Winter wonderland

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressWilly’s old 1977 Ski-Doo Olympique hasn’t seen much use lately.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Willy’s old 1977 Ski-Doo Olympique hasn’t seen much use lately.

If I shut my eyes, I can vividly see my friend, Marlowe Thomsen, effortlessly drifting his 1982 Ski-Doo Blizzard 9500 through the winding snowmobile trails in Birds Hill Provincial Park — while I try my very best to keep up on my 1977 Ski-Doo Olympique 340.

It was the winter of 1994 and back then, Marlowe and I were young corrections officers at the Winnipeg Remand Centre.

We were also best buddies.

Sadly, Marlowe passed away five years ago, on Jan. 8, 2014, at the age of 49. The last time we spoke before his untimely death, after sharing my sledding antics with him over the phone, he laughed and said, “Boy, I sure miss that park, we have to go for a ride soon.”

Marlowe, a proud Icelander from Riverton, took great delight in the fact he’d infected me with the snowmobile bug, and even greater joy from spraying me with his snow dust. The old Olympique I’d bought from my father-in-law was no match for his powerful Blizzard, but he’d always wait up for me and playfully tease me about how slow my old bomb was.

Prior to meeting Marlowe, my snowmobile experience only included a few rips up and down the Brokenhead River on the in-laws’ old sleds, but once we became brothers in arms he was adamant I join him on the trails. When I told him I could buy the old Olympique from my father-in-law for $200, he forged my name in the overtime book in the jail’s duty office.

I took the call... and the following payday, we were loading up our trucks with sleds and heading to what Marlowe promised were “the best trails this side of Gimli.” We unloaded at the 59er gas station near the entrance to Birds Hill Park on Highway 59, and were off in a flash. I was instantly hooked. We must have repeated that ritual a hundred times.

Marlowe was with me in 1997 for my first big snowmobile crash. I managed to flip my sled, dislocate my thumb and rip the crotch out of my snowpants. He offered to reset my thumb — I did it myself. You know you’re in the presence of your soul brother when the more pain you feel, the harder he laughs.

In 2001, when my wife and I decided to move out of the city, there was little doubt where we would live — it had to be close to Birds Hill Park. We found our dream property just east of Highway 206, and about five kilometres from the back entrance to the park and those amazing trails.

Nowadays the old Olympique sits idle in the tall grass behind my shop, and more than a few sleds have come and gone over the years, but I still get the same thrill every time I tour the park.

I’ve ridden those trails countless times and enjoyed every moment.

My current sled is a 2013 Arctic Cat F570. While it certainly isn’t a speed demon, it’s a very comfortable and reliable machine, complete with electric start and reverse. I bought it from a friend a couple of years ago for a song and it has been perfect.

Most winter days before heading into the newsroom, I make a pass or two around the two-kilometre loop carved into the forest in our backyard to warm up my old bones, then I hit the ditch and make my way to the park. Once in the park, my first stop is always the warm-up cabin, a rustic building complete with a wood stove with a metal rack above it to hang your helmet and gloves. Over the years, I’ve slowly become one of the unofficial caretakers of the area. The park staff do a tremendous job keeping the wood pile well stocked for the wood stove in the cabin and the bonfire pit outside, but it always feels good to chop a bit of wood and tidy up a bit.

Often, when I’m at the cabin, other riders show up. Some are friends from the area, while others are simply passing through. Sometimes they are lost and I take the time to lead them back to the trails along the highway, doing my best Marlowe impersonation while leisurely drifting my machine through the winding trails, which can be a bit of a maze to the uninitiated. Every single encounter I’ve had with other snowmobilers in the park has been absolutely positive — it really is heaven on earth.

On New Year’s Day, I took a solo ride through the park about an hour before sundown, which, in my experience, is the best time of day to spot the local wildlife. As I rounded a corner, the unmistakable puff of a fox tail caught my eye, so I stopped, shut off my machine and held my breath while the little guy took a curious look at me from about 20 metres away. Before long, he darted off into the bush. Magic. Pure magic.

If you’re a hard-core snowmobiler with a powerful machine and a need for speed, Birds Hill Park probably isn’t for you.

The trails were made back when snowmobiles ran at about the same speed as a team of sled dogs. If the trails haven’t been recently groomed, there are also usually many bumps and lumps along the way. If you tour the trails at the slow and steady pace they were intended for, you will surely be taken back in time to that first ride — when you fell in love with snowmobiling.

As I cruised through the park on the way home, chasing the ghost of Marlowe Thomsen, I couldn’t help but thank him for the tremendous gift he gave me — it truly has lasted a lifetime. I hope wherever he is, the snow is knee deep and the sun is shining.

Sure do miss you, buddy.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressWhether it was hockey, skiing or snowmobiling, Willy’s pal Marlowe Thomsen always led the way

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Whether it was hockey, skiing or snowmobiling, Willy’s pal Marlowe Thomsen always led the way

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressWilly’s 2013 Arctic Cat F570 is a reliable machine.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Willy’s 2013 Arctic Cat F570 is a reliable machine.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressThe warm-up cabin at Birds Hill Provincial Park gives snowmobilers a chance to get out of the cold and dry off their clothing.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

The warm-up cabin at Birds Hill Provincial Park gives snowmobilers a chance to get out of the cold and dry off their clothing.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressWilly enjoys the trails so much in Birds Hill Park, he created his own trail in his 10-acre backyard for friends and family to enjoy.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Willy enjoys the trails so much in Birds Hill Park, he created his own trail in his 10-acre backyard for friends and family to enjoy.