Rebuilding vintage snowmobiles a growing community thanks to one eastern Ontario hobbyist
DELTA, ONT. -- Snowmobiling is a sport many Canadians enjoy this time of year, with vintage sled restoration becoming a popular pastime.
And it's not just about finding that rare part from decades ago, it's about building friendships and discussing history along the way.
Off a rural road in Delta, Ont., northwest of Brockville, you'll find Gaeten Mayer, or 'Gates' as he likes to be called, deep in his vintage snowmobile parts shop, Retrosledz.
"Our focus is early '70s to early '80s snowmobiles, in what is considered the heyday of snowmobiling," Mayer said.
"In 1964 there were 12 snowmobile manufacturers, by the middle of the seventies, there was 250-ish snowmobile manufacturers," he said. "It exploded, so there's parts everywhere, hidden under every corner throughout the world, but you've got to find them."
Recently retired, he got into the hobby 18 years ago and now has one of the largest supplies of vintage parts in eastern Ontario.
Relocating from the Cornwall area to Delta, he sees snowmobile enthusiasts come from all around the region.
"They'll come from Montreal area, Kingston, Oshawa, in fact," rhymed off Mayer. "Gosh, the whole Rideau Lakes area, Brockville for sure, pretty well from any neck of the woods. If they can drive here, they usually do."
All looking to score that missing piece, or even a whole vintage sled, like Alex Hough from Northfield, near Cornwall, who just purchased a 1969 Olympic 299 from Mayer.
"Parts are hard to find, so sometimes it's just easier to buy something like this," Hough said. "The motor probably won't get completely used but parts off of it will get used."
Nathan Collins from Ingleside also made the trip Saturday morning, looking for set of cogs for his 1970 Olympic.
Mayer knew exactly what he was looking for and had a pair in stock.
"I'd probably have to go on eBay or something like that and probably have to wait for two months to get anything in," Collins said, thankful he found some. "Now I'll have it up and running by the end of the day."
Mayer says the community is growing, with a younger generation now exploring the hobby.
"You can still get into the hobby at a reasonable low price range so the connection is there, the history is there and the young folks are looking for a way to connect to their ancestors," he said.
"They are connecting with their grandparents, their uncles, their dads with the snowmobiles they used to drive and they love to work on them and it's a bit of a pride thing," Mayer added.
"There is a whole history part of snowmobiling. It's Canadian; it's maple syrup, it's ice fishing it's snowmobiles. It's all part of that," he added.
His shop, a busy spot most Saturday mornings, is not just a place to dig for parts, it's also a place to meet new people, and strike up conversation about the hobby.
"It's just a great place to come hang out for a bit and shop around. He's got stuff you usually can't find anywhere else," said Jordan Zoppas from Long Sault.
"I just enjoy going for a ride and making something so old take me places you just wouldn't think it would take you," Zoppas added. "The simplicity of them, they just don't make them like they used to."
"There is a bunch of us that have old sleds and we all kind of get together. It's just enjoyable," chimed in Hough.
"It's almost like just a big family," said Collins. "You usually know everyone, like, I just came here and I end up running into four friends from home!"
Even the coldest morning of the winter couldn't stop these vintage sledders from finding what they need, digging through milk crates and staring up and down shelves filled to top in Mayer's unheated shop.
"When somebody comes across a part they've been looking for for a long time, and they have that little eureka moment, going, 'Oh, I finally found it!' that's very gratifying for me," Mayer said.
Around 50 vintage snowmobiles surround the shop, some complete, and some far from it.
Customers stop for a few minutes around a bonfire Mayer has made in the yard, get warmed up, and are ready to start digging through parts again.
"The favourite part of this hobby is what you see right here. It's talking to people, meeting new people," Mayer added. "The common interest is it's very easy to strike up a conversation because everybody is here for the same reason - they just want to get their sleds running."
The satisfaction of keeping history alive, by keeping those old sleds running on the trails.
"History is a big part of everybody's life," Mayer said. "This is a small part of history, anything we can do to keep it.
"I don't believe in living in the past, but re-living it once in a while is a great idea," he said with a smile.
Mayer says anyone looking for vintage snowmobile parts can reach out through his Facebook page.