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Changing climate making snowmobiling riskier, OPP say

Ontario Provincial Police say 13 snowmobilers have died so far this season – which runs from November to April – with many falling through ice
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Snowmobilers take to the trails near Kinmount, Ontario on Saturday January 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill

Police in Ontario are warning that climate change is shortening the snowmobiling season and making a growing number of trails dangerous for riders across the province. 

Ontario Provincial Police say 13 snowmobilers have died so far this season – which runs from November to April – with many falling through ice. A total of 13 people died last snowmobiling season but police note that this season isn't over yet. 

Paul Beaton, OPP's motorized snow vehicle co-ordinator, said milder winters have shortened the snowmobiling season and that's concerning. 

"Maybe that does represent an increase because we're having the same number of deaths over a shorter period of time," Beaton said in a phone interview.

"We do have a very narrow season and we're seeing it reduce year after year."

The number of trails in Ontario not safe for snowmobiling has increased as the season shortens, he said

"This may tie into global warming," Beaton said.

Milder winters have altered snowmobiling routes that might once have been considered safe, he said.

"We're not getting the good snowpack and the consistent cold weather riders need to have solid trails, frozen waterways. The next thing you know, all that ice that may have been safe to travel on changes drastically," he said.

"It's not able to support the weight of you or your snowmobile so people have gone through the water and have perished."

Some riders have been venturing out to remote areas that don't have designated trails as they search for thicker snow and ice, Beaton said, making the sport more dangerous.

Provincial police said 46 per cent of this season's fatal snowmobiling cases occurred in Ontario's northeast and almost all of those who died were men between the ages of 25 and 34 because they may be more likely to take on the hobby.

"People being aware of how the weather can impact riding safely is incredibly important," Beaton said.

Pierre Challier, the owner of a Quebec company that takes people on snowmobiling expeditions in several regions, said his operation has had to transform the way it works as weather patterns change. 

"Sometimes it's difficult to organize an expedition because, in some regions, we don't have ice or there is less snow," said Challier, who owns Nord Expé Inc.

Trail guides with Nord Expé prepare well in advance for expeditions, he said, recommending that all snowmobilers do the same.

"We need to have knowledge of all the weather during the winter such as when the ice is built, is it built with or without wind, snow falls, rain falls," he said. "If there is any doubt, guides make holes everywhere ... to see if there is cracks, slush, the thickness of the ice."

Beaton, of the OPP, said snowmobiling can still offer an exhilarating sense of freedom but it needs to be done with more caution.

"We hope that they have fun," he said. "We hope that they're able to come back and tell stories  about the happy times and not share stories of loss and grief."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press