This past February, longtime snowmobile industry veteran Steve Brand embarked on a truly epic adventure: ride his snowmobile 1,500 miles from his home in Minden, Ontario, to Winnipeg, Manitoba. That was just the would-be appetizer.
Once in Winnipeg, his plan was to race the I-500 cross-country (main course), after which he would ride 1,400 miles BACK to Minden (dessert).
While low snow conditions forced the cancellation of the I-500, it did little to dent Brand’s desire for adventure. So he set out to complete the trip, albeit without the I-500 race.
Twenty-six days and 4,687 miles later, Brand had feasted on the adventure of a lifetime.
CLICK ON THIS to download and read a wonderful .pdf diary of the trip, that weaves together a narrative connecting his decades of passion and friendships. It is SO worth reading BEFORE you read the interview, as it contains the wisdom of a man who has seen much change in the world of snowmobiling. Plus it also a great adventure story that any snowmobiler will enjoy.
I talked with Brand about his journey, his company TekRider (maker of TekVest upper body protection) and what he learned riding an Arctic Cat-built Yamaha Viper for 26 days.
AI: Wow, a 26-day snowmobile adventure! Why did you do it?
Brand: I turned 60 this year, which is a pivotal moment. At 50 I did a military tour, same with 55. At 60 I saw the announcement that USXC was bringing back the I-500 as a point-to-point race, which piqued my interested. My very first race as 23 year old was Winnipeg to St. Paul 1977 on a John Deere Liquidator. I’d followed and watched that race for years.
At Christmas time I entered this year’s race with the goal of not finishing in last-place every day. Then I thought, “How the hell am I going to get there? And how to get into shape?”
I do all kinds of long distance stuff on snowmobiles and motorcycles. So naturally I decided to ride to Winnipeg to get into shape for the race.
Well they cancelled the race for obvious reasons (lack of snow), but I decided to do the trip anyway.
AI: Explain why you called it the Mega Sonic Memory Tour.
Brand: The Mega Sonic was an unrealized model snowmobile from the company Moto-Ski. 2015 is the 30th anniversary of when parent company Bombardier terminated Moto-Ski. I was a Moto-Ski sales rep in Ontario and was passionate about it. I thought we weren’t treated fairly and was disappointed. Moto-Ski was a second-tier company, I have a soft spot for those. In looking for a theme for this year’s ride, this all became apparent and made sense.
Plus I chose to ride the YamaCat, but I didn’t want to call the trip that. Moto-Ski gave me a bridge. I had the sled decaled up, or wrapped as they now call it. It got all kinds of attention on trail, people asking if the company was coming back!
AI: Given the Moto-Ski connection to Ski-Doo, and your own years spent working for Ski-Doo, I’m surprised you chose an Arctic Cat-built Yamaha Viper for this ride. Explain that decision.
Brand: Most people know me for Ski-Doo, which was where I worked for 16 years, but I’ve actually been riding Yamahas for 20 years after leaving Ski-Doo in 1995. I started buying them because of their outstanding reliability.
My boys raced snocross, mostly on Ski-Doo, so we’re still friendly there. My son Jeff works at Arctic Cat, and I love them.
All of these companies are my customers through TekVest, so we’re all partners as such. I should probably get one of each brand.
AI: Would you have preferred to also race the I-500 had it not been cancelled?
Brand: Of course now it was cancelled, I have to say I REALLY miss the opportunity. (Laughter)
During my tour, once I left Roseau to ride to Thief River Falls, I remembered all the high-speed ditch riding that defines this region, I had a few moments of relief that the race had been cancelled. But the technique came back and then it was fun again.
I wasn’t too disappointed other than for USXC and the work they put into it. Maybe it needs to run through the Michigan UP to ensure the conditions would support it? However, I’m really appreciative that Brian Nelson tried to pull that race off, and that he’s gung-ho to try again next year.
I never finished the race in 1977. That year the race ended in TRF on account of extreme weather. I’d made it to the finish line, but missed the time cut on account of blowing a slider/hyfax and two chains. I did redeem myself years later by finishing the Jeep 500 and the Harricana races.
AI: One of the things about your journal that struck me most was your memories and acknowledgments of so many people from your past. Was looking back on your past a reason for the tour, or did it happen organically?
Brand: It happened organically. Once I started to put the trip itinerary together, people started pinging me back to have me visit them during the tour. A couple liquefied nights with old friends elicited a lot of memories.
I’m at that stage in life where when I get together with others, true stories emerge from all memories, via reminiscing. The kind where one person remembers one thing, and someone else chimes in with additional memories. Plus every day was a different adventure, which reminded me of something that happened in the past.
Every night I sat down and wrote some of that stuff, which became the journal.
At some point I think everyone needs a break in life like I took to do this trip, because we all come from a structured environment. Leaving that structure an going without a perfect plan, without known directions for a month…the freedom was life-giving.
AI: The freedom you experienced seems like such a gift.
Brand: For sure, that was a huge element of the trip. The race’s cancellation gave me more freedom to the ride, allowing me to go to Wausau and take a few other turns. I didn’t have any anxiety about achieving anything specific on the ride. I had enough gear to camp out for a night. I didn’t have a critical schedule, so I never bothered myself about exact timelines or destinations.
Having said that, and being in the safety business, I have to address the subject of riding solo. The snowmobile industry has long given the message that we should never ride alone, which is the right message. But the fact is I saw a lot of people doing it, and I did it myself. These solo riders dressed for riding long distance, on current iron, riding in the middle of the week. They generally have a GPS (which I’ve learned is a must-have tool), have the SPOT with SOS button. They’re prepared.
Here are my solo riding rules: Stay on the main trails, there will eventually be a groomer coming in the next 24 hours; Don’t boondock off the trail; Ride a pace that you can maintain with room for error; Ride to make equipment survive; Use good ski carbides; Carry tools that can handle basic changes, plus a tow strap, a steel-handled hatchet (which is the most handy tool), 3-pack of highway flares (forget about matches, get something real) that can light a fire and still signal.
And bring a bunch of cash in case to pay for something that plastic can’t. Generally when you break down you’re the furthest away from civilization, where they don’t take credit card.
AI: You didn’t mention protective gear?
Brand: I think every snowmobiler should wear protective gear every time they ride, but I struggle I struggle with how loud to promote the safety message because I don’t want to turn people off or have them think it’s just a way to promote my business. But I know from all the stories I hear that wearing protection can and does change lives. And it’s for everyone, not just the 35-year-old fast rider. It’s everyone.
AI: You mentioned using a lot of cool, modern technology on this trip, like SPOT tracker, GPS and more. Plus you rode a brand new snowmobile. Do you prefer the experiences of these modern conveniences over the world of snowmobiling 20 or 30 years ago, before they existed?
Brand: We always adapt to the technology that’s available. We used to us a compass on adventure rides. Technology enables us to have a better experience, especially when traveling long distances. But a good old map is still important. GPS isn’t perfect. SPOT gave peace of mind to people who followed me in real-time via their computer more, and for SOS capability.
AI: Of all the areas you rode, where do you most want to return for a ride someday?
Brand: First of all I really appreciated the range of experiences and trails. I would be happy to go back to all of them.
The ones that surprised me most were from Eveleth, Minn., to the Arrowhead Trail and onto the Border Trails. That was probably most fun single day, with varied conditions and geography. I would like to explore more of that area.
Central Wisconsin is nice, but there were a lot of sleds and traffic, made worse because there wasn’t much snow elsewhere.
I’m still astounded how poorly Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin were treated with snow. Mother Nature sure wasted herself on some Southeastern states this winter.
AI: I believe that it’s the mishaps that truly define and give character to adventures. You had a couple mishaps on your journey, are you grateful for them?
Brand: Absolutely! You like to take it right to the edge, survive on your wits and intelligence. Snowmobiles give this sense of adventure, with more challenges to overcome. The only experiences I’ve had that surpass those were the ones I had in the military.
[Editor’s note: Brand was a Lieutenant Colonel Canadian Reserve Infantry Officer who was deployed on active duty to Sierra Leone/West Africa in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2009.]
AI: As you mention in the journal, your son Jeff works as a snowmobile engineer at Arctic Cat. Tell me about that.
Brand: I have two sons, both started on Kitty Cats before moving on to racing. Jeff took automotive engineering at the University but he didn’t want to work in auto industry. He started looking at snowmobiles. He isn’t French Canadian, so that ruled out Ski-Doo. It came down to Polaris and Arctic Cat. Arctic Cat has so much family and snowmobile DNA, more so than other companies. And TRF is a great town to live in. He interviewed and got his job about 18 months ago.
He’s developing product for future snowmobile stuff. He really enjoys what he’s doing. He lives in TRF with his girlfriend Kait Brown, who’s an NVH engineer at Cat.
I was really impressed with his peer group at Cat. During my tour, they held a small reception for us at the Black Cat. It was full of engineers. They talk a modern language that I don’t know, but they’re so passionate and dedicated to machines. They all have sport in their DNA: motorcycles, watercraft, ATVs, you name it.
These are engineers who ride as fast or faster as their customers. Arctic Cat is loaded with these kinds of people. It’s loaded in their DNA.
AI: For sure that’s one thing I love about Arctic Cat too. Tell me about your company TekRider (above), and how this trip might influence your role in the company?
Brand: Next year is our 20th, which is crazy because it seems like [we started it] yesterday. In that time I’ve raised two kids, gone through two stints in the military and gotten a divorce. For a while I let off on the gas for the TekRider, but now I’m back on it. I rediscovered my passion for this sport and the people in it, hence the Sonic tour.
Beginning a couple years ago, I started investing more money into R&D, to get back into the sport in a way that excites me.
We have several new products coming. One is a heated version of the TekVest. We’re also going to bring back our Power Touring Gear, which is high-end gear aimed at high mileage riders. People will see this stuff beginning this season. It’s going to be limited-build stuff we make here at the plant, where we make all TekRider gear. We haven’t gone offshore and we’ll keep this in-house just like our other products.
Our plant is right on the snowmobile trail, which I’m proud of. We’re going to have a program that encourages people to stop and see the plant. You’ll also see a custom program to build gear in a week for individuals, all customer-focused.
AI: I think that’s awesome Steve, and I can’t wait to see what it’s like. What’s in store for next year’s trip?
Brand: My plan is a 10-12 day trip on the eastern side of Canada and the U.S. I’m calling it CanUSA. I was thinking the theme sled would be Scorpion, since that was my first job. I suppose that I should go to Crosby [Minnesota, hometown of Scorpion] then, huh?
AI: If you go to Crosby, I’ll join you for part of the ride! Okay, one last request: Tell me a story about Roger Skime.
Brand: Truthfully, I don’t know Roger that well, although I’ve seen him many times. I know him as being one of the sport’s founding fathers. The fact that he’s still out there doing it gives me inspiration. He’s always so visible. Nobody has been as active as him. He’s right up there with Edgar Hetteen for making the sport what it is.