Trail Tales: A Chip Off The Old Ice Block (Brad Stafford)
My snowmobile experience started, like many of my generation, on an Arctic Cat Kitty Cat. Then I remember that wonderful winter when my dad told me it was time to move up to a full-size sled. At the time he had a 1976 Arctic Cat Pantera 5000. Yeah, I know, it wasn’t a 5000cc machine, it was 500ish twin, but that’s the way they named the sleds back then.
I had driven it before, in the fields around the house under his supervision, but wanted to venture out on the trails myself, with my friends. Dad told me he was confident of my riding skills and that there was only one more step needed before I was free to roam on my own. I had to start the sled by myself. That was no easy feat, as I didn’t have the strength to pull it over fast enough.
Everyday after school I would go out and try and try. I just couldn’t get it to crank. Then came the day I actually got it to pull over but just not fast enough. I flooded it. With the spark plugs removed, I pulled her over to dry out the cylinders, then grabbed two clean plugs, when a light bulb came on in my head. What if I only put one plug in? So that’s what I did, and I was actually able to pull it over. After a few good pulls she fired up. I can still remember the feeling of pure joy as she just sat there sputtering on one cylinder.
I gave it a few minutes and let her warm up. I then started the other side the same way. Another few precious minutes went by it was gut-check time. It was probably the adrenaline, but on the first pull, with both plugs in, she fired up and was purring like a kitten.
I was still out riding around when dad got home that day. He had a curious look on his face as he walked towards me, yet the smirk he was trying to hide told the real story. He asked if I had help from Grandpa or Uncle Bob. “Nope, it was just me.” He poked around bit, asking just how I accomplished the feat. I was more than excited to tell my secret to success. He kept his word and from then on I was free to ride.
The Snow Skipper
Fast forward twenty-some odd years to when my son was at that age where he thought he should be able to ride unsupervised. His first snowmobile was a Snow Skipper. Since he was limited to our small front yard, his favorite thing to do was to pack the entire area down until there wasn’t a spot of untouched snow left.
That little sled had a Briggs and Stratton engine and was quite the little machine. Of course we gave it some upgrades, widening the ski stance to make it more stable, adding heavy bed springs to the rear suspension, and installing a few ice picks. The biggest modification was replacing that awful steel-flipper throttle with a motorcycle twist grip.
After the thrill of the front yard wore off, my son began pleading to ride in the field across the street by himself. I told him there was only one thing keeping him from doing that. He needed to start the sled by himself. He tried and tried, but you had to hold the throttle open a little bit when you pulled it over, and he wasn’t quite strong enough to do both at the same time. Then came that fateful day when he did. His experience was a little different than mine, though.
He cracked the throttle with one hand but decided to lock it open with a little wedge of some kind. That would allow him to use both hands to pull it over. Good plan? Well, almost. He was able to pull it over, and it did start, but the throttle was locked open a little too much.
I was surprised and proud at the same time
I was inside at the time and heard the engine come to life. I was surprised and proud at the same time. In an instant that was all erased when I heard the engine rev up and my boy scream. I ran outside to find him in the driveway, head down, with tears in his eyes, and his sled was across the street buried under a guardrail.
The impact knocked the wedge out of the throttle and she was just sitting there idling away. Nobody got hurt and fortunately no vehicles were going by at the time. We walked over, got it out, brought it in the garage and did damage assessment. He was hurting more than the sled.
Once emotions calmed down, we had a great talk about how proud I was of his Yankee ingenuity. Maybe it was that adrenaline rush, but after that day he could start the sled by himself, without that wedged throttle, and the field next door was now his to explore. Yup, he was definitely a “little chip off this old ice and snow lovin’ block.”
On the heels of a winter that registered one of the lowest snowfall totals in many years, many of us are telling stories of winters past. Hopefully this upcoming year will bring all of us lots of snow, new stories and adventures to share. I’ll see you out on the trails… “Keeping the Rubber Side Down”
Photos by Stan Kopala