February 5, 2022

FTV: Snowmobile Adventures


     Perhaps it would be closer to the point if I entitled this FTV ‘Historical Snowmobiling Adventures’ as I haven’t ridden one since our kids were in elementary school.  Grandpa Ed (my dad) always kept a Ski-doo Elan at camp he called ‘the kid’s machine’ so they could take a spin when we stopped by.  Whether it was on the old logging roads behind the camp or on the iced over end of Huron Bay, the kids enjoyed it, but we never got around to buying one of our own.  I appreciate the local snowmobiling groups who toil to keep the miles and miles of trails in tip-top shape, but my experiences go back far enough that I have never been on a groomed trail.  In fact, I think my experiences with motorized sledding could actually qualify as an episode of the old radio and TV show You Are There (produced by CBS from 1953 to 1957).  My brother Ron is a dedicated ‘sled-head’ so at least part of our family is still in the game.

     Okay, perhaps I exaggerate the ‘historical’ part a little.  I was born in 1953 and Joseph-Armand Bombardier founded the L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitee (Bombardier Snowmobile Limited) in 1942 at Valcourt, Quebec.  He had actually begun playing around with the idea when he assembled the first snowmobile in 1935 (there were some earlier models, but they were pushed by a propeller rather like an airplane on snow).  Bombardier’s first vehicle employed a sprocket wheel and track drive system and was steered by skis.  The company manufacturing Ski-doos these days was spun off from the parent company in 2003 and now goes by the handle BRP (Bombardier Recreational Products), still headquartered in Valcourt.  BRP currently operates manufacturing facilities in five countries:  Canada, the United States (with plants in Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Michigan), Mexico, Finland, and Austria.

     Leroy Simonar, owner of Simonar Sports in Luxemburg, WI, claims they are the ‘oldest and largest Ski-doo dealer’ in the country.  Their business was actually founded as a blacksmith shop in 1928 by Leroy’s father, John.  The business was taken over by his three sons when the senior Simonar passed away in 1955.  I do not have any statistics to challenge the ‘largest’ dealership claim, but I do have questions about Leroy’s comment about being the first dealer.  Leroy says, “We sold our first snowmobile in 1965.”  By 1965, our family was already on our second or third Ski-doo.  We had been riding a sled for at least three years by then.  All three of our machines were purchased from ‘Col.’ Bud Wessen who was selling them out of his garage in our Marquette neighborhood.  His garage/shop was only three blocks up the Norway Avenue hill from our house (and two houses to the west on Kaye Street).  I remember going up there with my dad on occasion to see what was new.  We will discuss more about Bud’s business in a bit.

     When WLUC-TV 6 reports from one of the many antique snowmobile gatherings organized around the Upper Peninsula, I always enjoy picking out the models I remember from back in the day.  Our first Ski-doo was a rather boxey affair so the shape is pretty easy to spot.  There weren’t that many companies back then so the same can be said for spotting the first models of Arctic Cat, Rupp, Yamaha, and Polaris machines one would see in the old days.  When the boxey Ski-doo models gave way to sleeker and more powerful machines, we upgraded several times but never ventured to buy a different brand of machine.

     We were fortunate to live across the street from a rolling farm field bordered by streets on the west (Norway and Lincoln) and by Wright Street to the north.  The eastern edge butted up against a residential area and what was then the western border of Northern Michigan University.  Hedgecock Fieldhouse was visible from our house and there was a small creek occupying the valley between Hedgecock and us.  NMU would eventually expand to the west (beyond Lincoln when they began building married housing units and the new presidential residence), but in our earliest snomo days, we had nothing but wide open spaces even though we were well within the city limits. 

     I asked my brother what he remembered about us getting into snowmobiling.  Dad was still in the Michigan State Police in the early 1960s and the Marquette post mechanic (Dave Mileski, son of my former first grade teacher and father of one of my classmates) worked with Bud Wesson.  Mileski had a camp north of Marquette at Saukshead Lake.  He and Bud invited the troopers and other post workers to a cookout – snowmobile demonstration one nice winter day.  He had outlined a large oval track on the ice and gave everyone the chance to try and get the fastest time for one lap.  Ron figures he was about the lightest rider so he claimed the title.  When he retold this tale, I immediately remembered two things about that day.  I did not take part in the timed racing part, but I did take a spin straight across the lake and back, thus marking my first time on a sled.  The second thing I remember was the menu:  it was the first time I ever ate rabbit stew.  

     As a marketing plan, it worked out pretty well as the guys from the post were now hooked.  A few years later, my dad began organizing a weekend snowmobile trek from Halfway (the little berg between Marquette and Big Bay) across the Yellowdog Plains (south of the Huron Mountains) to our camp at the head of Huron Bay.  There were no groomed trails to take this sled caravan from point A to point B, just a series of unplowed paths and logging roads.  It took a considerable amount of map work to plan the route plus some seat of the pants intuition about which way to go when they encountered multiple forks in the road.  After the first few trips, it took much less backtracking to get back on the right trail.  I know my mother would fret about this yearly rodeo until dad was back home on Sunday night, but they managed to survive several of these cross country treks into the 1970s.

     Our earliest machines were rated by the horsepower of the engine.  I am not sure how powerful  our first machine was, but I will guess it was in the 10 HP range.  By the time we picked up Ski-doo number three, it had an unbelievable 18 HP engine, much larger by far than our first two machines.  We maxed out with the last Ski-doo I drove regularly which came in at 24 HP.  About this time, the rage became comparing the number of cubic centimeters (or CCs) the engine had.  Not being overly mechanical, I found myself sticking with the old ‘HP’ system which I was accustomed to.  The one thing I noted was the insane need to go faster and faster as the machines employed bigger engines.  I always kind of liked the speed range where you could fall off the sled at full throttle and get up laughing.  Once the sleds got a little too fast for the ‘fall off and live’ metric, I began wearing a helmet on a regular basis.

     One of the cross country trips took place when I was in my late teens and dad asked me to come along.  Truth be told, he said, “I want you to run the 12 horse machine to camp for me so I can pull the sled with the extra gas with the 24 horse.”  The smaller machine had been picked up so dad and Ron could toss it on and off the truck when they wanted to go ice fishing.  With everyone else on the trip riding the new, more powerful machines (some up into the 36 HP range), I had the smallest, slowest sled in the bunch.  It wasn’t a matter of getting lost as the dozen or so sleds ahead of me left an unmissable trail to follow.  When we hit the trail, I started in the middle of the pack and was soon passed by everyone following behind.  My entire day consisted of watching them zoom ahead in a cloud of snow while I ran full throttle trying to catch up.  Every time they took a break to discuss which way to go, I would arrive just in time to see them jump on their machines and roar off again.

     We followed what is known as the Northwest Trail which skirts the southern boundary of the Huron Mountain Club.  We built a bonfire and boiled a batch of bratwurst where the trail crosses Cedar Creek just outside the HMC boundary.  I was never quite sure exactly where we were then, but a couple of years later I figured it out.  When I worked at the club, I occasionally delivered camping supplies to the Mountain Lake boathouse.  It was down the lakeshore not too far from where Cedar Creek enters the south end of the lake and therefore, only a few miles from where we built our bonfire. 

      With lunch done, everyone hopped on their machines and zoomed off again.  I put my throttle thumb down to the handlebar and continued trailing the pack.  Once we got to the hills just east of Huron Bay, I felt a little more comfortable because we had been hunting and sledding this area for many years.  I did not want to disappear and have them come back to look for me, but there were several different routes I could have taken to camp once we got that far.

     One of the guys on this trip was a true motorhead – tinkerer who decided his Arctic Cat just wasn’t fast enough.  He had upgraded it with a small airplane engine and if he had added wings, it just may have been fast enough to lift off.  Offered a chance to try out the super Arctic Cat on the ice on the bay, I decided against it after watching the first volunteer.  He made the mistake of putting the throttle down all the way.  The steel cleats on the track dug into the ice and the machine took off like a scared cat.  It soon stopped, however, as the rapid acceleration caught the driver by surprise and he did a full backwards somersault off the seat.  

     The return trip was much less exciting.  One of the other machines broke down so my 12 HP ice fishing mobile was loaned to the sledless driver.  When they departed Sunday morning, I stayed at camp wondering how late I would get home and how tired I would be in school Monday morning.  It was early March so it wasn’t even starting to get dark when it dawned on me that I should make some dinner because I wasn’t going to get home that night.  Mom and dad showed up about 9 p.m. and after a full day of riding and then a two hour trip back to camp, the plan was to spend the night and bring the broken sled home with us.  

     The one trip I made during the cross country caravan years happened my sophomore or junior year in college. We didn’t have a phone at the camp yet, so I was surprised when dad called from the Huron Bay Tavern (aka:  Billy the Finn’s).  They had another breakdown so I was tasked with picking up one of the guy’s snowmobile trailer in Marquette.  The plan was for me to drive out to camp on Saturday, pick up the machine and then deliver it back to the house where I picked up the trailer.  Just as we got to Three Lakes (not far past Michigamme), the trailer blew a tire and we had no spare.  My buddy Wayne was along for the ride, so we parked the trailer at the little store that used to operate in Three Lakes and left it for the owner to pick up after the trip.  We loaded the broken sled in the truck and got that back to Marquette just fine, never wondering why we had to bring a trailer with us to begin with.

     Even when we had a shell covering the box of the pickup, we had no trouble hauling two machines.  When Mitch and I would go out of town to ride, we would run my machine into the box from a snowbank and then lift his machine in backwards so they would both fit side by side.  Mitch said he got his first machine before he could drive so he also bought a trailer.  He lived in the residential area in east Marquette (riding the streets was frowned upon), so his mother would take him out of town, drop him off to ride, and then come back later to pick him up.  

     Mitch and I did our fair share of riding and there are two trips that stick out in my mind.  Mitch’s sister lived just south of Marquette in Harvey.  We started at her house on Cherry Creek Road and snowmobiled to the area known as The Crossroads (halfway between Marquette and KI Sawyer Air Force Base).  Again, this was well before trail grooming became the norm and I remember this trip because all the snomo traffic on this route had really roughed things up.  If one can imagine riding a snowmobile over waves, then one can imagine how sore we were after the constant up and down jostling we took getting there and back.   We had a pop and a burger at the Crossroads Bar.  Before we headed back, we had a discussion along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be great if they could smooth out the trail every once in a while?”  Little did we foresee what was to come.

     The second epic trip actually involved KI Sawyer AFB.  We parked at a gas station in Sands and went cross country on some of the old roads that crisscross the flat sandy plains in this area.

At one point, we encountered the perimeter fence at the south end of KI Sawyer’s 9,072 foot (or 1.7 mile if you prefer) long runway.  The wind at the top of the Sands Plains can be pretty wicked and we found a spot where the snow had drifted over the top of the cyclone fence.  We debated whether we should ride up and over the fence until we noticed the huge arcs of snow being tossed to the side by the gigantic snowblowers clearing the runway.  It was a bright and sunny day so Mitch said, “If we can see them, then they can see us and if we enter the perimeter, they will send someone to find us.  Let’s go around.”  Having once found myself staring down the barrel of an airman’s rifle when I was helping my dad clear the fence right-away on the other side of the airbase, I wasn’t eager to repeat the scene.

     Snowmobiling closer to home, we had easy access to the Dead River Basin.  The old dam at Tourist Park just north of Wright Street created a lake we could follow upstream until we got to the area known as Forestville.  One had to be careful to not get too close to the Forestville or Dead River dams as fluctuations in the water level would sometimes leave areas of unstable ice or even open water.  We stuck to the shoreline areas and the old logging roads being ever mindful that we were pretty far from home if we ran out of gas.  One of the routes we took to the Dead River passed by an old sawdust pile formerly used to store blocks of ice back in the day.  The deep pit between mounds of sawdust was never filled when home refrigeration killed the market for blocked ice.  We used this area the same way skateboarders use an empty swimming pool or skateboard park.  How we managed to go up, around, and down these embankments without rolling a sled still makes me marvel at the lengths we would go to have fun in the snow.

     There are more historic snowmobiling tales to tell, but as I often say, they will have to be saved for another day.  In the meantime, thank you to all of the people who keep the trails groomed and the tourists who use them.  Just remember:  we would rather have you stimulate the local economy in every way possible, except the parts that involve search and rescue or hospital services.


Top Piece Video:  Ringo rides a double track Ski-doo!