinking I had to fix and sell my broken sled, as I may not be using it anymore.
Three weeks later I was under the knife. They removed a tumor that was 25 cm long and 10 cm wide at the widest point plus ten affected lymph nodes. To remove it, they removed 2 feet of bowel to make sure they got it all. They also removed an extra 2 feet that was badly damaged from Crohn’s (the surgeon said “they were doing me a favour”. But I was told I had plenty of bowel left. This was good. After two weeks in hospital, I recovered from surgery for the rest of the fall. I felt better than ever. I gained back all the weight I lost plus an extra ten pounds. I was also eating like a horse because of that flavour. I felt great! But that was short lived when I started six months of preventative chemo that started December 10th and finished in May the following year. The official diagnosis was carcinoma with areas of adenocarcinoma of the small bowel; an aggressive cancer so strong chemo was the order. That was the roughest time of my life. Imagine having so little energy that it takes hours to find it in you to get up to shower. Some days were not too bad but others felt like I was going to die. That is what chemo does; it kills the cancer cells but also kills the good cells in your body. But that winter snowmobiling continued to distract me and keep me occupied. Although I couldn’t ride, I spent many days working on a 30 minute sledding music video using all the footage and pictures I had taken over the years. I called it the Barrens Barons. In any case, according to my riding buddies it was a bad winter so I didn’t miss much.
I do recall one day during the first week of January coming back from around the bay where I was feeling well enough between treatments to drop into Melvin’s ATV (Arctic Cat Dealer) to get parts for my busted 1M. I thought I may have days over the next 5 months of chemo where I could feel well enough to work on it. On the showroom floor was a 2009 M8 HCR. My jaw dropped. What a weapon of a machine! I couldn’t imagine owning it. It was not even really practical for me. Plus I had a long journey ahead of me yet to even think about getting back on a sled. So I ogled some more and left.
So May arrived and chemo was over but it was the roughest time of my life. I had that entire summer to recover. My wife and I adopted a dog, Sadie, to keep me company and encourage me to get out walking to build up my energy. As I was preparing to get back to work full time, I decided it was time I rewarded myself for a full recovery and I wanted to get a new sled. I fixed the old 1M and sold it and came across a leftover 2009 M8 HCR in Goose Bay for a great deal. I said “to hell with practicality”, and bought it. I’ve had absolutely no regrets with that machine; it has been awesome and fun to ride and I deserved it after coming back from the brink of death. After all, you only live once.
My “back to normal” life and snowmobile season came to a halt in February (2010), due to another flare-up. I recall a couple of rides where I did not have enough energy to haul that big 800 over. I had to get a buddy or my father to pull it over. This time it was so bad I had to go back for more surgery that May. During that recovery, I was put on a new drug cocktail that has worked wonders for me and has kept the disease in remission for almost 5 years now. Through it all, my friends, family and especially my wife helped get me through it and the hope of getting back on the snow again.
As for the cancer, I celebrated being cancer-free for five years as of May 6th, 2014. Apparently, I can be considered ‘cured’. I’m not sure if I can ever accept that fearing that it may come back. In any case, five years after finishing chemo to the day, I found myself telling my story to Andrew Goldsworthy and Mark Shave at a warm-up shack on White River Road during a sled trip to the west coast. For me it was amazing I was riding in perfect conditions in May (2014) of that year, almost as amazing that I was still around to tell the story.