HUGHES BROOK, N.L. - Forget the Rockies. Winter blahs melt away as you hit the gas on a snowmobile and blast along ancient mountain ridges or wander through pristine woodlands in Newfoundland and Labrador.
A vast network of trails sprawls across more than 5,000 kilometres of natural beauty. It spans the former Canadian National Railway route, follows the foothills of the Long Range Mountains to a glacier-cut fjord in Gros Morne National Park, and crisscrosses Labrador's rolling tundra.
It has inspired some sled heads to call this province the Snowmobiling Capital of Canada.
Far from the typically warmer southeastern winters in St. John's, central and western parts of the island and Labrador offer exceptionally long riding seasons with deep snowpacks, spectacular views and abundant wildlife.
Guide Darren Park leads tours of visitors from late fall into mid-April, many of them absolute beginners. He offers half-day or full-day rides starting near Hughes Brook in western Newfoundland. He begins with a brief orientation drill and keeps a sharp focus on safety.
On the back of Park's snowmobile is a crate filled with all manner of survival gear in case we have problems or meet other riders in trouble.
"Fruit cake, hot chocolate, a cup of tea, survival kits, tarps, rope, snowshoes, axe, shovel," he says, listing off just some of its contents. There are also splits of dried wood for kindling if he needs to start a fire, and fast.
Park drives a Polaris Widetrak machine complete with hand warmers and a quieter, more efficient four-stroke engine that's typical of sleds priced at more than $13,000. Snowmobile rentals at nearby Marble Zip Tours in Steady Brook, N.L., range from about $219 to $249 a day plus gas.
A GPS unit is mounted on Park's sled to guide him if visibility fades to nothing in a backcountry snow squall or sudden storm.
"You're going in on a beautiful sunny day and the weather comes in so fast. It changes within minutes.
"A lot of my clients never ever drove a snowmobile before, so I'm dealing with a lot of rookie snowmobilers from England, Ireland, all over the world."
Park said he hasn't had any serious incidents — "knock on wood" — just the odd driver in a ditch or stuck in a snowbank. But he has helped many less prepared snowmobilers over the years, especially those who have had a breakdown in the woods with no way to build a quick fire for heat, he said.
He has also heard of some recent encounters with moose. The big animals don't take kindly to riders getting too close as they walk the hard-packed trails, and have been known to attack the hoods of the machines.
"You've got to give them space," Park said. "If not, they're after beating up snowmobiles or whatever."
It's crucial to dress well in layers with a waterproof shell for hours spent touring at speeds of up to 70 kilometres an hour or more.
Park likes to break up each trip with a traditional Newfoundland "boil up" at his hunting cabin. Smoked mackerel and caplin, the small fish whales feed on, warmed in tinfoil on the crackling wood stove as he offered his guests a hot drink, melon and homemade fruit cake.
Early morning tours in particular may include sights of caribou, foxes, mink, weasels, rabbits or bald eagles.
"It's endless," said Park, a die-hard Newfoundlander and outdoorsman who spends his summers leading fishing tours. He figures he has the best job on the planet.
"There's so much country," he said. "I think it's just the open space, the freedom, the peacefulness. You're out with nature."
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