MONTREAL -- Thoughts travel quickly through Carol-Ann Maheux's mind every time she has a close call on a snowmobile.

"What could have happened? We're far in the forest. Hospitals are far, an ambulance would take a long time. How are they even going to get here?" she says.

Maheux lives near St-Georges-de-Beauce, 350 kilometres east of Montreal, and was raised on snowmobiles in the winter and ATVs in the summer. She bought her first sled two years ago and goes on 300-kilometre journeys every weekend with her husband and two friends. Maheux says because they travel far into the forests of Beauce, safety is always the top priority.

"I drive for other people... I'm a safe driver," she says.

But it's not that way for all snowmobile drivers.

"Others drive really fast and don't keep on the right side. We've had to drive off the trail," to avoid other snowmobiles, Maheux says.

That's why the Surete du Quebec (SQ) is again reminding snowmobilers to drive safely. Valentine's day weekend was a tragic one this year as snowmobile accidents left at least two dead, one presumed drowned and several injured. 

There have been 11 snowmobile related deaths in the province this year.

The SQ is reminding snowmobilers to:

  • Be extra-vigilant when driving over water and to stay on trails where the ice is checked for thickness
  • Drive for conditions and stay within the speed limits
  • Be aware at road crossings
  • Stay on the right side of the trail to avoid collisions
  • Respect signage
  • Wear a helmet with eye protection

The SQ also wants to remind snowmobile drivers they are under the same laws as road drivers concerning drugs and alcohol and that driving under the influence is a criminal infraction.

The Societe d'Assurance d'Automobilistes Quebec (SAAQ) says coroner's office statistics show the proportion of snowmobile fatalities involving high levels of alcohol concentration is much greater than that of the drivers of other vehicles. Statistics also show many deaths occur when snowmobiles have been used to go from one alcohol-serving location to another location, again serving alcohol.

The Federation de Club de Motoneigistes du Quebec (FCMQ) says snowmobile safety is about making the right decisions, including abstaining from alcohol. FCMQ director of marketing Michel Garneau adds drivers must respect all of their limits, especially those concerning speed.

"Some overdrive and treat trails like race tracks- they're not. Trails are designed for two-way traffic," he says.

Garneau says snowmobiling is a great winter activity perfectly suited for pandemic times. He says the FCMQ matched last year's record-setting membership numbers, but with borders being closed and travel limited within Canada this year it means more Quebeckers than ever are out on the trails.

Garneau says it's up to each individual snowmobile driver to minimize danger. He says snowmobilers must respect conditions and drive accordingly. With 33,000 kilometres of snowmobile trails in the province, drivers are sure to encounter an array of conditions, as well as a few surprises.

"It has risks. It's an off-road activity. You have to be conscious of the danger and adjust to the conditions."

Garneau says the beauty of snowmobiling makes any risks associated with the activity worthwhile. He says its what's kept him on sleds for more than four decades, watching "the sun glisten off the snow on the trees" and "leaning into turns" as he guns the motor.

"It's a more intimate relationship with your surroundings... you feel the air, the freedom. It's an escape. It takes you away from deadlines, from dealing with the mortage," he says.

While snowmobiling can indeed take you away, Maheux is always careful to remain present.

For her, safety starts before she even jumps on her sled to begin every new journey. She and her group of snowmobilers are always sure to pack first-aid kits, extra food and water and spare engine parts such as belts and spark plugs in case of emergencies. Maheux says her greatest worries are always when she is driving over frozen water, but adds that her snowmobile suit also serves as a floatation device. 

Although Maheux has a close encounter with another snowmobile "almost every time" she's out on the trails, she's not selling her sled any time soon. She admits the rush is part of what makes snowmobiling exciting for her.

"It's my passion. I love the adrenaline- but there is a time and place for that," she says.