Just back from a very strenuous snowmobile ride in the woodlot. Is there ever a lot of soft snow in those tall drifts! Three times I corkscrewed my machine into bottomless snow when I lost the edge of the packed track.

The last time with my dog aboard, the trick of using the throttle to get out of an unstable situation (before the laws of physics applied themselves) didn’t work. Neither could I shift our weight fast enough to right the tilting snowmobile as it found its way into pristine snow under the overhanging boughs of a walnut tree. It probably seemed like any other disembarkation from the snowmobile for Taffy: face first into deep snow, swim to the track, run home to Mommy. That’s how she gets her winter runs. This one was shorter than most. By the time I found my way out of the white abyss, she was well on her way back to the house.

The tumble, however, was a novel experience for me. I just lay there for a while, weightless after the low-speed overturn, mildly surprised that when I put a foot down to stand up, there was no down to stand up on. There was nothing for it but to swim up onto the Ski Doo, perch on the far side, and power out of the snow, panting mightily from the unexpected exertion.

Great cardio, I guess. Non interficat triumphat.

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A few years ago Tom and Kate came up for a mid-February expedition to their beloved cottage, ostensibly to see if the roof was all right after the heavy snowfalls, but really because they were homesick for Scott Island.

We unloaded the snowmobiles near the Isthmus, drove them down the road to the ferry landing, then ducked out onto Clear Lake over a snowmobile trail which avoided the questionable ice near the current.  All went well until we hit the deep snow of the Island.  On eBay Tom had bought a new drive pulley for his pristine 1970 Skeeter, but he had expressed some worry about the rust on the polished steel where it met the belt.  I had assured him it would soon wear smooth with use.  What did I know, eh?

The first deep snowdrift left Tom and Kate straddling a smoking, roaring snowmobile which clearly wasn’t going anywhere.  A look under the hood showed a lot of fragments of belt, and big holes worn in the sides from the rusty drive pulley.  O.K., I guess they don’t polish themselves.

Determined to carry on, we left Bet and Kate with the crippled Skeeter and pressed on with the Alpine.  The biggest Skidoo is a brutal machine to control, but its one saving grace is that it can plough through deep snow.  It picked its way through the island snowdrifts without difficulty.  Trouble only came when we got off the thing and tried to snowshoe down the hill to the cottage.  In the deep, wet snow it was a cursory check of the property before exhaustion drove us back to the Alpine.

Out the trail we went to where we had left Bet and Kate.  Tom reversed the Skeeter out of the snowdrift, looked ruefully at his frayed drive belt, and gingerly set off in the lead on the return course. Halfway across the Clear Lake stretch, the Skeeter abruptly disappeared into a cloud of gray smoke and came to a halt in front of me.  The eyes of Tom and Kate grew wide as they gazed at the water oozing up around their stalled machine. I wasn’t going to stop the Alpine in a pool of slush, so I moved it and Bet to shore before I let off the throttle.

Then we walked back to the Skeeter.  Yep, the slush had gotten it all right.  The Alpine had had enough power to blast through, but the Skeeter’s wonky pulley had torn up the weakened drive belt when stressed.  Now the machine sat up to its running boards in slush.  The footing was too questionable to work around, so we retreated to Smiths Falls to recover and plan.

Sunday morning rose clear and very cold.  No problem with the footing on the ice this day, so Tom and I headed out with ropes, axes, and an ice spud, not to mention an auger and a ratchet winch.  On a whim I threw in a couple of 5” walnut boards I found in the shop, as well.

What followed was a four-hour session of chopping a heavy snowmobile out of six inches of ice.  Tom and I  emphatically do not recommend this activity.

We discovered that a large snowmobile encased in a block of ice is very heavy, too heavy to move even after we had chopped the ice free around it.

I drilled a hole, stuck the two walnut boards down it, then anchored the come-along to them to stretch the Skeeter enough to pry it forward when we lifted up with the axes and the ice spud.  This actually worked, though it was brutally hard work.  With two hundred yards to go to shore, we’d be worn out long before we got there.

So I took a hundred-foot 3/4″ yellow tow rope out of the Alpine and tied it to the front of the Skeeter, did a bowline around the trailer hitch on the Alpine, and headed for shore.

There’s quite a bit of spring in nylon rope, so it brought the straining Alpine to a halt with the Skeeter unmoved.  Next time I backed up beside the Skeeter and took a running start at the rope.  That worked.  I heard the loud “SPROING!” even over the roar of the engine, but the ice block and its snowmobile were ten feet closer to shore.  Now if we could get it moving again before it froze down…

I tried again, full throttle.  Another ten feet.  It became a matter of momentum:  the Alpine with me on it weighed about nine hundred pounds; the Skeeter with a full load of ice around it weighed anywhere from 1000 pounds to a ton.  How can you tell?  The rope did not snap and decapitate anybody and Tom kept it from tangling, but it was a long, rough tow as we bungee-corded the Skeeter to safety.

It took a month for all of the ice to melt out of the flooded running gear.  Then one sunny day in March I started the derelict up and loaded it onto its trailer.

Tom and Kate got their vintage Evinrude back, but somehow they had lost the urge to cross onto Scott Island with it.  Last I heard the Skeeter’s for sale.

Every year I promise myself that I will sell the Alpine and accept that I’m too old for such a brute of a machine.  But you can’t sell a snowmobile when it’s sitting in a barn, so I have to haul it out and start it up.  Then, of course, it needs exercise to keep its fuel fresh, and the trails need to be maintained, and before  you know, it’s time to put it away because it’s spring.

Today was the day.  After a week-long cold spell the eaves were dripping, the wind had calmed, and the Massey Harris started eagerly at first touch of the starter.  The Massey was parked in front of the Alpine, so it had to get some exercise.  Then I decided to use it to back the Alpine out of the barn.  This involved many short pulls on a rope:  every five feet or so I would have to set the brake, get off, centre the handle bars on the Alpine, get back on and back down the ramp a bit more.

Once the tractor was back in bed, I gassed the Alpine up, tugged the cord, and away it went.  Yeah, right.  The truth of it is that I somehow forgot I had siphoned the fuel out of the tank last spring when I put it away, and so I worked for ten minutes or so with a vacuum pump sucking fumes through the primer.  The whole process worked much better when I added a can of gas from my fishing boat to the Alpine’s almost-empty tank.  Three pumps on the primer, a tug on the cord, and away it went.

Apart from a lot of fly specks on the cowl, the thing was just the way I left it last spring.  Everything seems to keep well on a thin pad of twenty-year-old sheep manure over a sloping concrete floor in the barn.

Mindful of my forced march back to the house last year when it ran out of gas in the woods, I took care not to go far from the barn.  Perhaps tomorrow I’ll add more gas and a pair of snowshoes, then look to pack some ski trails.

Thoughts of turning the Alpine into cash are fading fast.

UPDATE:  February 2nd, 2009

I’ve almost used up the second tank of gas for the year.  All of this light, fluffy snow hit and there’s no point in taking the Polaris Ranger out in it.  The Alpine, on the other hand, is right in its element.

A couple of times this week I thought the deep snow would stick it.  It slowed right down, the engine howled, but it kept creeping ahead through snow well up on its cowl until it came up on plane again.  This process left an amazing trail through the soft snow.

All was not aimless wandering.  This week seemed like an appropriate time to plan spring tree planting, so I packed tracks and then measured a five-acre area for Norway spruce, white cedar, and yellow birch.  It’s a skinny field, 1300 feet long and a couple of hundred wide.  This called for lots of trips over the pristine snow with the Alpine, of course.

Left over from a week of running around the property,  my ski-doo trails  have become popular with the local wildlife.  The coyote leaves the track only to catch mice around the little spruce trees.  She seems to be able to smell them under the snow from up to ten feet away.  Maintaining a hiking trail for the coyote enables me to direct her toward my saplings for her hunts, and she doesn’t seem to mind.

I’m finding the Alpine easier to handle this year.  One change is that I have given up on the snowmobile suit in favour of lighter gear, though I still wear that life-saving helmet.  The thing throws lots of heat and is well shielded from the wind.  One variable is that the snow’s deep enough this year that I can drive over many obstacles instead of awkwardly steering around them.

Next time I decide to sell the thing I’ll have to do it before I take it out of the barn in early winter or else it won’t leave the farm for another year.  It is kinda fun to take the brute out for a wrestle around the property.

The photo shows four people stuffed into snowmobile suits, mitts and helmets, standing along the edge of a frozen lake and leaning on a pair of old snowmobiles.  The shot could have been taken anytime, but in fact it is only a couple of years old.  It marked the final winter expedition to the cottage on Schooner Island.  That’s right.  Never again.  Both our wives insisted.

But the trip had gone well; it’s just that the weather changed a bit.

Tom and Kate get homesick for their cottage on the Island during the winter, and I can tell by the frequency of emails and phone calls about when the pressure will become unbearable for Tom, and up they will come.  Much planning is required:  ice reports are filtered through runoff records to determine if the ice is strong enough for a passage across Newboro Lake to the Island.

A few years ago in a fit of optimism I asked a snowmobile collector to locate me a serviceable Ski Doo Alpine, the two track, single ski behemoth which crowned the Bombardier line for many years. From the first time I drove it the thing intimidated me:  I could barely pull the starter cord on the monstrous engine.  It refused to turn without running into something.  Its suspension ignored my considerable weight, and only rode smoothly if I had a full oil drum on the back.  But it would float over any depth of snow, and could it ever pull!

Not to be outdone, Tom found a 1970 Evinrude Skeeter, also with reverse, which had been kept in its owner’s living room in Ohio since it was new. 

Tom and I decided to run out to the island without wives or luggage to make sure the ice was strong enough to support us.   Tom’s machine made a ghastly racket at its maximum speed of 25 miles per hour.  The Alpine is actually a lot faster than that, so I had to idle along to let him keep up.  Then Tom spun out on the ice.  This looked pretty funny, but the third time the machine flipped, tossing Tom clear and rolling until it had divested itself of its windshield.  Chastened,  Tom made the rest of the trip at a more modest pace.

Back at the SUVs we discovered far too much luggage to load onto the little sled I had brought, so Tom took it and I hitched the 5 X 8 trailer to the Alpine.  Down the ramp we went with everything but the kitchen sink in the trailer.

As long as the shore was nearby, our wives’ morale was high.  As we pulled out into the open lake, though, and the only reference points became the large bubbles of air just beneath the black, transparent ice, I began to notice a persistent vibration coming from the rear of the Alpine.  It didn’t vary with engine revolutions or speed.  In fact the shaking continued when we’d stopped.  Bet was shivering.   This did not bode well, but we were over half-way there,  so on we went.

The cold-weather camping was good fun at the cottage, and then the morning dawned to a five-inch drop of slushy snow, with clouds and wind which indicated more on the way.  Yikes!  The trailer!

The retreat from Schooner Island occurred  more quickly than our hosts would have liked, but we had to get off the ice.  With the wide track of the trailer I would have to maintain a steady speed until we hit dry land, or we’d be stuck.

We tossed the luggage into the snow-filled trailer, Bet clamped her arms around my waist, and I gingerly urged the rig along the  shoreline  until we had gained enough momentum to brave the deeper snow.

With a roar the Alpine hit cruising speed, and the next three miles was quite a ride. The open lake alternated between hard portions of frozen snow and liquid puddles of goo.  We plunged straight through them.  I didn’t dare look back.

Down the lake we went and up the ramp.  Newboro had never looked so good.  The Alpine shut down with a grateful sigh; I pried Bet’s arms free and staggered off the machine.  She still sat there. When I knocked on her helmet, an eye opened through the frosted visor and she gradually became aware that we had arrived.

She pawed at the visor a couple of times with her mitt.  I helped her open it and remove her helmet.  “I … will … never … do … that … AGAIN!”

I’d  sorta expected that, so I checked the load behind.  Nope, nothing there but a snowbank which had somehow slid up the ramp and into the parking lot behind us.

Tom  couldn’t get over the remarkable turn of speed the Alpine had shown on the trip across the lake.  “We were following in your track, but your machine was just a dwindling yellow dot, with a great big snowball forming behind it!”

Perhaps the governor on the huge Rotax engine responded to the weight it was pulling, or maybe the beast just sensed its master’s panic and ran for it, but the Alpine has never gone that fast since, and perhaps it’s just as well.

This morning dawned clear and cold, with a strong wind from the north. If ever there would be a day this year for running on the crust, this would have to be it. As soon as I got to the farm I took the Ez-Go out on the rock-hard snow. Great. A quick tour of the property located a couple of dodgy areas where I fell through but had enough momentum to get out again. It looked as though the cart could see some action today.

The first chore was to deliver gas to the stranded Alpine back in the woods. That done, I backed out on my track to the safer fields, then headed north to visit the maple orchard. The cold forced me back to the house for a helmet with visor, but then I did a one-mile circuit of the farm at a great rate.

Play comes before work, but the next task was to take four 55 gallon drums of accumulated sawdust and wood scraps back to the pile at the edge of the property. These had accumulated over the winter and seriously cramped my style, so I was glad to have the drums empty, even if I found the trip out very cold in each case.

A trip to the gas station for fuel for the cart, and I was ready to play in full snowmobile attire. Charlie had shown up by this time and he snapped the action shot above.

Off to the woodlot.

That looks ominous on the page, and I should have known better. Fifty feet along the first trail and I felt the back tires break through the crust. Then I made my second dumb decision: I decided to push the cart ahead, speed up, and hope the crust got better. Three hundred feet further into the woods (and further from the house) I dropped my visor and jammed the cart through the dead branches of an overhanging tree, but it was for naught. All four wheels dropped into the suddenly-weak snow. Oops!

On the brighter side, I was quite close to the abandoned Alpine, so I gassed it up and the engine caught on the first pull. That refurbished primer makes all of the difference. It warmed up readily, but wouldn’t move. The front ski was frozen to the ground, about two feet below the back of the machine, which was sitting pretty on the crust. I raided a nearby rail fence and jammed, prodded and pried until the front tip came free. I thought I’d try it at that, so I fired up, dropped the Alpine into forward, and eased it out of its mid-winter burrow.

The single ski proved to steer very well on the crust. That was odd. I don’t recall ever driving the thing when it was easy to steer. Anyway, I swung around and picked up the Ez-Go’s track, then eased by it and backed in front. I tied a short length of rope from the towing eye on the cart to the hitch on the Alpine, then fired up and eased ahead.

Mistakes travel in threes, right? The Ez-Go pulled much harder than I expected, but the Alpine has lots of torque and so the driverless cart soon popped up on the crust, tried to overtake the Ski-Doo, then veered into a tree, stopping with a crash. It’s a credit to the cart’s design that it wasn’t damaged (see below)*. The polycarbonate fender bent out of the way and the front tire took the impact. My pal J.P. once told me, “The golf cart is the only motor vehicle ever designed to be driven by drunks.” Perhaps I should add “fools” to his definition.

Once it had shaken off the odd bit of tree bark the cart was fine, so I drove it around the remainder of the trail and back to the house in disgrace, collected Charlie, and returned for the Alpine. Charlie’s a little more cautious than I when it comes to crust, and he made me jump out of the cart as he did a loop close to the Alpine, then booted it out of there.

So I brought the Alpine in from the cold after its prolonged session in the woods. All in all, I guess it was the better vehicle today, though the Ez-Go certainly did its best.

UPDATE: March 22, 2008

Today it was still cold and the crust proved more reliable for the Ez-Go. With it I took a tour of the farm and exposed many pixels on the digital camera. The Alpine stayed where it sat. For a photo shoot the golf cart wins, hands down.

Alpine: 1 Ez-Go: 1

UPDATE: March 24, 2008

The crust is still holding well in the cold weather. After a tour of the southern half of the farm, today the Ez-Go earned its keep moving wood for the renovation project from the barn to the house. Boards too long to ride in the truck can be balanced across the Ez-Go’s dash board and the sweater basket for quick transportation when the trailers are all frozen in.

Once again the golf cart keeps finding uses in all seasons, now that its cold-weather fuel supply problem has settled down.

Today I also used the trailer hitch and a tie-down strap to yank two 18′ boards out of the bottom of a lumber pile. The cart offers good low-end torque in a confined area. I can’t see the Alpine doing this.

The papers today are full of the story of the guy who rigged his electric golf cart with a snowplow and remote controls. He clears his driveway from a standing position in his living room window. I don’t know about that, but the Ez-Go is definitely the sanding vehicle of choice on the farm. Put a plastic tub of sand on the back, fill it, add a shovel and away you go. The advantage over the tractor and loader is that it is much easier to get on and off to move the vehicle. The advantage of the cart over boot leather is that it’s much healthier to skid on the ice than to fall on it.

Alpine: 1 Ez-Go:4

* May 25th, 2008. I spoke too soon about the lack of damage from the impact with the tree. The front axle bent a bit. The left front wheel now tows out, and the suspension sits a bit lower on it than the others. This has caused some binding of the suspension on short turns, and it has reduced the turning circle to the right by a foot or two. Apart from that the cart has still worked normally in the many hours of operation this spring. I guess Alpines handle crashes into trees more readily than do Ez-Go’s.

Alpine: 2 Ez-Go: 4

The Alpine’s been sitting outside, safe from the dust of the barn. There’s been a lot of snow, though, and the blast from my snowblower may have cuffed it a time or two. When I started it yesterday to move it a little higher in the snowbank, it wouldn’t move. Strange, I’d never had it frozen in before.

I kicked enough crusted snow off the foot-trays that I could stand up. The usual shaking motion didn’t work. No movement whatever. No wonder it sat there, emitting smoke and steam around its track.

I had just put the tractor away, so I fired the diesel up and nosed the loader over a three-foot snowbank and up to the front of the Ski Doo. I looped a wrapping chain around the front bar and slotted it into a hook welded to the loader. Up it came. No problem. Few things are as gentle and as powerful as a good hydraulic loader on a tractor. I lifted the Alpine until it lurched ahead a few feet, then set it down carefully and put the tractor away.

It engaged forward gear easily after it was freed from the snow, and away we went into the soft, fluffy stuff, most of which seemed determined to come over the windshield and right into my face. Face shield in place, I concentrated on keeping enough fuel to the cold engine with the primer, and I headed out into an eight-acre field. Turning proved a real challenge, as the Alpine has excellent traction in this snow, but it won’t turn without some driver ingenuity. Finally I had it warm enough that I could jazz the throttle, shifting the weight forward and back enough for it to realize that the front ski was turned all the way to the right. It reluctantly turned a bit each time I blipped the throttle.

Normally I can kick the back end around a corner, but the snow was gobbling up the horsepower, and I had to be careful in the unfamiliar footing, as one earlier cowboy session left me with a badly scratched helmet and two cracked ribs.

Never throw an Alpine into a series of skids on a frozen lake. If the track suddenly catches, it will tip. 38″ away from the stub-point where the track meets the obstruction there is a foot, firmly placed on its tray on the opposite side of the track. The launch off that machine was a sensation I’ll never forget – just a tremendous surge of power under my right foot, and then I was airborne. The Alpine stopped on its side, still idling. My trajectory was a little more radical: the first thing to hit was my visor, which quickly slid down to protect my face. Full marks for the helmet, by the way. The top of the helmet took quite a bit of the impact, but what was left seemed to take an inordinate interest in the left side of my rib cage. This hurt.

Gradually I collected myself and got up. This childish accident had been entirely my own fault. The Alpine was still idling quietly on its side, undamaged. I carefully tipped it up, as I feared I’d never be able to pull that cord again if it stalled.

Gingerly I climbed on and ran the thing a short distance to the marina where my truck and trailer waited. An old friend had just arrived from Montreal as I rammed the Alpine onto and almost through the front panel of the trailer.

Now I know what the expression “Save your breath!” means. I really didn’t want to talk to this guy. It hurt too much. Home I went, having learned the lesson that you never, ever, give an Alpine the opportunity to launch you like a diseased cow on a medieval catapult.

But I digress.

Yesterday’s mission was to recover a 20′ ladder abandoned under the snow after my neighbours had winched down a large elm. I knew the ladder had a rope attached, so I planned a route which would take the machine close to the tree. The turning was the only problem. I rooted the ladder out of the snow, looped the rope over the trailer hitch and blasted away. Straight for the summer deck. More blipping of the throttle and I got it and its load headed downhill. A half-mile later I picked up the reciprocal course and then steering was easy because the earlier track was a bit more than a foot down in the loose snow. All I had to do was use the sides as banking when I wanted to turn.

Pulling a ladder through a foot of snow isn’t much of a challenge for the Alpine, it turns out. Might be different if I had hooked a fence post, but things went well. I left the ladder on top of a pile of lumber I had driven over by accident earlier.

By this point the machine was well warmed up and I was ready for a nap, so I parked it in a slightly less exposed location and headed in for a shower.

Sunday, 17 February:

I thought I had enough gas in the Alpine for a spin around the property. What I hadn’t counted on was having to stop, back and fill around a sharp turn in the woodlot. When I backed up the nose dropped deeply into the snow, and with the nose down it was out of gas. I set off on the short walk back to the house. The snow only seemed about six inches deep on the snowmobile’s track, but with each step my foot would hit a bit of ice about half-way down, then slip a bit to the right, and fall on through. It made for brutally slow walking, even on the broken track. I wisely resisted the temptation to cut across a field and struggled all the way out through a long loop into the field and finally up the hill to the barn.

Exhausted after a half-mile, I stumbled into the shower, ate a meal, and got ready for a nap. Things would have been much different had I been further from shelter.
Next time I’ll take snowshoes and extra fuel, regardless of my travel plans.

1976 Ski-Doo Alpine

December 23, 2007

This morning I decided it was time to start up the old Ski-Doo Alpine and back it out of the barn. The problem which has reduced its usage these last few years has been a series of weak priming pumps which wouldn’t work when dried out. I solved the problem today with the oil-extracting gizmo my friend Tony bought last summer at Princess Auto. When pumped, the large plastic cylinder creates a powerful vacuum which can be used for a variety of things more interesting than draining the oil from a marine engine.

A month ago it extracted standing water from two copper pipes I needed to solder in a wall cavity. This time I hooked it to the carburetor side of the primer on the Alpine and started to pump. The dry lines resisted for a while, but then fuel started to shoot around the transparent tubing and the day was won. Of course the Alpine started right up once primed. I backed it out into the snow-covered barnyard without incident.

Then I tried to shift into forward. No such luck. Neutral was as far forward as the gearshift would go. Not wanting to do all of my season’s snowmobiling in reverse, I took the hood off and had a look. It turned out to be a linkage problem left over from the time I broke the shifter (and two ribs) on an adventure on Scott Island and had had Larry Sargent weld it on the way home. After a bit of creative bending it reassembled with the proper clearances to shift well.

The next hour went into carburetor adjustments. This involved many loops around the barnyard and adjoining field. Eventually the engine ran strongly, so I headed back to the woods to investigate Mom’s report of trespassers on snow machines the night before last. Turns out the only tracks I could find were from the resident coyote and a few squirrels, but if another snow-mobiler should decide to follow my tracks, he’ll soon regret it. Last winter’s loggers left me with a trail through the southern quadrant with bends I can barely navigate with a golf cart. On a twin-track vintage snowmobile they are plain impossible. Several times I had to back and fill in the deep snow in order to make my way through. In one section I gave up and bashed through the undergrowth. It takes a sturdy 3″ tree to deflect an Alpine and substantially more than that to stop it. I wouldn’t care to follow that track on a conventional machine with twin skis.

Carefully avoiding last year’s cherry and oak seedlings, I ricocheted my way through the new trails and gratefully rejoined the track in the more open section of the property.

Man, is driving that machine hard work! The pull cord on a 640 Rotax engine is a challenge when cold, a near-impossibility when warm. Even turning the front ski requires about all I can manage. Enjoying legroom on the long seat is out of the question: if I don’t perch right on top of the engine the thing won’t turn at all. The first launch off a snow drift each year once again reminds me that legs have an important job in protecting the rest of the body from spine-crunching impacts on an old machine sprung for heavy loads.

It didn’t take long to burn a quarter-tank of gas, but by then I was soaking wet from sweat and ready for a nap. What a workout! The Alpine’s all set for another year of trail maintenance around the farm. I’m not so sure my body is ready for the machine, though.

(Note: For some reason this is one of the more popular articles on this site, so I added a second part to it yesterday. You’ll find it under the category “Offroading” in the directory. Rod)

(5 January, 2009:  The Alpine figures prominently in The Heroic Winter Assault on Schooner Island, also in this blog.)