Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region in northern Alberta are meccas for outdoor activities, and in the winter become snowy playgrounds.
Real Chartrand, the president of the McMurray Sno-Drifters Association, has been enjoying the smowmobiling in the Fort McMurray area for a long time.
“I have been sledding for 30 years or more, and my role as president is to operate the association as a business, which has worked very well for me,” said Chartrand.
He said he has enjoyed increasing the membership of the club, and with the help of his executive committee, Chartrand has reopened an existing trail and added a connector trail, thus extending the trail system from just over 100 kilometres to 275 kilometres.
“We have accessibility to 5,000 ungroomed trails from where we are,” said Chartrend. “As it is, we have 250 groomed trails and we can go anywhere in Alberta from our location. We would like to invite all sledders from across Canada to come and ride our pristine trails.”
Chartrand said being that Fort McMurray is the capital of the oilsands, there are cutlines everywhere to be used by sledders.
“This is a great place for winter activities for families,” said Chartrand. "Everyone knows it is safe to bring the kids."
Chartrand has great memories of all of his rides, but one of his favourites was when he was out sledding with his two sons on a beautiful day in February a few years ago.
“We started out on a groomed trail and went on to challenge our machines on an ungroomed trail,” said Chartrand. “I was having a blast with my two sons—and on that one ride we saw moose, caribou, deer, rabbits and foxes. It is an unbelievable experience when you see wildlife like that.”
He said that Fort McMurray is an excellent place for trail riding, and the snow—which usually stays until the beginning of April, helps to make the snowmobiling memorable.
“We were trail riding on that day in two to three feet of powder,” said Chartrand.
Chartrand prefers trail riding to mountain riding because he enjoys navigating around trees, up and down ravines, and over hills and creeks.
“All our trails are well signed,” said Chartrand. “We have shelter units and a firepit, with plenty of wood chopped at all locations.”
Chartrand said they do not recommend the ungroomed trails unless sledders travel with a GPS and have a lot of experience. He said it is easy to get lost with trails that go in every direction in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
“You always have to be careful,” said Chartrand. “You can get yourself in a bit of a pickle.”
He emphasized the importance of safety and must-have equipment to take out on a ride so you can have a great experience. He doesn't leave home without proper clothing, a backpack containing a winter safety kit and, most importantly, a properly maintained machine.
“I ride a Polaris 800 Touring, a Ski-Doo 700 Grand Touring, and my old faithful is a 1998 500 Skandic/trappers machine with 24-inch track,” said Chartrand. “I use this as a rescue machine to get people out of sticky situations.”
Chartrand encourages night riders to slow down and follow the existing rules of the trails.
“This is the place to see the aurora borealis, which is an awesome experience,” he said.
Rolling with it
Speaking of sticky situations, Chartrand remembers his stickiest while out snowmobiling.
“I got stuck in some deep snow and had to roll off my machine, ending with it tilted over me,” said Chartrand. “I had to pack snow all around to get myself out and everyone was just laughing at me rolling around. They wouldn't go where I was.”