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.

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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.