Jan. 11, 2012 - Issue #847: The great indoors
Sled revolution, part I
Without much background in motorsports, being on a sled is an unfamiliar, disconcerting feeling. I'm not sure how to steer, I'm hesitant to accelerate too quickly or for too long and I'm constantly nervous about losing control.
I'm not the only one with this blind spot. As a metaphor, my experience likely resonates with a lot of Albertans, including government policy makers. While sled sport has grown in popularity in Alberta over the last few decades there are still many who have never stepped on a machine nor understand the first thing about the sport.
Even Travel Alberta doesn't seem to fully appreciate its full value and potential, says Chris Brookes, executive director of the Alberta Snowmobile Association. Snowmobiling in Alberta generated an estimated economic impact of $366.6 million in 2009 (based on estimates of overall expenditures in a recent study by Econometrics Research), which is greater than that generated by the province's downhill-ski industry, Brookes points out. Yet that isn't reflected in the province's tourism promotional efforts, he says.
"All of Travel Alberta's literature, tweets, websites, they don't show snowmobilers," he criticizes. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a snowmobiler in any of their material."
With the potential spinoff from purchases of sleds, outerwear, fuel and accommodations, Brookes sees it as a missed opportunity. "There's a need to understand the benefits and what it can bring to the community," he says, "Local towns get it. Whitecourt in Woodlands County is a prime example of an area that understands the economic benefit of having so many snowmobilers converging there. Try to find a hotel in Whitecourt in February."
Sledding today isn't what it used to be. Some 30 years ago, snowmobiling was a niche sport at best. "Originally snowmobiling was seen as more of a hobby, something older guys did on the farm," Brookes explains. "Of course, the machines were much smaller with limited range, you certainly couldn't do [what] we do today."
In the last 10 to 15 years, more powerful, lighter-weight machines have enabled athletes to push the sport to extremes, raising its profile on both regional and international stages. For advanced skiers and boarders, a sled represents freedom of access to big mountain lines. Average recreationalists can cover incredible distances at high speeds, along the more than 5000 kilometres of cleared trails in Alberta, as well as on open land. "It's a very democratic sport, in that it opens up the backcountry to people of all physical abilities," says Brookes.
Snowmobile activity is exploding in the province. In total, snowmobile expenditures in Alberta grew from $238.7 million in 2002 to $366.6 million in 2009, according to the Econometrics report. The same study estimates over 6500 Albertans whose jobs are directly or indirectly supported by the industry.
Evidence of the sport is everywhere, from roadside ditches (where it's technically illegal) to farmer's fields. Big, jacked up one-tonnes frequently roar down the TransCanada and the Yellowhead Highways with sleds in tow, heading for the trailhead. From there, snowmobiles are accessing more and more remote areas, pushing into deeper and more complex terrain.
But all this growth comes at a cost. Environmental impacts from fuel emissions and noise disturbance are key concerns among environmental advocates. In recent years, tragedies near Revelstoke and Sparwood, and closer to home near Sherwood Park (where five-year-old Taeya Maron died last January) have also raised questions about the snowmobiling community's regard for safety.
Of course, the media skews perception by the types of stories it chooses to cover, Brookes argues. One bright note to these tragedies is that, as a whole, the snowmobiling community has increased its awareness and education efforts—and it's working, Brookes says. "More and more the people I talk to who are heading [to the mountains] have at least their AST 1 training."
But whether legislation, public perception and cultural attitudes have kept pace with the evolution of the sport is another matter. Much like driving the machines themselves, greater familiarity is essential if Albertan sledders, legislators, environmental and safety groups, and all the other stakeholders in the province—want to steer the sport in the right direction.
Get a machine underneath you that can average up to 200 kilograms and 180 horsepower and accelerate at speeds of over 100 km/hour, and you better learn how to handle it, quickly.
"Bracing for cultural impact" is the first in Jeremy Derksen's three-part series on sled sport in Alberta. Watch for more Sled Revolution coverage on January 19 and 26.
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