Ever since I read THIS HAUNTING STORY of 14-year-old Burton Winters’ death, I’ve been thinking about my own childhood snowmobile adventures and when I’ll let my own children ride without an adult present.
Burton Winters was the Labrador teen who earlier this year died from hypothermia after walking 19 kilometers following the breakdown of his snowmobile. It’s a horrible situation. As a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the horror of this. Nor can I fathom the fear that Burton surely felt. It’s staggering.
There are two things I keep thinking about: Burton was riding alone. He was 14 years old.
My life as a snowmobiler began when I was around 4-5 years old, as a passenger. I don’t know for sure, and neither does my mom, but I’m reasonably certain I started riding my uncle’s old Ski-Doo Olympics by myself at around age 8. On those rides there were always other people on other sleds.
It wasn’t until I was around 10 that my brother, cousin, friends and I would ride by ourselves without adult supervision. Such rides were usually around the lake that they were ice-fishing on. I think I was 11 when I and my same-age cousin first rode a few miles along a road ditch to get to a restaurant/bar, in order to buy hot chocolate. I still vividly remember that ride and the combination of excitement and fear that infused the hour-long adventure. I was just as happy to arrive safely back home as I was to have ridden to the bar in the first place.
I think I was in my 20s before I experience a truly long snowmobile ride by myself, in areas where I might have been in a pickle had something gone wrong. I haven’t put myself into that situation often, probably only a handful of times, because 99.9% of the time I’m riding with someone else.
Nevertheless, a big part of what I love about snowmobiling is the sense of adventure, which is why so much of my riding occurs in some of the more remote parts of Minnesota. I actually like it when a snowmobile suffers a problem that requires trailside repair or MacGyver fix. Similarly, getting lost and the subsequent process that gets our group back to “safety” are kind of thrilling and wonderful.
I might feel differently about that if I ever had to spend the night outside without shelter.
For sure it would be terrifying if I were alone and dozens of miles from any sort of safety or human intervention.
Somewhere in-between safety and terror lies the thrill of adventure and self-sufficiency. And I think we build up our tool kits to handle these situations by starting young, with short stints away from the adults, where small problems may arise that require some thought, ingenuity and/or strength.
We add to our tool kit via experiences like camping, building fires, working with mechanical things, looking at maps, navigating trails, reading, getting lost in benign situations, dealing with stress/pressure and about a hundred other life experiences.
In most ways, I think modern life offers a much larger and closer safety net than the decades and centuries that preceded it. Our vehicles usually work flawlessly. There are cell phones, GPS, cabins/houses in remote areas, search-and-rescue operations and the like. Contrast that with what the explorers of the new world faced, or what those who came across the continent for the California Gold Rush surely must have experienced.
Yet in another sense I think that all of our modern conveniences and safety nets and mostly-perfect-running-vehicles have prevented people from truly having to figure out solutions to problems. And when a real big problem actually occurs, they don’t have the tools they need to solve it.
All of which brings me back to what I keep thinking about my own kids and how Burton Winters’ tragic death should shape my own decisions about allowing them to snowmobile without adults.
From a legal standpoint, kids have to be 12 or older and have a snowmobile safety certificate in order to ride public lands without adult supervision. Based on my experiences with my own son and his riding, that seems reasonable. I think some kids are ready sooner and some later. But as a state, you have to draw the line in the snow somewhere.
What seems more important to me than age, however, is having some fundamental skills and abilities. Like being able to effectively start a snowmobile with the pull rope; understanding the spatial relationship of where you are on a map and on the ground; knowing how to change a blown belt; knowing roughly how the amount of fuel in the tank corresponds to range; and of course being able to confidently handle a snowmobile. On top of all of this is having a general calm-and-collected figure-it-out approach to life.
I want and need to put more effort into helping my kids learn self-sufficiency. For me, raising kids effectively means NOT building a bigger and stronger safety net, but rather helping teach them skills and independence, then giving them the freedom to test these skills. Still, I need to get better at letting (and sometimes forcing) them to build their tool kits.
I guess I’m going to use the tragedy of Burton’s death to help equip my kids with as many tools as possible.
Godspeed to you Burton. And peace to your family.
Thanks for reading.