The Ranger TM in Snow

December 19, 2008

Saturday, January 10, 2009: It was about zero F this morning, and the Polaris wouldn’t start. By noon it limped into motion on one cylinder, and eventually the other one cut in after a long warmup. It may be old plugs, but with 130 hours on it, it shouldn’t be. I’ll give it some new ones tomorrow and then try it.

To its credit, it did manage to start without a boost or a battery charge, but this isn’t good enough. I put the battery on the charger for the afternoon and then it lit up quite easily, so it may be a maintenance, rather than a design issue.

22 December I added an update at the end of this article.  The TM did much better today on a cold start when other engines on the farm had trouble.
I posted a further update on 29 December.

YouTube is full of film clips of  Polaris Rangers in sand and mud, but I haven’t seen much about the cold weather operation of the machines.

This week during a cold snap the shift cable froze solid, imprisoning the TM in its tent/garage until heat from the idling engine eventually thawed it out.  Requests for information from ATV forums didn’t produce anything useful, quite possibly because all of the avatars of contributors have their machines surrounded by sand or mud, not snow.

The 2004 TM is still under factory warranty, so I called the dealer and explained that this intermittent failure of a cable could be a real safety issue for me if I’m out on a frozen lake in mid-winter, so he ordered a replacement cable.

The Subaru 653 twin didn’t start all that well on the cold morning, either, picking up on one cylinder and the choke, and only gradually getting #2 into the act.  I bought the machine as a demonstrator last fall with almost 100 hours on the engine (now 130), and I’ll bet it has never had a plug, though, so I’ll hold off on complaints about cold-weather starting until I have fresh spark in it.

This morning I took the TM for a drive to follow the tracks of the coyote who had scurried out of the barn as I approached.  I had a pleasant morning wandering around a hundred acres of fields and pine, spruce and walnut seedlings.  The coyote is clearly doing her job, foraging for mice almost exclusively around my young seedlings, so I guess her Christmas bonus is assured, and I’ll try to forgive her persistent use of the miscellaneous piles of shavings in my barn as her personal litter box.  What’s with that anyway?

Most of the footing was frozen grass under about four inches of powdery snow.  As a test I drove the TM at low speed as far as it would go into a field with a gradually thickening pack of snow and ice left over from an earlier storm.  With no load in the back the traction failed before it dragged bottom.  Fine.  I backed up, interested to see whether the thing would get itself out of a situation on the flat, or if with the differential locked it would skid off the the side and compound the problem.  I was quite pleased to find that in reverse it follows its track quite faithfully, and seems able to back out of whatever situation I create for it while driving forward — on the level.  It would be foolish to expect to back uphill to get unstuck with a 2WD machine.

All in all, the Ranger TM is quite a pleasant machine in cold weather.  So far I have only had one morning when it wouldn’t work, and this may be easy to fix.

A month ago the dealer offered me a used cab frame, windshield, cab enclosure and plastic roof, but I declined after considerable thought.  A small cab like this would frost up quickly from one or more persons’ breath on a cold morning.  There’s no defroster.  Further, if I towed the machine to a lake over sanded highways, I’d have to clean the windshield before starting out.  That would be rough on the plastic.  The doors would have to be removed for safety when traveling on the ice.  What’s more, I have a perfectly good 4X4 pickup which is most capable off-road.  Why would I create another, inferior copy of it?

The advantage of the Ranger is that I can look up and enjoy the tall trees when driving through my woodlot.  In buildings and around obstructions it’s the easy visibility and lack of fragility of the body which give it an advantage over the truck. A cab would reduce these benefits.

So instead of a cab I have opted for a snowmobile suit and helmet with full face shield and a scarf for the chin area under the helmet which freezes instantly without it.  Feet don’t seem to get all that cold, but very heavy mitts are a necessity, as well.

My first cold-weather run nearly froze me before I adapted to snowmobile attire.  That time I had some carburetor icing or governor issues:  at full speed the engine would bog down to medium revs for a while, then speed up again.  It continued to fire well throughout the slowdown, though.  Surprisingly, the problem has not recurred.  Perhaps there was moisture in the crankcase which frosted the carburetor, but once it had cleared the problem resolved itself.

I haven’t started my 1976 Ski Doo Alpine yet this winter, and we have had lots of snow.  That says something about the appeal of the Ranger TM.


UPDATE  22 DECEMBER, 2008:  Today was so cold my Toyota groaned when starting, but the Polaris lit right up, and the shifter hasn’t whimpered since that one tantrum a week ago.  The snow was too deep for the TM, but I had work for it to do, so I cleared a trail back to the woods with my tractor and 5′ snowblower.  It was able to bull around enough in the deep snow to turn around at the ends of the road, though more weight in the bed might help.  Inexplicably, the left dog on the tailgate release stuck in the on position late this afternoon.  (Turns out the right cable had doubled inside the gate, jamming it to the left.  No biggie.)

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the reason I needed the Ranger was that my faithful old Massey Harris 30 gas tractor wouldn’t start.  Those things always go, but it was too cold today or else it was feeling neglected because of all the attention the Ranger gets.


UPDATE 29 DECEMBER, 2008:  Yesterday’s high temperatures and gale-force winds swept the snow away in our area, so I took the Ranger for a tour of the property to check for damage.  No doubt because of the improvement cut in the winter of 2006, the woodlot held up well to the onslaught.  Traveling on the trails was easy because the snow was all gone from beneath the maple crown.  Then I emerged onto the butternut plantation, which is sheltered from the wind on the eastern side of the woodlot.  The far side of the field sported a band of green, but the corn snow (crystalized from freeze/thaw cycles) lay a little deeper than I would have liked in the 150 yards separating me from an easy drive back to the house.  Do I back up and go around, or try to get through the deep snow?

I hit the snow at about 3/4 throttle, acceleration limited by some ice on the trail.  The Subaru engine sounded as though it was working for once, as I kept the revs up and let the locked differential chew its way through about a foot of soft, heavy snow.  It seems the way to get through deep snow with the two wheel-drive Ranger is to keep the rev’s up and let it paw away, because as it passed the point where I thought it would lose momentum and stick (necessitating a rescue with my truck), it just kept going at about jogging speed.  It carried on through snow that was quite a bit deeper and harder than I expected, and we gratefully reached the grass on the sunny side of the field.  What impressed me was the lack of axle-bouncing of the sort I get in my Toyota when spinning in deep snow.  The TM’s axle stays in place well while spinning.

Family members accuse me of deliberately trying to get stuck with my toy.  But how can you trust a machine if you don’t know its limits?

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

Saturday afternoon the fine weather lured me out on the crust with snowshoes. As I marched along, camera in hand, surrounded by exquisite March beauty, I kept yearning for a good freeze. If this snow were hard I could drive the golf cart in a straight line all the way to Kingston.

Alas, I have a fatal attraction for crust, starting in my early years in Westport with expeditions on mountain and lake, and I’ve never lost the urge. It’s a magical time of year when the whole world turns hard and you can travel anywhere, over lakes, fences, thickets, beaver ponds – it’s all under a heavy layer of crust.

It was a particularly fine March afternoon when Don, Bob, John and I borrowed a ski-tow rope from Ansley Green, tied it behind my old VW Beetle, and went skiing on the Little Rideau.

I was first up because they were my skis and I had had one lesson. Don Goodfellow drove. The Beetle would only do forty-five on the crust, so after a round of the bay I tried to get a bit more speed by cutting side to side behind my tow. I found I could jerk the light car sideways if I came up beside the driver, braced myself and pulled.

The vibration from the rough surface made it feel as though every bone in my feet had come loose and was pinging around inside the boots, but apart from that it was a thrilling ride on the vast, icy surface. I swung to the right, checked on Bob Conroy in the passenger seat, ignored John Wing making faces at me through the narrow back window, then whipped all the way around to Don’s side and gave a massive tug. The rope broke.

I still can’t believe I did this, but I kept my balance in that sideways slide for a very, very long time, until I stopped. After that I didn’t want to ski anymore, and no one else wanted to try it either.

Next weekend John had access to his dad’s favourite toy, a very fine military-surplus Ford Jeep. Again it was a cold March day, but the series of thaws and freezes during the week had reduced the snow pack to an asphalt-hard crust, while smoothing the landscape out just enough that we thought we’d try to explore the Upper Mountain by Jeep. There’s a campground on the site now, but at the time it was just granite and brush, and the Jeep picked its way over the large mounds with little difficulty. There’s no thrill quite like driving on the crust.

Then we hit the frost hole. It was just a small flat area of snow, but John’s Ford dropped through into this big puddle and sank to the axles in a heartbeat. It didn’t stop there, but slowly oozed its way down into the mud until the goo topped the seats. We’d been stuck before, but never anything like this. Now what?

I remembered hearing a local tale about a crew who had laid railway track across a sink hole filled with gravel back in the railroad era. The chief forgot to move their locomotive to harder ground overnight. All that was left in the morning was bent track on both sides of the hole. They never saw their engine again. We needed to do something fast.

I’d remembered seeing Floyd Snider and his bulldozer at the dump as we drove by, and Floyd was the sort who would help us out, so we hiked the half-mile across country to ask him what we should do.

“O.K., Boys, I’ll just finish up this little bit. Then I’ll come over and give you a hand.” Surely enough, Floyd soon left his work and walked the dozer back on our tracks to the stranded Jeep. “You dropped into a frost hole, Boys,” he chuckled heartily. Floyd positioned the dozer and sent John into the muck with the heavy winch cable.

Fortunately the Jeep still had all of its military towing equipment in place. John felt around in the waist-deep mud until he snagged Floyd’s cable onto the nearest hook. The three of us leaned over and with some effort dragged John free.

The dozer stretched the cable a bit, but then the Jeep reluctantly slurped its way free of the massive suction of the mud. It was one sorry looking Ford sitting there in the muddy slush when Floyd reeled up his winch cable, left us two shovels, and returned, singing, to his work.

He had made it clear that we had to clean the mud out of the Jeep’s running gear before we started it. We appreciated the help and the advice, and worked frantically to get the engine compartment clear before everything froze into a block. Then the tough little beast started right up, apparently none the worse for its adventure. Another hour with a hose in Wing’s garage and it was as good as new.

We stayed on the roads for the rest of our explorations that spring.

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.)

Golf Carts in Winter

November 24, 2007

A good golf cart can go head-to-head with an ATV in summer and win most rounds. In the winter it’s a different story. Although my machines have made many epic voyages on the frozen lakes (and occasionally snowmobile tracks), everyone will admit that the golf cart is not designed for winter.

My first machine, a Yamaha G1, had a reversible 2 cycle engine, so it started and ran well regardless of the temperature. Various bits would ice up, though, and require a defroster hose run from the tailpipe of my truck to the underside of the cart. With snowtires it had traction to rival a VW Beetle, though, so I got into lots of mischief with it.

A 2 cycle EZ-Go had a transmission whose cable would freeze, so it worked as long as you wanted to go forward.

When those two died I went with some trepidation to a four cycle EZ-Go. The first two winters with it were a write-off, as it would start fine and then starve for gas as it warmed up and not revive until the next thaw. Then on the Buggies Unlimited Forum last winter EZ-Go Mike, a contributor from Minnesota, told me the problem lay in the hose that runs from the crankcase to the fuel pump. Seems each piston stroke fires an impulse through the tube to power the fuel pump. He told me if I re-routed the hose so as to leave no place for moisture to accumulate, there’d be no more ice blockages shutting down the cart. After several tries I managed to twist the hose just right, and now it starts and runs fine in the cold weather.

The 4 ply trailer tires I use on the cart are useless in snow or mud, so today was the day for the winter tires. On they went and out I went to play, though to be truthful the snow was a little too deep for the EZ-Go. I had to stay on the flats or face a walk home.

Few things in life are as much fun as driving a VW Beetle over frozen snow into areas where one should not go. One of my old stories deals with this impulse:

A golf cart offers much the same sensations, though dulled somewhat. But then I’m not as keen on long walks home as I used to be.

UPDATE: When Charlie and his pal Shiva hit the farm on Christmas Day with bags of camera equipment and mischief in mind, the EZ-Go received quite a workout. They drove/pushed it through a foot of snow back to the woodlot, then mounted a remote-controlled camera outboard for some stunting shots.