I'm in the fortunate position to have the job all my friends envy. As an action sports photographer, I spend a good chunk of the winter months riding and photographing snowmobiles for Ontario Tourism. We travel to some of the most scenic locations found anywhere in the province (and arguably the country). After two forgetful seasons, the winter of 2014 struck with a vengeance giving us some of the best snow conditions seen in years. This meant a busy season for me with several projects on the go, all of which were aimed at drawing new snowmobilers to the region.
Despite what you might think, I don't actually spend much time riding on these photo shoots. Sure I use the machine, but its for transportation purposes more than pleasure, shuffling me and my gear from location to location.. On a typical job we'd be lucky to rack up 30 kilometers in a day meaning I rarely get to experience the thrill of a 'real' ride. Luckily for me this trip would change all that thanks to a unique contest held by Northeastern Ontario.
Playing off the popularity of social media, contestants were asked to submit interesting geo-tagged photographs using the hash tag #RideNeOntario. The lucky winners would receive an all-inclusive trip complete with guides and a photographer (yours truly) along the famous 303-kilometer Abitibi Canyon Loop. After hundreds of entries were received, the eventual winners were Candi and Adam of Toronto. Last March they journeyed to Cochrane to take on the tour but due to mechanical issues with their sled, the trip was cut short. However that didn't stop Adam from popping the big question trailside. A photo showing her ringed digit with Adam in the background ultimately won them the contest.
My excitement boiled at the prospect of finally getting to put in some serious miles in on a sled. Sure I'd be shooting but the purpose of this trip was to show our contest winners a good time and I was just there to document the riding, no second takes and minimal stopping.
Things simmered a bit when I realized Cochrane was a solid 8-hour drive from my home base in Toronto. I'd never travelled that far north for a tourism shoot and couldn't understand the rational in spending a day in the car, when perfectly good trails exist much closer to home. I can tell you with complete confidence, the second we got out on the trails all my reservations disappeared. The crisp cold air produced some of the bluest skies I'd ever seen and a light dusting of snow created a picture perfect scene (from both a rider and photographers perspective).
The first leg of our journey took us north from Smooth Rock Falls along trail A103-Abitibi Canyon Loop Tour. It was well marked and easy to follow. This section would be best described as a 400 series highway with fresh powder. Wide, fast and exhilarating would be 3 appropriate adjectives that come to mind on the powerline-filled hydro corridor. Just as my thumb grew tired, the trail darted into the woods with a mix of sweeping corners and tight switchbacks.
One thing that really differentiated these from others further south was the vegetation. Dense boreal black spruce lined both sides of the trail giving both my eye (and my photography) a completely new visual experience; this was something I hadn't seen anywhere else in Ontario. It turns out this would become the general theme of this entire trip, as I repeated the words over and over in my head; "I can't believe we're in Ontario right now?!".
Another stand out of the region, was the massive hydro generating station built along the Abitibi River. Dating back to the 1930's this fully functioning marvel of old world engineering is a must see. I got some killer photos of our contest winners blasting a corner with the dam as a backdrop. Once we finished playing around, we actually got to ride across the dam to continue our journey (and yes riding across the dam is part of the trail).
One of the biggest surprises to me of this whole adventure was the riding ability of out our contest winners. Although I was told they were both avid snowmobilers, being from the big city, I didn't know if they'd be up to the task of riding that many kilometers in a day. Much to my surprise they had no problems and in many cases I was the one having a hard time keeping up with them. Adam even did some off-trail 'boondocking' and looked like a complete natural.
With my memory cards full and the running lights on our sleds now illuminating the trails, we knew it was time to head back to the hotel. When all was said and done, not only did we ride the entire Abitibi Canyon Loop Tour in a day, but I collected some of my best snowmobile photographs to date. Sure Mother Nature helped out with the sunshine but the sheer beauty of this region was undeniable. As luck would have it, Candi and Adam were my ride back to Toronto with and I can attest first hand they had a blast on this trip. We had an 8 hour drive home to swap stories and the general consensus was; It's worth the drive to Cochrane!
For more info on the Abitibi Canyon Loop, click here.