We all pass spare time in our own ways. Some of us enjoy watching or playing sports. Some enjoy musical theatre, or playing an instrument. A few, like myself, love to document the world around them with a camera. And a very select few love to drive beaten old cars around a homemade ice track on the frozen Ottawa River.
Carl Gauthier is one of those select few. In fact, he might be considered their ringleader. A professional racer, Carl has competed in the NASCAR truck category. And for the last ten winters, weather permitting, he has raced on his own track of ice that he prepares.
Whenever the ice is thick enough, Carl uses his own equipment to clear away excess snow, and marks the track with orange pylons. He also attempts to block the track entrance with sawhorses when he isn't there. This isn't out of spite, but for safety.
Standing outside of the camper that serves as their base, Carl watches a snowstorm blow in from the Quebec shore. He recalls how, years ago, a group of young locals made their way onto his track in the middle of the night. By morning, five of their vehicles were stranded in thick slush.
While brave, Carl and his associates are not foolish. They only race old cars that were bound for the wreckers, and they keep helmets on while driving. In addition, they properly prepare the track for racing by tearing up the ice with a car sporting hard stud tires.
While we loiter by the camper, the car tears around the track, spitting up little clouds of snow. Soon enough, the track is ready, and a few cars head out to give a demonstration.
The cars are slower than the preparation vehicle, as they only sport snow tires. Nonetheless, they tear about the track with surprising speed, trying their best not to run into each other in the corners.
But, accidents do happen. In one tight curve, a driver tries unsuccessfully to avoid hitting his competition.
A few seconds later, number 8 blows a tire, and smashes up and over the ice embankment. I jump into one of the nearby cars and we race over to check on the accident.
Fortunately the driver, Betty, is unscathed.
Small collisions like this are common. Carl drives over with the truck to tow her away.
Carl, Betty, and the others are special people. They brave blowing snow and bitter cold to practice a hobby few would dream of. Perhaps just as importantly, they are incredibly welcoming and friendly. Within moments of meeting my wife and I, they invited us inside of their tiny camper van where a wood stove fought off the river chill.
Before we left, I asked Carl to pose for one more shot. As we stood in the blowing snow, I felt like I was with the quintessential Canadian, thanks to his weathered face, Yukon hat and reflective sunglasses.
When we parted ways, I couldn't help but feel vaguely satisfied. While I may not race cars around an ice track, it was a special moment to meet those that do.