Times have really changed for organized snowmobiling in the Thunder Bay area, and not for the good.
Twenty years ago, the trails were buzzing with thousands of sleds but, these days, snowmobile clubs are facing big challenges.
"We were the largest club in the world with over 3,500 passes," said Adrian Tessier, lead groomer for Thunder Bay Adventure Trails.
Tessier has seen the highs — and lows — during his time with the club.
He recalls a sharp drop in permit sales followed the collapse of the forest industry.
Just before Christmas this year, only 55 Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs passes had been sold, Tessier said, amounting to about half of last year’s sales.
"The OFSC says we have to sell 50 passes a year to maintain a club in good status," he said.
"Of course, for us, the more we sell the better."
Won't come back 'any time soon'
The news is even worse for some clubs east of the city.
The president of the now-defunct North of Superior Snowmobile Association said most clubs in that area have folded — and those that remain have little to be happy about.
"There is no trail system left between Hearst and west of Thunder Bay at this time," Dorene Boulanger said.
"And with the lack of snow in the north, I don't see this coming back any time soon."
In Thunder Bay, Tessier said a core group of volunteers still works hard to keep trails open.
"We are out there to promote tourism and recreation and snowmobiling," he said.
"Our aim is to groom our trails every week. If you want to travel on a smooth trail you can go from the Manitoba border to Kakabeka Falls. The world to the west is open from here."
Hoping to 'last'
He said he’d like his club to follow the lead of another northwestern Ontario community.
Kenora sells 400-plus passes a year, according to Tessier, reaching about 500 last year.
"So it would really be nice for a population the size of Thunder Bay to get to the same level as Kenora."
But the recent trend to warmer winters in the Northwest is an ongoing worry, he said.
"The economy in Thunder Bay is going to come, with the Ring of Fire and other mineral stuff going on. Our hope is we can last 'til then."