Thank you, Quora contributor, for this invitation to recount an off-road wheeled experience.

I guess I’ll have to go back to my student days at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It was 1970. I rode my one-speed bike throughout the winter, and had become quite adept at controlling it on glare ice. One winter day I looked out onto Lake Ontario to see a vast sheet of perfectly clean and smooth ice. The ice boats were making their way out in the light breeze. I dropped down a boat launch ramp onto the lake.

Later on they put in a bubbler for the two-mile ferry route to Scott Island, a large land mass outside Kingston Harbour, but at the time drivers ran the ice and took their chances. I rode across the ice bridge to the island. Cool!

I should mention that regular 1960’s bicycle tires, if you let them dry, gripped glare ice surprisingly well. Steering and balance weren’t a problem on this day’s frosty surface.

I turned right at the island and toured the Kingston shoreline, occasionally passed by ice boaters. Man, would I love to have one of those! But I had picked up a bit of a tail wind which made my progress easier. Eventually I came to a wide bay which gave me a bit of the gulps, but I coasted across Collins Bay with the tailwind and fetched up on the opposing shore.

It was getting dark, the wind was rising, and I had covered over twenty miles, so I hauled my bike up a steep, rocky bank and rode up into the suburb of Amherstview where I knocked on my uncle’s door and asked for a ride back to campus. He was a bit gobsmacked by my caper, but I had had an awesome off-road experience on a huge slab of perfect ice.

Woodlot excursion

December 25, 2016


Over the years it has become a Christmas ritual to tour the woodlot by whatever means necessary.  Ten years ago Charlie and Shiva began the tradition by bullying the golf cart into the trip through too much fluffy snow.  When the Ranger replaced the golf cart, it hauled passengers and their snowshoes across the windy fields to the woodlot and froze them on the return trip.

This year Charlie started up both 2004 Cayennes to try out their low range and differential locks around the yard.    Ruby was thus already cleaned off and warmed up when I grabbed my keys and tracked him down on the property.  Then we toured the sugar bush.

We soon observed that it would take a good deal of snow to stop a Porsche Cayenne equipped with winter tires.  I did manage to twist over an earth berm at such an angle that I needed to use the locker to maintain traction to the wheels, but Ruby felt right at home off-roading in snow.

The only problem is that puttering through the woods in a Porsche Cayenne isn’t much fun.  It’s far too capable a vehicle.  A golf cart or 2WD UTV, or even a snowmobile, provides much more of a challenge, and hence a higher fun quotient.

On the other hand Charlie is now a father and I’m not getting any younger, and we did break a good wide walking track through the bush.

Tom just told me that this won’t work as a title because nobody wants to hear about the trip unless it gets screwed up or we have bad luck.

But how about a couple of geezers defying the law on a back-roads tour to Newboro in a UTV? And then bouncing over drifts for three miles each way across the lake in a crude vehicle without working cup holders?

Or letting each other drive? Neither of us is much of a passenger.


I should mention that for winter I have enclosed the cabin of the Ranger so that the only exit is from the driver’s side. Last fall Tom gave me a piece of left-over boat-canopy plastic which had become translucent from age, but when I fitted it with pipe clamps where the right door would normally go, it kept the wind out quite well. There was just the problem of a little bit of claustrophobia for whoever’s riding shotgun.

Anyway, the rig is pretty warm in a cold wind, so for his annual winter expedition to the cottage I suggested to Tom that he would feel more comfortable and likely safer in the Ranger cabin rather than perched on the back of my Ski-Doo. The only trouble was that we would have to drive back roads to Newboro as the plastic windshields and improvised side tarp wouldn’t withstand a ride at highway speeds on a trailer. We’d have to drive seven miles of back roads to get to the lake.

I expected Tom would be fine without a means of escape from the Ranger until we got onto the ice, but it turned out my friend’s heart-stopping moments began as soon as we headed down the shoulder of the first paved road. I’d forgotten how spooky a ditch can look when one is perched above it on an icy shoulder. It’s hard to trust the left tires to maintain traction while the rights are sliding on glare ice. That metal cabin frame is reassuring when overhanging branches loom up on a trail, but the same metal seems less friendly when one thinks of banging into it with his head during a roll-over.

That’s what the seat belts are for, Tom.

Down the back roads we sped, cruising along at the Ranger’s full 24 miles per hour and letting on we were driving a Miata. A noisy Miata. The enclosed cabin keeps a lot of noise in, making it especially hard for the passenger to hear.

Tom played tourist, fascinated by our neighbours’ pristine stone house and property. He wondered about the missing windows from a brick porch on another, then he discovered the old cheese factory just off the Narrows Lock Road. We slipped into Newboro and changed drivers.

Now it was my turn for claustrophobia, as I decided that Tom would be less nervous on the ice with a steering wheel in hand. Of course that meant I’d be unable to bail out in an emergency. But I had brought along an escape tool, one of those padded hammers with a cutter built in. I rehearsed the routine: plunge the point through the vinyl, cut a big hole, then bail out, every man for himself. But in the meantime don’t let Tom get the Ranger stuck!

Trouble was that Tom couldn’t really hear my shouted instructions as to route selection because of the noise and the fuzzy earmuffs on his trapper hat. Fortunately Tony was running his 4WD Ranger ahead of us and I knew he would pick a clear route through the drifts. He learned his lesson last winter after twice belly-hanging the UTV on large patches of deep snow, the first time without a shovel aboard.

The ice is thick this year and quite predictable — as long as you don’t look at it. If you do try to find a way through the sea of small drifts by eye, though, the bare spots are terrifying. They look like open water.

Tom’s naturally a cautious driver, and when he’s not sure of his course he slows down. To his credit he didn’t spin the Ranger out for all of his drift-hopping while I screamed at him to keep his speed up.

In fact between us we managed to turn the voyage across Newboro Lake into an uneventful drive, if we don’t count a strained vocal cord on my part.


BTW: Two minutes before this photo was taken Tony was all neatly buttoned up into a sensible parka, but I think he was going for a contrast with Tom’s many layers of clothing.

The Ski Doo’s engine now runs very well. I measured 14 miles per Imperial gallon on a refill after 81 miles of jackrabbit hops around the farm and neighbourhood. Starting is no longer an issue.

But the steering had begun to give me fits. Things were loose, but the catch was the effort required to maintain control while driving among the ruts of other machines. My son pointed out a loose ball joint on the steering linkage. It snugged up nicely with a 17 mm socket and 13 mm wrench.

But the steering was still much too vague. This morning I figured out a way to lift the front of the Ski Doo with the car hoist so that I could examine the steering linkage at my leisure. The central bolt proved loose. A few more turns with the 18 mm socket did the job. The skis no longer seemed cross-eyed.

A run down the Cataraqui trail went considerably better than before.

Another pair of riders stopped for a chat. One guy suggested double carbides to eliminate the wandering in ruts: the extra carbide selects its own lane.

On Newboro Lake the machine proved that its engine is strong and quick, hitting 50 m/hr on crusted snow without effort.

The sofa feels pretty good after this morning’s session with 450 pounds of aluminum and rubber attached to my ankle.

It may not have been as drastic as all that, but I did manage to tumble off the machine when I dumbly tried to climb an interesting set of drifts without adequate forethought. The machine ran out of momentum and I tipped off to the downhill side. One of my over-sized insulated rubber boots didn’t free itself from the stirrup and there I was. The boot soon came free, but I found myself stuck in my own back forty.

Then I remembered a video series where these guys from Ottawa ram snowmobiles through impossible conditions on a trip north. One of the topics was how to unstick a snowmobile. So I stamped down the snow on the uphill side of the machine and around the back. Of course I was getting wet because there hadn’t been much reason to put on snowmobile pants for a run around the farm.

The machine dutifully backed out of the trap. I remounted, remembered to balance the thing, and blasted up the hill over the remaining drifts. I stopped at the top, breathing pretty hard, but no more than I would lifting a large round of maple onto the block splitter.

Lesson relearned: every time you start a snowmobile it’s game on, and you had better be ready for whatever the trail can throw at you. Quietly I felt grateful for the week of wood-cutting I had gotten in after the recent thaw. It left me moderately prepared for unexpected exertions.

But it would be to oversimplify the tale if the prequel to this misadventure weren’t told. After Cory Sly rebuilt its carburetors I test-drove the 1999 SkiDoo Touring LE last night for a half hour. Apart from its tendency to fight the ruts on the Forfar section of the Cataraqui Trail, the machine ran perfectly.

This morning it started dutifully, but then the oil light winked on. I shut off. Restarted. Definitely on. This light indicates* that no oil is getting to the engine to mix with the gasoline.

Into the house, laptop open, crash course on oil injection systems in Ski Doo models. Posted a plea for help online, complained by email to pals. Before taking wrench to engine, though, I called Cory.

“It’s not an oil shortage. The light comes on when it’s a litre down to warn you to add more.”

“It’s full, and I backed the top off to let air in.”

“Is the parking brake on?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“You shouldn’t leave it on. It may stick on and you’ll end up with a hydraulic leak and hot pads, a recipe for a fire. Shut the parking brake off and it should be fine.”

And it was. Of course then I had to send more emails and Internet posts admitting my newbie jitters.

Then came the ride around the property, the wonderful new drifts, and a return to the couch to compose this account.

At the current rate it will be a long time before I log significant mileage on the snowmobile, but so far it appears willing.

* (among other things, it turns out)

Why not?

December 8, 2014


It’s a 1999 (technically a classic) so it qualifies for the cut-rate trail pass. Insurance isn’t bad, and there was so much snow last March we couldn’t move from the driveway. I chose to frame the purchase as the reaction of a rational man to last winter’s claustrophobia.

10 December, 2014, 9:37 p.m.

It’s impossible to state how much snow there is outside as it’s all drifts and bare gravel on the way to my equipment shed. Suffice it that there’ll be snow in the fields for the Ski-Doo tomorrow.

Today I bought a trail pass online. Now I have to wait until they send the sticker to me, but the Ministry of Snowmobile Trails hasn’t opened them yet, anyway.

11 December, 2014

The recently-purchased Ski-Doo’s o.k. I’ve had a bit of trouble starting it when cold due to flooding. Maybe I’ll try without the choke next cold start.

The ’99 Touring LE offers an excellent ride with good steering which allowed me to follow paths through the woodlot without difficulty. This stands in sharp contrast to the behaviour of its predecessor, a ’76 Alpine, whose single ski worked more to separate the saplings for the massive, pointed bumper than it did to direct the sled. I had found it dangerous to sit on the Alpine’s seat when hurdling drifts, as the landings sometimes compressed one’s spine in a shocking manner. The long-legged Touring acts as though it would prefer a 20-mile run on packed trails to a poke around the sugar bush. It certainly shows more power than I’ll need in the woodlot.

This anti-Alpine will no doubt show its shortcomings in future rides, but for now I like the easy steering and cushy ride.

13 December, 2014

Apart from the use of a spark plug wrench to start the machine in the morning, it works very well. I’m studying everything written on the subject and watching every video even tangentally related to Ski Doo carburetor problems. Some headway has been detected.

The 13.6 mile tour took me across our fields to Forfar, through “town” on asphalt, then onto the Cataraqui Trail, across Hwy 15, and ending at Little Lake, a large pond accessible only by snowmobile.

The skis occasionally ground against coarse gravel on the old railway bed, but the machine’s ride reminded me far more of a Lexus sedan than an off-road vehicle. The hand and thumb warmers quickly warmed up digits frozen on that spark plug wrench.

I discovered that 25 mph is plenty fast enough on a straight, graded snowmobile trail at this time of year. 35 mph is marginally acceptable along a familiar path on a large field.

But the ’99 Ski Doo Touring is surprisingly competent and easy to drive. This has never been more apparent than when I tried to reverse my course. I turned off the trail onto an upward-sloping driveway, then reversed downhill. Starting off on the slope offered a whiff of warm drive belt, but the long sled turned as easily as an SUV and we were on our way home without fuss. A similar move with the intractable ’76 Alpine would have required considerable effort.

A cold start this afternoon brought the machine to life without the use of the spark plug ratchet, so I may yet learn how to operate this promising addition to the Young’s Hill motor pool.

14 December, 2014

This morning’s start with 1/2 choke didn’t work after a 2 second attempt, so I released the choke and rolled it with open throttle for a couple of 5 second bursts until it started. As usual, the engine performed flawlessly, once started.

The Ski Doo passed a milestone this morning when I climbed on behind my fishing buddy Tony for a spin around the field. Online advice had it that the machine was too light for anyone over 200 pounds, though it had seemed pretty good over rough fields with just me aboard. This test was with two passengers, combining considerably more weight than the sled’s modest 440 pounds. The ride was fine. It didn’t respond as readily to steering inputs as with a single rider, but handling was certainly controllable enough for an occasional ice fishing expedition.

Observing the machine in operation from a distance, I was amazed at its quiet. The more we drive it, the better it seems to run.

Next step: installing the hitch and modifying the snowmobile sled we found in the barn to carry a power ice auger and fishing tackle.

15 December, 2014



Today I put a fire on in the shop and attended to some of the maintenance tips I gleaned yesterday from a variety of online sources. First was the new belt, which went on easily with the tool I found in the carefully-packed tool case. The old belt’s still in good condition, so I stashed it under the rear seat.

The gear case dip stick had a few filings on its magnet, but the oil looked good, was at the correct level, and I saw no evidence of leaking below.

The main task was to grease the underpinnings, those unmentionable parts only a stern list of must-do’s could make me examine. The manual said to roll the machine onto its side… Uh, I stood on the edge of the running board and pulled on the handle bar, but it didn’t tip, just slammed its left ski down on the shop floor.

Further examination revealed a broken case for the right mirror: I’ll bet I know how that happened. With no desire to do further damage to the rather pristine coachwork on the Touring, I opted to use the system I developed for the 5′ mid-mount mower on my Kubota. The auto lift had no trouble with the weight, and I found three of the (alleged) four fittings under the track. The four fittings on the steering loosened up the my grease gun, and then I let loose with rustproofing oil on the various metal-to-metal moving parts.

The suspension immediately felt less notchy, and we glided fluidly over the local bumps as I put the machine away. Interestingly, the rear bumper now sits at 16″. Before the grease it sat at 17 1/2″.

Over the day I’ve learned that if 1/2 choke doesn’t start the engine, a second or two on the starter with the throttle open will do the job. At least at the freezing point.

There’s a good chance the starting problem is with the operator, not the machine.

UPDATE:  30 March, 2015

The starting problems ended when Cory Sly replaced the float valves in the carburetors (under warranty).  From then on the engine started and ran very well.  It logged about 300 miles on short runs around the property and a few local trail rides.

It was a placid Sunday drive to check out a new kennel where our spaniel could enjoy her vacation while we went on ours. The navigation system directed us to the Narrows Lock Road and away we went. Then we came to a stretch of asphalt which seemed to be below water level for about two hundred yards.

Orange cones denoted the entrance on both sides, but there was no ROAD CLOSED sign such as the one I encountered last week on my way home from Chaffey’s Locks.

Realizing that we both had our rubber boots on for the kennel visit, I stopped the car and waded out half-way. It was borderline. My feet weren’t in danger of getting wet, but there was quite a bit of water above the yellow line painted on the asphalt below.

So we started off, slowly wading the low sedan through the calm water. This went well enough. I watched the floor and nothing was leaking in. Then the pavement broke up. This was a surprise. It had looked smooth from the top, but the drive was becoming very lumpy. But there was no going back now, so with memories of that floating Ferrari on the Don Valley Parkway last summer, we headed slowly for the other side.

As we emerged, flashers flashing, a woman in a new Ford pickup ignored my warning and blasted through the whole thing, throwing a bow wake like a Quebec cabin cruiser on a holiday weekend.

Oh, well.