Did you enjoy “Fantasy Island” or “Love Boat” when they were in their haydays in the mid 1980s? Or, are you a fan of today’s reality shows, like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” or MTV’s “Real World?”
The premise of these shows is simple: Take people from varying backgrounds, throw them together in unique situations and have them share an experience. Whether real or scripted, by the end of their adventures, the participants in each show knew more about themselves and the people with whom they shared the experience.
Now imagine any of those shows conducted on a snowmobile. The shared experience? Crossing more than 800 miles of some of the most isolated snowmobile trails in North America.
That, in a nutshell, was what the third annual Snow Goer Great Escape Tour was all about.
Instead of looking for love or fame like on the TV shows, participants in the Great Escape Tour, hosted by Decker Sno-Venture tours, were looking for camaraderie and fun while traversing the awesome trails of Northern Ontario via snowmobile, then riding the famous Snow Train back to their tow vehicles.
Along the way, participants overcame obstacles — including record-cold temperatures, multiple machine failures, frostbitten riders, a little attrition and some dissention within the group.
As the week progressed, people developed specific roles within the group. There were the natural leaders, the boisterous hecklers, the late-night crowd and the helpful, caring types. But when the ride was done, life-long memories were recorded, phone numbers were exchanged and every member of the group said they wanted to experience another organized tour.
And You Are … ?
The orders were clear: Get to the Water Tower Inn in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, sometime Sunday afternoon, March 4. The welcome meeting would start at 7:30 p.m.
When the crowd assembled at the hotel conference room, it was clear this was a group of varying personalities. We had representatives from six different states. Ages ranged from the early 20s to late 60s. We had, among other occupations, a lawyer, a lobbyist, sales people, owners of small businesses, a computer expert, a farming couple, a machinist, truck drivers and a person who fixed exotic cars. On this trip, though, nobody was defined by their business card.
While we gathered, the wind howled ferociously outside. The windows rattled and snow flew horizontally, creating white-out conditions.
Inside, over a quiet dinner, folks got to know the people at their tables. At my table was John Carson from New York, plus four Wisconsinites: Bruce Thompson; his friend and co-worker, Robert Brooks; Gary Ellertson; and his friend and co-worker, Dave Horton. Oddly, by the end of Day 2 on our trip, four of these five riders would be gone.
Luckily, the folks at the other tables all made it to our trip’s finish line, though it wasn’t always easy. After brief discussions and a bit of brand teasing, most folks finished their meals and called it an early night in anticipation of a long riding day that would start at 7 a.m. The route ahead was 220 miles.
The Crowd Thins
The morning arrived with temperatures reading in the minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit range, and a stiff wind made conditions especially bitter. The morning television news was abuzz about the “dangerous” conditions that closed schools throughout the area.
Folks gathered in the parking lot, unloaded their sleds and cued up. Handlebar gauntlets were attached, tall windshields were installed, gaps in protection were taped up and folks got ready to ride. We left our trucks behind in our snowdust — we wouldn’t see them again until the train brought us back to Sault Ste. Marie six days later. Our adventure was beginning.
The first day proved to be a shake-out day of sorts. It featured the most blown corners, the most stuck sleds, some major mechanical failures and a brief period being lost. That said, the trails were perfect and the riding was excellent, despite the cold.
By mid-day, Ellertson became ill. This would be the only day he and his friend Horton would ride. Also out was Robert Brooks — his F1000 Arctic Cat experienced electronic gremlins.
The characters of the day were Rick and Ricky Myers — a father/son duo from East Alton, Illinois. Rick is perhaps one of the most social people I’ve ever met, a talkative, likeable guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Ricky, his 24-year-old son and partner in crime, was driving their Arctic Cat ZL 500 when the clutch started to malfunction within the first 30 miles. The sled wouldn’t go over 60 mph, but if he let it drop below 30 mph, the machine would stall out. So Rick pledged that he’d drive the machine to Wawa. It was quite a display, as Rick set a great pace.
About 100 miles in, however, the clutch grenaded, sending shrapnel through the belly pan. The clutch explosion also caused the engine to expire.
No problem. Rick backed up the Yamaha Attak he started on, tied a short rope to the ZL on which Ricky sat, and the two made amazingly good time until our lunch stop, the rustic Halfway Haven.
By day’s end, we had logged 220 miles, gathered some frostbite scars and lived an exciting adventure. And, we were just getting started.
Rough Start Continues
The scene in the parking lot Tuesday morning foreshadowed the day.
With temperatures hovering around minus 40 degrees F, several four-stroke snowmobiles on our trip wouldn’t start. The Polaris and Cat four-strokes weren’t in a hurry to get going, but most of the Yamahas really struggled — they would turn over, but they wouldn’t pull up fuel. The brand-bashing reached a fevered pitch as people in blue jackets aimed hair dryers at their sleds’ fuel pumps.
The Decker Sno-Venture Tours support vehicle was experiencing similar problems. The big diesel wasn’t going anywhere. When it finally did start, it was jam-packed with people heading back to the border — Gary, Dave and Robert were in the cab, their sleds were in the trailer along with the Myers’ ZL.
Ricky Myers had a new sled to ride, but not for long. About 6 miles into the ride, the MX Z 500 SS he borrowed from the Decker crew burned down. That sled had to be towed back to the hotel and a third sled was given to Ricky. The crowd started again and the ride got no more than 10 miles farther before another incident took place.
A nasty crater formed near a wind-blown drift on the back-side of a steep uphill. As the chain of riders came over the hill one at a time, they caught air and nosed into the crater. The first few folks made it, but John Carson — an aggressive MX Z Renegade rider — crashed while trying to avoid the person in front of him. He ended up with a broken shoulder and was carted to the border in the increasingly crowded Decker Tours support truck.
Within an hour of that incident, the trip stalled out on a frozen reservoir when the trail disappeared. The trail was actually shut down, but the sign signifying its closure had blown down. While we tried to find our way off the lake, dissention rose within the group. So far, we had a late start due to sled problems followed by a burndown, a crash with an injury and now we were, um, misplaced again and we were only 20 miles into a day that was bitterly cold. The only direction this trip could go was up.
It All Comes Together
Have you ever noticed that your most vivid snowmobiling memories often feature something that went wrong? I don’t know what that says about us as people, but when you listen to snowmobilers tell stories, often the run-of-the-mill, 150-mile perfect day gets forgotten while the “you should have seen it when Nick stuck his sled 10 feet up in a tree” story gets told over and over again.
The first two days of the Snow Goer Great Escape Tour provided the stories, but the last three days of riding (plus a day on the train) created the fun. We had a couple of other problems, including:
• A burndown by a person who had claimed their sled was above that;
• A humorous parking lot tumble by a certain Snow Goer art director who was trying to show off;
• A startling trip into the cabbage by one of the group’s most careful riders; and
• A curious bucking bronco act along the train tracks that earned one rider the not-so-coveted “Hall Of Shame” toilet seat award that’s given on all Decker Tours.
Over the next three days, we piled on more than 500 miles on a variety of trails; all table-top smooth and uncrowded. Some trails serpentined between the trees where we were able to get away from the wind, while long pulls along converted rail lines allowed us to stretch out and make good time.
Beyond that, the temperatures finally warmed to 30 degrees F for our final ride on Friday. That may not sound like such a big deal, but consider this: The ambient temperature — not including wind chill — warmed 70 degrees during our trip, and it still didn’t get above the freezing point!
The group that made it to the finish line numbered 21 people with diverse backgrounds but one common interest: snowmobiling. On the eight-hour train ride through rugged, mountainous terrain back to Sault Ste. Marie, we got to know each member of the crew better.
Ray Johnson, 42, and Steve Keast, 46, were the primary Polaris loyalists (FST and 900 SwitchBack, respectively) in the group. They were quick to lend a helping hand, but they were even quicker on the draw with their digital cameras, capturing folks getting stuck or doing other stupid things.
“We’ve been talking about [taking a tour] for five years,” Steve said. “The best part was meeting all the people and hearing all of the stories.”
Brian Cairns and Scott Foster, both 38, grew up together riding snowmobiles in Erie County, Pennsylvania. They went to college and got real jobs — Brian in government and politics, Scott as a lawyer — and stopped snowmobiling.
“Two years ago in November, I realized I had spent 12 years in government and had taken only one vacation,” Brian said. While driving back up to Erie County, he phoned Scott and talked him into re-entering the sport. The two made a heavy investment — Scott got a newer truck as a tow vehicle, both purchased Arctic Cat Z 570s and new riding gear. Scott even scheduled laser eye surgery to get ready for this Great Escape Tour.
“The actual event far exceeded my expectations, and that says a lot because I was really excited,” Scott said. “No matter how cold you are, no matter how sore you are from the day before, the moment you touch the throttle in the morning, it’s all gone and you’re ready to ride.”
John and Sharon Zak, both 55, of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, also had just re-entered the sport after a 20-year hiatus. They bought everything first-class and brand new, from their Ski-Doos to their enclosed trailer, their modular helmets to their matching gear.
“We were cutting tags off [new gear] until 2 in the morning before the ride,” Sharon said. One never had to guess how the Zaks were feeling. When they were upset about something, they said so. When they were happy, they beamed. On the train ride home, they were beaming.
“It’s all about the camaraderie,” John said of the tour. Later, he added, “You don’t experience life by sitting on the couch, you’ve got to go out there and do it.”
John and Jan Mowrey, 63 and 59 respectively, own a farm in Illinois and spend a ton of time at their lakeplace on the Wisconsin/Michigan border. They are active in their snowmobiling club and love riding their Yamahas.
“The main reason to do a tour is that, when you come with a group, you don’t have to worry about reservations or you don’t have to know where the gas stops are,” John said.
“It was an adventure,” Jan added. “I never knew I could ride that far or that long.”
Ken and Dotti Bettis, ages 60 and 59 respectively, from Wataga, Illinois, were the touring veterans of the group, having done about a half-dozen formal tours each.
“One guy in our club asked me, ‘What if they take you someplace you don’t want to go?’” Ken said. “I said, ‘It just doesn’t happen.’”
For Bruce Thompson, 49, of Mosinee, Wisconsin, the trip was a mixed bag. He had discussed it with his friend Roger Brooks, but the discussion never went far. He was unaware, however, that his wife and Roger were plotting a surprise. For Christmas, Bruce opened up his present and found a new snowmobiling jacket — inside the jacket was an envelope that contained his itinerary for the trip.
Roger’s sled malfunctions cut his trip short, but Bruce and his Arctic Cat F8 soldiered on without his riding buddy.
“I enjoyed meeting all of these new people, the trails were great, the riding was great,” Bruce said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t have Roger with, but things happen.”
Mark Snyder, 68, of East Alton, Illinois, a retired lumberyard owner, came alone but soon had many friends.
“I know some people that had done [formal tours], and I’m always riding on my own,” Mark said. “I bought a new sled at the beginning of last year and I decided I was going to go riding with groups where I could be socializing and riding at the same time.”
Ron Munch, 52, and Richard Ankenbrandt, 51, both of Elgin, Illinois, were the laid-back observers in the group. The Arctic Cat T660 riders were quick with a chuckle, watching with amusement the interactions of the various personalities in the group.
“At the first meeting, people got up and introduced themselves, but at that point you didn’t really know the other people. It took a couple of days,” Richard said.
“There was no controversy — the speed was about right, we were watching out for one another, it was a good group,” he said. “These riders were the type of people we’d want to ride with.”
“The one negative was the lack of trail marking for corners,” Ron confessed.
“That’s because you went off of the trails,” Richard added with a laugh.
“Yeah,” Ron said, then shrugged and laughed along.
Rick and Ricky Myers were the interesting father/son duo in this mix. Rick is outgoing, emotional and friendly, and cherishes time spent with his son, Ricky.
“I saw the ad in your magazine and I figured I have gotten to the point in my life where I can do stuff like this,” Rick said. “I made last year’s train trip and I decided I wanted to bring Ricky the next year.”
John Kosir, Chuck Decker and Greg Smith were the hosts from Decker Sno-Venture Tours. Chuck is a former World Champion snowmobile racer and owner of the tour company and the famous Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby Track in Northern Wisconsin.
John was the primary truck driver and head trouble-maker when it came to going out and having fun at night. Greg was half-helper, half-customer on this trip. He grew up riding and racing snowmobiles with the host Decker family. He drove the support vehicle some days, rode others.
Add in the Snow Goer team, and you’ve got a moving caravan of personalities that melded together into one happy click by week’s end.