To say that snowmobiling has changed over the past 30 or so years is a huge understatement.
The technology involved with the machines, the clothing, the trails – every aspect of the sport – has grown by incredible leaps and bounds.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the feeling snowmobilers get when they hop on a Polaris, Ski Doo, or Arctic Cat, turn the key (or pull the rope), hear the engine roar, and smell the two-stroke exhaust in the air.
I know every time I fire up my sled it instantly takes me back to being a kid on a snowmobile with no cares in the world. For as much as I love the sport now, I haven’t spent a lifetime snowmobiling. In fact, I went a couple of decades without even giving the sport a second thought. But a few years back my wife and I were looking for something to get us through the dark, cold northern Minnesota winters and decided to invest in a used Polaris two-up.
After one trip we were hooked.
Now it’s a family affair featuring multiple sleds and many hours on the trails that run through the backwoods of the Arrowhead.
Before that my only snowmobiling experiences mostly revolved around riding on the back of someone else’s Ski Doo or Polaris as a teenager or trying to fix a broken Arctic Cat that just wouldn’t cooperate.
When I was about 14 o4 15 my dad bought a used Cat that when it ran was the coolest thing ever. I can’t recall what year it was made (probably the early 1970s or late 1960s) or which particular model it was, but I do remember it had the old leopard print seat.
I spent quite a few days on that sled, zipping back and forth in the field behind my house and carving paths through the snow.
Until the day it just quit running.
No matter how many times my dad pulled that rope – nothing. I remember him standing in two feet of snow yanking it over and over again until finally giving up and going inside, exhausted and red in the face.
Stubbornly I kept at it for days and weeks – and maybe even years (it’s been a long time and my memory is fuzzy) I’d go outside, turn the key, and start pulling the rope. Over and over and over. Friends would offer tips and tricks like pulling the plugs and pouring gas into the cylinders or shooting gas into the carb (maybe it had two carbs, who can remember all the details) but alas, that thing would not fire up.
Back then we didn’t have the internet in our pockets via cell phones so there was no Googling the answer. If you didn’t know anything about small engines – which we apparently didn’t – then there was little hope of rousing the Cat from its slumber.
Eventually I gave up and settled for riding on the back of my neighbor Lance’s sled - if I remember correctly, was some version of a Polaris. I’m sure today that particular sled would be considered a vintage model and might even be sought after by the kind of guys and gals who collect snowmobiles.
But in the early to mid 1980s it was state-of-the-art.
Living in the country as we did then definitely had its advantages when it came to motor sports. We had miles and miles of untouched woods and fields to traverse – not to mention dirt roads glazed with frozen snow.
That’s where we spent a lot of time, ripping down the road, slamming on the brakes and sliding sideways on the slick surface – sparks flying. Every so often the machine would tip side-ways and we’d fall off, but no one ever really got hurt. We weren’t moving fast enough to do any real damage.
When I entered high school, I took a small engines class. For the first part of the year we tore down lawn mower engines and put them back together. After that we were able to bring in our own stuff to work on.
The first thing we did was tune up my friend Corey’s Arctic Cat. It was also a 70’s model with the sweet seat and the big engine. We cleaned it up nice and within a week his old beater was running perfectly.
Next, my friend John and I went to work on my sled, which it turned out, just needed the carbs cleaned. It took a while to get the parts and gaskets we needed to do the job – there was no eBay back then – but once we had it all back together, that old Cat fired up with ease and I was finally back in business.
The following weekend my friends and I made plans to ride from Buhl to Kinney and beyond if we could. There were no groomed snowmobile trails near us then you could get around through the woods on some unofficial routes.
We left town early and for the first half hour or so of that ride I remember feeling like it was the greatest experience ever. There I was floating across the snow through the back woods of northern Minnesota, not a care in the world, free as a bird.
I must have had a huge smile on my face – until the Arctic Cat died. Again. I was zipping along at a fine clip when it just bogged down and eventually shut off. It would start again, but it would hardly go a couple hundred yards without it bogging down.
One of my friend’s ended up towing me back to town where I spent the next who knows how many hours pulling the rope and cussing.
Nothing. Not even a burp.
It was in that moment that I swore I’d never, ever, go snowmobiling again.
On an Arctic Cat.