Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay
The two men, father and son, all business an hour ago, now clown around as they put on matching yellow vintage snowmobile helmets and pose for a photo holding a Bombardier sign.
“I stayed up all night to see the sun. Then it dawned on me...” jokes the elder, Conrad Switzer, as we walk toward the shed. His son Jarrett and I both groan and chuckle. The weather's been mild for mid-November, though today it's drizzled off and on all afternoon. There's no snow yet, but we can smell it on the wind, not far off.
We've just come back out from Switzer's kitchen where we warmed up over a cup of coffee after spending an hour or more out by the shed, touring Switzer's vintage snowmobile collection. His kitchen is the type I always feel immediately comfortable in, with a Farley Mowat novel on the table, and a friendly albeit skittish dog at my feet. Clover is a Springer Spaniel who resembles Switzer's previous dog before her. She's young, just two, and still likes to mouth people's hands affectionately when excited. Switzer says he'll take her out ice fishing this winter, and teach her to ride alongside him on one of his snow machines.
“Which one?” I ask. He's got more than 50 - though there are only about a dozen he rides regularly. These ones are kept here in a shed by the house where they're easily accessible. The remainder are over at the farm and are kept for parts, or for tinkering on.
“Oh, I don't know. Maybe the Bombardier with the sled. It's good for ice fishing.”
I've never seen a two-piece snowmobile before today. Bright yellow with red branding, the front section of the Bombardier holds the motor, the gas tank and all the controls. There's no electric start on these. You have to use the pull cord, like a lawnmower. The back part, which is completely separate and can be easily detached, consists of a padded seat on skis. What makes it especially handy for ice fishing is the storage compartment under the flip-up seat. It's perfect for transporting fishing lines and gear. Switzer has a few of these old models, including a 1965 Diablo Rouge.
“I could sell the '65 Diablo to a collector for $10,000 tomorrow if I wanted to,” boasts Switzer. But he doesn't want to. This isn't a money-making endeavour for him. It's a life-long hobby. He's been working on snowmobiles for more than 50 years. Largely self taught, he refers to books when he gets stumped. There was no internet when he started this habit, after all. It was a process of trial and error, reading, and chatting with other machinists. It all started with his father.
“He bought this '66 Bombardier brand new.”
“And it still runs?” I ask.
“Yeah. Jarrett rides that one a lot,” Switzer answers.
The junior Switzer, like his father, has grown up around the vintage machines. He joins his father each winter, the two of them riding out into the middle of the lake to fish. He's young, and quiet, with an easy smile. I've seen him around town lots of times. Usually making a supply run at the local hardware store, or selling produce at the Bancroft farmer's market.
Everyone around Bancroft knows Switzer's Farm. It's synonymous with the Bancroft Farmer's Market. The Switzer men are there at the market every summer, bagging up tomatoes and brussels sprouts, cucumbers and pumpkins for tourists and locals alike. If you make the short but scenic drive to their farm you can pick your own berries - an especially fun day trip for kids - but if that's not your style you can just buy a basket at the market. The Switzers also raise cattle and chickens, sell eggs, run a successful Christmas tree farm and sell fire wood.
“I cut about 350 cords of wood every year, and I sell a couple hundred of them.” says Switzer.
“Jeepers,” I say, “Is there anything you don't do?”
“I try to sleep when I can,” laughs the patriarch.
He shows me around the shed, where his favourite sleds are. He points out two more Bombardiers, almost identical to each other; same model, but different year. He has replaced the windshields of both, using various skills picked up over a lifetime of fixing things to fashion new windshields out of plexiglass. I study them closely. You'd never know they're not original. The work is flawless.
I ask the farmer if he ever does repair work for other people.
“No, It's just a hobby,” he says, squinting at the overcast sky. “I get people calling me to sell them but I don't do that. Sometimes people ask me to fix them. But if I started doing that I'd have people on my doorstep everyday. I wouldn't have time for anything else.”
With a certain playfulness he tells me he needs to keep some time aside to spend with his wife. And maybe the dog. I ask if his wife minds the large collection of ski-doos that dominate the shed and yard.
“Oh she minds some,” he chuckles. “But that's my stuff,” he continues, turning serious.
About once a year Switzer gets a tip on a new sled for his collection. Usually it's a machine that's been sitting neglected in an old barn for a couple of decades. They generally need quite a bit of work to get them running again: the motor needs fixing, a belt needs replacing. Switzer doesn't mind. Going to check out a new vintage sled is like hunting for buried treasure. There's a mystery to it. An excitement. What will he uncover this time? Unfortunately though, these vintage sleds are becoming less common every year.
“I was talking to one old guy, and he said he had to get rid of some snowmobiles, because he was ill or something. He had two or three,” recounts Switzer. “He asked me how many I had. I told him, and he said, you must have some sort of disease.” He shakes his head and we both laugh. “It's either a disease or an addiction he says.” Whatever it is, it makes him happy, especially when he gets to share his hobby.
Sometimes Switzer will ride one of his snowmobiles into town. He says he gets a lot of attention. People come right up and want to check out his ride. He's been asked many times to display parts of his collection at various winter events, from Bancroft's Think Snow, to Coe Hill's family day weekend event. He always agrees. Last year at Coe Hill he let some children ride on the back, to their delight.
“I get asked sometimes why I don't have a newer sled,” admits Switzer. “I tell people the truth: I'd rather stick with the old ones. These run perfect. They'll go anywhere. They putt right along. They'll do 25 miles an hour.”
I confess that I've never ridden a snowmobile, and ask how fast a modern sled goes.
“Too fast,” Switzer replies. “Seventy to 80 miles an hour.”
Speeds like that can be dangerous, he explains. He says there's no need to go that fast. Twenty-five miles an hour is plenty fast enough.
“I'll take you out ice fishing this winter. You can bring the husband and kids.”
There's no way I'm going to turn down an offer like that. As if I need convincing, he opens up his truck and pulls out some photographs. They're of the fish he caught last winter. He shuffles through the photos, giving details I don't really understand about the fish in each one. I nod my head, listening, and wonder how many fellas drive around with photos of fish in their trucks. Probably more than you'd guess, in these parts.
And then I realize it's not just the sleds that are old fashioned, but the sport itself. And the whole lifestyle around it. Riding a vintage snowmobile isn't about flash and speed. It's about traditions that are as Canadian as they come. Getting out amongst the trees. Spending time with family. Chatting and drinking cocoa in the fishing hut, in the middle of the lake where the only sounds are the yarns being spun, the shuffle of wildlife, and the whisper of wind. It's about catching dinner, and bringing it home, with cheeks raw from the cold. A day spent living; engaged in something real, and old, and eternal.
Suddenly, Switzer announces he has to leave. He's got to see someone about a furnace. Snow's going to be here any day after all. But I'm welcome to come back for coffee anytime; and we can make plans to take the sleds out for some ice fishing. It's a sincere invitation. And I'll take it. Hopefully I'll get to wear the yellow helmet.