Snow and studs: The highs and lows of winter riding

CMG: Your 2007 trip across Canada on two wheels and your later trips through Labrador with a sidecar rig are probably your best-known winter riding adventures. Which one of these was the most difficult?

Paul Mondor: Definitely, my Labrador one. The cold. The unforgiving conditions — absolutely mind-numbing. The 2007 ride was very hard, don’t get me wrong. Not many people have done that, and it was 20 days, but at the end of the day you’re on public roads, and there’s cars that went by every 30 seconds or a minute except at nighttime — but most of the time, there were people around.

But Labrador was literally by myself. I mean, at one point for four hours, I didn’t see a car or a single soul on my way there.

CMG: How did you get hooked on winter riding in the first place?

PM: It was for the challenge. I don’t like easy things. That’s how I look at that — everybody does easy, but I like hard stuff, so I decided to challenge myself and do it.

Hanging out at the Arctic Circle. Photo: Paul Mondor

CMG: What’s your favourite part of the country in the winter?

PM: Labrador in winter. It’s actually impossible to describe. The vastness, the isolation, the stars at night. The night skies, the Aurora Borealis, the caribou herd that migrates from James Bay to northeast Labrador, 100,000 animals that travel. It’s a combination of factors that really takes your breath away. It’s 10 years later and I’m still crying when I talk about it. It’s so raw; you’re pretty much on your own, and it’s just breathtaking.

CMG: Is winter motorcycling something most Canadian riders could do if they put their mind to it, or is it something they should stay away from and leave to the better-prepared people?

PM: it’s not for everybody. You’ve got to have, first of all, the ability to withstand cold. That’s one thing. The riding skills you know under normal summer conditions don’t apply in winter because you don’t ride on icy conditions the same way you ride on asphalt. In all honesty, from the moment you start riding in the morning, through the day, till the time you stop at night, it’s downright terrifying. Because you’re never really in full control if you’re on two wheels. 

Miles and miles of snow ahead. Photo: Paul Mondor

CMG: What’s the worst jam you’ve been in?

PM: When I left Goose Bay in 2008 and I realized my breathing recycler wasn’t working on my helmet.  I was about 100 km south of Goose Bay, and I was starting to suffer from windburn and exposure, so my inside organs were starting to freeze. I was breathing minus-60 C air at 60, 70, 80 km/h, and it was too far to go back and it was too far to go ahead and I started shutting down.

There was nothing I could do. I had my 911 extractor, but by the time you push on it and a SAR tech gets there, you die of hypothermia. I just got off my bike, and I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I crawled off my bike down into the snowbank ready to die. I couldn’t function anymore. My lungs were frozen, I could actually hear them through my ears. They sounded like crinkling plastic.  

I said, at least if it’s going to end, end it while riding, not laying down in a snowbank like this. And I did that five times between Churchill Falls and the point where I was able to fix my helmet. But I was near death five times, and by far this was the worst situation on all my winter trips. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I had to crawl off my bike and crawl back on my arms — I couldn’t function anymore.

CMG: What’s the best thing that’s happened to you on your winter riding adventures?

PM: All the people you meet along the way. Every time you stop, you make new friends, you make new connections, you share new experiences. It doesn’t happen in summer. But in winter, you stop in Saskatchewan in minus-30, blowing snow, into a Mom-and-Pop cafe in the middle of a little farm town, and it’s prairies, and you gather attention. There’s a dynamic there between you and people around that’s priceless. People talk to you, ask you if your mom knew you were born like this, which asylum you got loose from — I have so much fun being invited to their homes, they pay for your breakfast. You lose a lot of time at stops, but at the end of the journey, the thing you remember is the people you met along the way.

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