To be a spectator at the annual Winter Speed Festival in western Canada is slightly unnerving. To watch a souped-up Chevette with a monster engine tearing around an icy lake and coming toward you compels you to step back a little in case the kamikaze motor should slip and slide your way. There is no curb to keep the lunatic driver on course and there is no viewing stand for spectators to take refuge in. What you get is quite simple—a frozen lake at the edge of a forest with over 300 motorheads with their toys ripping around the icy surface. It seems anything that burns gasoline is fair game—cars, motorbikes, quads, and snowmobiles. They roar around a frozen lake called Lac La Biche 125km (140 miles) north of Edmonton city in the oil and mountain state of Alberta.
It is a marvel how they stay on track and the tournament has its fair share of crashes and rollovers. Most of the vehicles are fitted out with special studded tires that dig into the thick ice of this oval shaped circuit, and drivers are obliged to wear full protective gear such as padded jumpsuits and chest protectors.
The snowmobile drag race is a sight to behold. A line of bullet shaped motor sleds roar to life on the desolate causeway, revved to the maximum yet still stationary. The noise is deafening as both driver and helper keep the machines at full throttle before letting go. They tear off into the distance at a remarkable speed and the ear splitting sound disappears as these super sleds cover 198m (660 ft.) in 4 seconds, actually breaking the sound barrier.
The motorbike racing is no less exciting and inspires envy in the fearlessness of these maniacal riders. Their loud dirt bikes coast through slush and snow as they take the sharp corners at speeds that defy belief. The riders lean heavily to the side with their knees scraping the surface and the bike ripping up ground as they lap the lake without flying over the side. Occasionally the back wheel slips and there’s a premonition of man and machine cartwheeling into a snowdrift. But he snaps the accelerator and the wheel takes grip and propels forward.
The Winter Speed Festival is gloriously noncommercial without a hotdog stand or sponsor’s sign in sight. How long it stays this way remains to be seen, as this event is gaining more fame with some 1,200 people attending in 2009.
The small oil and logging community of La Biche is surrounded by an area that is an outdoor haven for those who love fresh air. There are 150 lakes to explore and people come here to hike, fish, sled, and swim. Alberta itself is a landlocked state the size of Texas with the Rocky Mountains skirting its eastern borders. It is a huge oil producer, which is just as well as it seems a fair share of that gas is consumed by a bunch of thrill-seekers on a solid lake once a year. —CO’M
When to go: Feb/Mar.
Edmonton (219km/136 miles).
$$$ Hampton Inn & Suites Edmonton/West, 18304 100 Ave., Edmonton, Alberta T5S 1A2, Canada ( 1/780/484-7280; www.hamptoninn.hilton.com). $$$ Hilton Garden Inn West Edmonton, 17610 Stony Plain Rd., Edmonton, Alberta T5S 1A2, Canada ( 1/780/443-2233; www.hiltongardeninn.hilton.com).