Dan Girard can still remember the day he became obsessed with snowmobiles. He was six years old, and his neighbours were giving toboggan rides with their 1961 Skidoo. When Girard’s turn was over and he was about to step off, the Ski-Doo roared ahead, tripping him, and he broke his nose on the sled — but the thrill of the ride was enough to keep him interested. “From there, I was hooked,” he says.
To this day, Girard, now 65, can’t get enough of the vehicles whose invention opened travel, recreation, and tourism opportunities in the north. In 2004, he founded the Cochrane Classic Vintage Riders Club, which runs the local snowmobile museum — a 15-by-30-metre space that showcases a key part of local and regional history. “We try to show the evolution of the snowmobiles,” Girard says. Though the second lockdown closed the museum from December to February, it’s set to reopen on February 27.
Located within the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat, the Cochrane Classic Vintage Snowmobile Museum is a veritable shrine to the vehicle. More than 100 snowmobiles are on display, including the original 1960 Ski-Doo and a 2018 Pro Racer owned by local Canadian Snowcross Racing Association champion David Joanis. Wedge-like Thunderjets and Yamaha SSR 440s — capable of reaching speeds of at least 160 kilometres per hour — are the fastest machines on the floor. And then there are novelty machines, such as “Big Al,” a four-engine Alouette snowmobile designed by George Barris, the Hollywood carmaker who created the Adam West-era Batmobile. Appraised at $50,000, it’s the most valuable piece in a collection Girard estimates is worth between $300,000 and $400,000.
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The museum was born of a request close to two decades ago from J.P. Ouellette, Cochrane’s then-chief administrative officer. He asked the Polar Bear Riders Snowmobile Club members, who maintain the region’s 350-kilometre trail network, to host a pop-up display at the Ministry of Natural Resources firehall over the 2002-03 winter.
When spring came around and the firehall was put back into use, the club dismantled the setup. Girard came across Ouellette shortly after. “Hey, you didn't even talk to the guys who are real collectors!” he recalls telling Ouellette. In 2004, he brought together a group of local collectors to form the Cochrane Classic Vintage Riders Club — and they started developing plans for a museum. It didn’t take long to secure city-subsidized space at the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat. And, with lumber donated by the local plywood mill, sawmill, and Home Hardware, the museum was up and running in winter 2005. “It all snowballed from there,” Girard says.
Snowmobiles are a common sight during a northern Ontario winter, and there are extensive trails in the region. But, Girard will tell you, there are no trails quite like Cochrane’s. Most of the province lies on the hilly, rocky, bushy Canadian Shield, whereas Cochrane sits along the James Bay lowlands, a terrain characterized by flat muskeg peatlands whose rivers feed into the Arctic watershed. The land enables “long, flat, and wide trails,” says Girard, adding that snowmobiles can be driven along most of the roads in the town of about 5,000 once the snow sets in.
"When we started, I know Sudbury was trying to get something going, but we beat them to the punch,” says Girard. “The reason we were pushing hard [for a museum] was because of the fact that recreational snowmobiling started here, and it's part of our heritage."
In 2019, the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat had more than 9,000 visits, of which 168 were exclusively to the museum. Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was looking to be a banner year for the vintage-snowmobile display. Some 186 tickets had been sold before the March shutdown. "The 2020 numbers, despite COVID, actually exceeded [2019’s] numbers for those who just bought that ticket," said Jennifer Olaisola, the habitat's then-interim manager, this past October.
Though snowmobiles existed before Bombardier popularized them in the ’60s, they were heavy-duty and designed for professionals. “Those machines were basically used for power-line checking, mining, trapping, or doctors that needed to go somewhere to get to patients,” says Girard, noting that there are examples from as early as the 1920s. “These other ones were big and heavy and long.” The introduction of Bombardier’s nimble Ski-Doo in 1960 would change the town’s economy — and how the whole region travelled.
The expansive bogs of the northeast’s lowlands make snowmobiles a necessity in the Cochrane area, where even ATVs can’t get travellers far into the bush. Snowmobiles opened winter-travel options, making many camps and hunting lodges accessible year-round — and creating a new winter economy for the region almost overnight. “You just have to visit Cochrane between the months of January, or the beginning of the Boxing Week, and right through till probably March, and you’ll see its significant impact,” says Cochrane mayor Denis Clement. “We are very proud of the snowmobile industry and all of what the clubs have done.”
Belisle Track Sale, the first snowmobile dealership in the province, opened in Cochrane in 1959, and it didn’t take long for the Ski-Doo to make waves in northern communities. In its first year, the dealership sold 16 sleds; the next year — when the Ski-Doo was released — it sold over 90.
In addition to operating the museum, the Cochrane Classic Vintage Riders Club organizes treks through the northern trails on old-school machines. “The community and volunteers have put in many, many hours to build our network of trails,” says Clement. It also runs more formal events, such as the annual Polar Bear Cup — which for the past two years has taken place on an oval racetrack on Lake Commando — and the Tom Saul Memorial Ride, which was approaching its 12th year. “Tom was one of the founding members along with myself and four other guys,” says Girard. “Tom lost his life after a 13-year battle with cancer shortly after our first ride, and he attended that ride because he wanted to be with us so bad. A couple of months later, Tom was gone.” To date, the club has raised more than $65,000 for the Cochrane hospital’s chemotherapy unit; it raised $20,000 last year alone from the 110 riders who participated.
Because of the pandemic, the club won’t be hosting its events this year, regardless of the lockdown. But the donations are still coming in. “We are still encouraging people to donate so we can still make a donation to this worthy cause,” says Girard. While the club has hosted high-level professional events, its roots are as a community organization built through the support of local businesses and maintained by residents with a passion for snowmobiling. “We're just a bunch of volunteers here,” Girard says.
Late last year, the museum faced an uncertain future. The Canadian Polar Bear Habitat’s board of directors was seeking to expand its facility and to negotiate a split in ownership from the town; part of the proposal involved using the museum space for a research facility. But council supported the museum. “The snowmobile museum has been a part of the heritage of Cochrane,” said Councillor Rodney Hoogenhoud at an October meeting. Hoogenhoud noted that the donations raised by the club were “over and above” that of any other community organization: “The CCVR is an asset to the town.”
Negotiations have since been called off — and now the habitat’s future is uncertain. Girard says, though, that council has told him that the snowmobile museum is there to stay.
Over the course of nearly 60 years, Girard has had many interesting experiences on the trail. And that’s why he likes it — it’s an activity, he says, that gives you a chance to travel deep into the wilderness and experience a part of the province not many ever see. “It’s about the stuff you see along the trail: I've seen lynx. I've seen moose. I've seen tons of partridge, fox,” he says. “It's a different type of adventure.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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