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An employee test drives the Taiga EKKO electric snowmobile outside their offices in Montreal, on Feb. 17, 2021.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

If you are like a lot of Canadians, you enjoy spending time in the great outdoors. But if you prefer the sounds and scents of nature to the din and fumes of motorized vehicles, your options have been limited to human-powered ways of getting around.

No longer. Lovers of the quiet wild can now propel themselves far from the crowds on electric vehicles. Electric-powered snowmobiles, personal watercraft, boats and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are all on the market now, and more are on the way.

It’s a fledgling marketplace that has outdoor enthusiasts buzzing.

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“We’re very excited about the electric snowmobiles,” said Dennis Burns, executive director of the Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations, a Thunder Bay, Ont.-based group that represents more than 600,000 riders across the country. “We see this as a great opportunity” for the sport.

Likewise, the boating industry has jumped aboard. Sara Anghel, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association Canada, says that several new Canadian manufacturers making electrified products have joined her association’s ranks this year. These include Taiga Motors Inc., a Montreal-based company started by three engineering students that is making personal watercraft and electric snowmobiles, and Vision Marine Technologies Inc., also based in Montreal, which is building a 180-horsepower electric outboard motor.

Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP), inventor of Canada’s iconic Ski-Doo snowmobile, recently announced it is coming to market with an electrified version of all its product lines – snowmobiles, personal watercraft, all-terrain vehicles, side-by-side vehicles, three-wheeled vehicles, fishing boats, pontoons and go-karts – with the first one coming in two years.

Canadian startups are also creating new products in the EV category. Lytehorse Labs Inc. in Regina has developed a stand-up electric ATV. While still in the development and funding phase, the two- or four-wheel-drive four-wheel platforms are advertised as having a range of 129 kilometres. The company has also done a deal with a U.S. manufacturer to build the ATV in Detroit, with an eye to winning contracts with the U.S. Department of Defence, said Allen Bonk, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

The groundswell of activity bodes well for outdoor enthusiasts who want a cleaner, quieter experience. But off-road EVs face many of the same hurdles as electric cars and trucks.

First is the question of charging.

“The charging stations and the population are not where snowmobiles are currently in use,” Burns said. “How do we travel with electric snowmobiles in Northern Ontario, for example, when there’s no charging stations? There’s no charging stations in the middle of nowhere; there’s not even a hydro line.”

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Boaters have similar concerns.

“Because of our geography and the size of the lakes in this country, the beautiful waters that we have, it is a little bit more complicated to really have this take off quickly,” Anghel said.

Charging for electric boats and watercraft will require installation of infrastructure by cottage owners and marina operators, she noted.

Manufacturers are addressing this issue by designing their products to be charged using a 110-volt regular household outlet. That means cottagers can just run an extension cord to the dock.

Likewise, Bonk said his ATV will be charged using a standard electrical outlet, although he conceded they’re scarce where many people will want to use the machines.

That’s why those watching the development of this niche see fleet operators as early adopters. Lytehorse is marketing its stand-up ATVs to the military, as well as fire and police services and distribution operations. These types of organizations will be able to use the vehicles in controlled circumstances to allow for charging during downtime, Bonk said.

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Burns predicts “ski hills will go to electric snowmobiles as soon as they’re available.” They operate on a “closed course” where there is a ready power supply from the lift equipment.

Bernard Guy, BRP’s senior vice-president of global product strategy, noted in an e-mail that electric recreational vehicles will likely be used for tours, rentals and at outdoor-focused resorts, where “an electric vehicle will definitely add to the experience.”

The added benefit for fleet operators and recreational users alike is the lack of maintenance required.

“You don’t take it for an oil change. You don’t have to go and gas it up,” Burns said. And aside from looking after the moving parts, he added, there’s none of the seasonal work required to properly store an internal combustion engine for the off-season.

The promise of noiseless engines, zero direct emissions and no fuel spills in natural environments has attracted the attention and support of government. Vision Marine, for instance, announced in June that it will receive up to $1.72-million from the Quebec government to fast-track the commercialization of its outboard engine.

The company says its emission-free powerplant means a reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) of up to 94 tons of CO2 equivalent per unit each year.

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“Our industry cannot ignore its impact on the environment any more. We know it and our customers know it,” said Xavier Montagne, the company’s chief technology officer.

But even with government funding, hunters, fishermen and nature lovers will likely have to pay a significant premium for their new environmentally friendly toys. Where the typical price of a new gasoline-powered snowmobile might be about $15,000, according to Burns, the Taiga starts at $20,000. Likewise, a gas-powered side-by-side runs about $15,000, while the Lytehorse ATV costs about $20,000.

Bonk chalks it up to the high cost of lithium-ion batteries.

“Our machine has four of them. Because we’re building them ourselves, we get to reduce that cost significantly for the consumer, which is great, but they’re still expensive,” he said, adding they account for about 25 per cent of the machine’s value.

Will early adopters be willing to pay the price for silent motorsports in the backwoods and backwaters? If Lytehorse’s recent experience is anything to judge by, the answer seems to be yes. The company says it took 82 orders and $1.4-million in deposits within three weeks, thanks to a single YouTube interview Bonk did.

“It’s mainly hunters,” he said. “People are just going crazy to go somewhere and do something.”

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