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.

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Drive-by Ice Reports

November 26, 2008

March 20, 2009: We finished sheeting the dock in Newboro this morning, and none too soon.  Yesterday’s task was to haul 150 2 X 6″ planks across 100′ of ice to the dock frame.  Walking was generally solid in the open, but we had to build a bridge of planks near shore.  Beneath the piles the ice was weak in some places, non-existent in others.  A cutoff from a  3 X 14″ pine plank went right through apparently solid ice when it was dropped about three feet and hit on a corner.  Nevertheless, the ice held out long enough for us to complete the dock.

Vehicles on the ice now in this area?  Crazy.

Would I still walk on it?  Yes, with precautions against falling through.

March 4, 2009: We’ve spent the last two days driving pilings for my friend’s new dock on Newboro Lake. The ice is strong and thick out from shore, though I put a foot through at one point as I moved from the sloping ice on shore to the flat part. Water levels seem to have dropped steadily over the last two weeks. We had to deal with top water on the ice because a neighbouring boathouse’s bubbler seems to come on in mid-afternoon, pumping its flow onto the ice above. Nevertheless we were able to work with three tractors and a couple of trucks on the ice in fairly close proximity and there was no sign of movement in the ice. Two of the posts we sank partially the day before were frozen so solidly into the ice that we couldn’t break them out today, even though we pounded on them repeatedly with the bucket of an 85 hp tractor. Unless we had left the piles on bedrock the afternoon before and not realized it, the grip of the ice on those 5 1/2″ steel posts remains a mystery.

February 20, 2009: Newboro Lake shows consistent, thick, hard ice anywhere that I have drilled a hole over the last two weeks.  This can change quickly, but at the moment I feel comfortable driving my truck on familiar sections of the lake.  Last week I explored Clear Lake and the Scott Island bays of Newboro Lake with my Utility Vehicle, and found the same ice depth wherever I drilled.  I’ve seen open water in the middle of Clear and up into the Elbow too often for me to trust the ice in the current, though.

February 9, 2009: Yesterday’s attempt to fish on Newboro Lake left everyone with very wet feet, due to the six inches of slush which covered the harbour area.  Only one determined crew drove their SUV out to an ice shack.  A brief jaunt onto  The Big Rideau at Portland showed that the crust of new ice over the slush was only about an inch deep.  I retreated to shore as soon as it cracked under my  1000-pound vehicle.

February 6, 2009: A drive around to ice fishing hotspots today yielded discouraging news. According to snowmobilers Brad and Danny Wilson of Chaffey’s Locks, virtually no lakes are currently travelable away from plowed tracks because of slush and deep snow. I drilled two holes on Newboro Lake and one on The Big Rideau and all showed ice deeper than 24″, but the snow accumulation is such that only snowmobiles can travel freely, and they are at great risk of getting mired in patches of slush. While driving on a plowed track on Newboro Lake today I felt my truck wobbling in a manner consistent with a vehicle on very thin ice — I must have passed over a large puddle of slush beneath a crust of hard ice. Surely enough, I soon came upon the tracks of a previous vehicle which had broken through the thin ice into the slush below, but presumably had had enough momentum to regain the surface. I parked close to shore and walked part-way back to the danger zone to drill a hole, but I hit only solid ice where I drilled. The Big Rideau seemed solid on its well-established ice roads, but I didn’t go off them. There were no fish. Neither were there any recent tracks on Indian or Rock Lakes, save for some foot traffic close to the cottages on Rock. Buck and Devil Lakes, as well, have virtually no tracks from traffic. A lone cross country skier set out onto Devil Lake without difficulty.

JANUARY 27, 2007: I spoke to a snowmobiler today who claimed to have recently  hit 90 miles per hour on Upper Beverley Lake on good snow conditions.  He heard that a party traveling the Upper Rideau got into ten inches of slush above the ice, though.  That got my attention.

JANUARY 25, 2009: From the Rideau Ferry Bridge I noticed a lot of ice fishing activity on the Lower Rideau out off Knoad’s Point, so I continued on to Beveridge Lockstation to check for access to the lake.  The messages on shore were ambivalent:  a road has been plowed to leave a bare-ice route out onto the lake, but a sign posted where the snowmobiles go on said, “Open water in middle:  keep to the eastern part of the bay.”  The message wasn’t dated, but was well written and in good condition.

On the other side of the Rideau Ferry Bridge I saw a road plowed out onto the main part of the Lower Rideau.  There were no tracks of any sort running beneath the bridge with its currents, though.

I noticed at Port Elmsley and again at Chaffey’s Locks yesterday that they’re running a lot of water at the moment.  My heart was in my mouth as I watched three nimrods on snowmobiles crossing very close to the open water on Opinicon Lake.  Ski Doos and wintering swans definitely should not mix.

JANUARY 19, 2009: To judge by the vehicular activity on The Big Rideau now there must be lots of ice.  I  haven’t drilled a hole lately, but before the frigid week just ended I found just over a foot of ice in a sheltered bay on Newboro Lake.

Google seems to prefer this article’s address to the one I’ve kept updated.  Sorry.

December 26, 2008 The Big Rideau and Otter Lake are frozen as far as I can see from the road, but I haven’t seen any tracks on the ice. Generally there’s lots of evidence of movement around the edges of the harbours, but not this year.

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I encourage you to post your observations.  Be sure to identify the location from which you have observed the lake or river in question.

Renewing Acquaintances

January 18, 2008

Attending my uncle’s wake in Westport this week proved a jolt of sorts. I talked to Salem farmer Bob Ambler for the first time in 54 years. When I told Howard Maynard’s daughter tales of hunting in their woods during my childhood, he reminded me that his mother had also kept me supplied with .22 ammunition, a practical way to cut down on the woodchuck population on the property.

Jack and Mary Dier don’t look a day older than they did in 1973. How do they do it?

A couple of people at the wake were able to identify me by the blurry photo above my articles in The Review-Mirror.

The jolt came though, when Linda Bryce told me that she had read the column about the Volkswagen Beetle to her dad just before he passed away this week. It wasn’t until a bit later that I made the connection: Linda is the cousin who bought the car from us, and her dad, Don Hannah, had replaced the floorboards for her. They would have known the Beetle even better than we did.

It’s far too easy over the years to forget the intricate connections which have made us who we are.

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Offroad Adventures with a 1973 VW Beetle

By Rod Croskery

Later on in life a man may forget the name of his first love, but he will never forget the intimate details of his first new car. Mine was a yellow 1973 VW Beetle Custom. I chose the Custom model rather than the Superbeetle, because I was skeptical of those newfangled MacPherson struts — thought they were a fad, and CV joints looked to be a maintenance nightmare.

The Beetle was a great car on the road, especially after I replaced the stock bias-ply tires with oversized radials. The thing was amazing on ice: just how amazing I was to discover one Sunday afternoon in February.

The Big Rideau had watered up in mid-winter, leaving a triangular, five-mile expanse of perfectly glare ice. This was too much to resist. Gingerly I drove on at Portland and worked my way up through the gears, getting the feel of the unfamiliar car on the unfamiliar surface. Everything seemed quite well balanced, so I got up into 4th gear and settled into a cruising speed at what I considered the limit of adhesion, 68 miles per hour.

A Ford Courier with a cement mixer in the back came up behind me and then pulled ahead. This would not do. Determined to catch this upstart, I gradually sped up. The Beetle complained, squirmed a bit, then, resigned, settled in all the way up to 80. All of the sudden everything let go at once. There was no gradually-increasing oscillation which normally leads to a spin-out with a Beetle. Nope. All of the sudden I was spinning like a top.

This was quite an interesting sensation: on a zero-traction plane, you go from a vector of 80 mph north to a similar vector counting in about sixty revolutions per minute. I’d never spun that fast or for that long. I started to worry about oil pressure, so I shut the engine off and shifted into neutral. Still spinning, not even slowing, I turned on the tape deck. It worked fine. I was still a mile from any shore and still spinning, so I just settled back and enjoyed the ride.

Eventually the back wheels caught up and the Beetle coasted to a stop. The Ford Courier was long gone over the horizon. I started up again and continued my tour. A new Corvette blew by me, and I chose not to take up the chase. After about an hour of glare-ice driving and a tour to Rideau Ferry and back I had a pretty good feel for the car. 68 miles per hour remained the optimal cruising speed on ice.

The Beetle served us faithfully for ten years and 130 thousand miles. Then it received new floorboards and lived with my cousin for another three. Its only ill-effect from its many off-road adventures was that when we sold the car it was 1 ½ inches longer than when it was new. My dad’s horses had had to tow it quite a lot, sometimes out of ditches, and sometimes like a toboggan over the snowdrifts to the ploughed road. A couple of times I buried the thing while driving on the crust. Once, disgusted, my dad made me wait until spring to recover it. I had to use my wife’s Datsun for a month until the snow melted. What a grouch!

We got rid of the Beetle when our new son arrived. The Rabbit was much safer, but useless off-road. My dad could hardly contain his relief, but two months later he bought his new grandson an army surplus Jeep to drive around the farm.