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The Last Windrow: Snowmobiles through the ages

I dropped my 1980 Polaris snowmobile off at my mechanic friend Dale’s repair shop a week or so ago. The old sled needed a tune-up, kind of like me. 

I unloaded the sled alongside many newer snowmobiles with shiny hoods and new upholstery. But, the old Polaris is paid for and ran well until it hiccupped last winter and refused to start.

Many of my generation were introduced to snowmobiles way back in the late 1960s. Growing up on the farmland of Iowa, the only way we skidded through the snow in those early days was to either find a hill to slide down or find a tractor or horse to pull you on a sled or skates. 

My first introduction with a snowmobile came on a fox hunting trip with some of my neighbors. Until that time we walked sections in the snow in pursuit of the wild red dog. It was a surprise to me when one day my hunting buddies, Ralph and Fred, showed up on a gravel road pulling a trailer with some odd looking machine loaded on behind. 

It was a snowmobile. I don’t remember what make it was, but I was excited to see what this thing would do. 

Fred jumped on the machine and headed for the middle of the section. We watched as he disappeared in a cloud of snow dust. We could hear the sled humming as Fred reappeared a quarter mile from us, heading for a clump of trees at the half mile line. 

Suddenly Fred really disappeared! There was no sign of him. It was as if he had been grabbed and sent to heaven by a great spirit. Little did we know that there was an unseen creek at the bottom of the hill, filled with snow, and Fred’s sled went directly to the bottom of it. 

All we could see with our binoculars was a wisp of steam rising from a hole in the snow. Fred and the sled had vanished. It took us the rest of the afternoon to extract the smouldering sled from its early grave. The fox took a respite that day. 

Snowmobiling has changed. Most of us who owned early models remember carrying a pocket full of sparkplugs, an extra belt, extra cans of gas and a pocket full of hope that we would return to our starting point without a breakdown. 

There were no handlebar warmers, GPS units, hundred-horse motors or titanium skid bars. We all smelled from snowmobile oil as we visited the many snowmobile saloons during a night cruise. 

But, it was kind of the golden age of snowmobiling when families traveled together, made campfires out in the snow, ate frozen sandwiches and relished being free to roam the woods and lakes wherever we chose. There were also problems with sledders running across alfalfa fields, through people’s yards and going places where they should have avoided. 

There were even fatal accidents caused by hitting wire fences and cabled gates. It was a learning time. 

I worked at a business that decided to rent snowmobiles one year. Twelve shiny, black Arctic Cats arrived at our parking lot one afternoon and all we could see was profit. That was the high point. 

After one season, I picked up more dead sleds scattered over the countryside than I wanted to count. We trekked to the middle of Gull Lake one afternoon with a wind chill of minus 40, blowing snow and a foot of slush to rescue four sleds that had been stuck and abandoned by a rental party. They called me from the warm resort cabin to report that they had gotten stuck, but we could go and get the sleds in the middle of the lake. It was to be our last rental. 

Those were the days of the Winnipeg to St. Paul Snowmobile Race. It was brutal. A friend of mine raced one year. He lost all the skin on his face from frostbite. His sled looked like it had hit a land mine when he trucked in home. But, he said he had “fun”! 

The days following the race saw flatbed trucks hauling snowmobiles back to their hometowns, past our business. Most were missing hoods, skis, lights, seats and anything else that hadn’t been welded to the frame. 

We’ve got early snow around these parts this winter. Soon the trails will be humming with snowmobiles. These new and improved models won’t be followed by clouds of blue smoke. They won’t need extra sparkplugs. The steering handles will be warm, and they’ll steer and ride like a luxury car. 

A far cry from my little 1980 Polaris that’s waiting to be fixed at Dale’s shop. It smokes a little, loses a sparkplug once in awhile, the upholstery is torn and the headlight doesn’t work, but it’s paid for. I can’t wait for the first trip through the woods!

See you next time. Okay?