Monday, January 26, 2009

The Power Toboggan

The guy who fixed our roof came into the cafe the other day. He was trussed up in three different braces. I gaped. "What happened to you?"

"Aw, snowmobiling. I jumped over a driveway and landed wrong. Then the next guy landed on me."

So far as snowmobiles are concerned, my first impulse is to be a scold. They are very popular in this part of the world. On any day of the week we're likely to see a 14-year-old kid rip through town, well past the speed limit.

But I hold my tongue. I was 14 once, too. And I jumped at any chance to use the family snowmobile: a 1970 Arctic Cat Panther.

My youngest uncle persuaded my grandfather to drop money on this machine when it was still new. It was a noisy two-stroke monster that couldn't break 40 mph. It was heavy, and gallingly dependable. By the time my uncle left town for university, my grandfather was only too happy to let my family take the snowmobile off his yard. I was 12-years-old by then, and only too happy to give it a go on ours.

I had a couple of friends with similar machines. My father would drop me and the snowmobile off at the outskirts of town, and off I'd go with my buds, cutting trails into acres of pristine snow. I also had friends with newer, snazzier, faster machines, but for some reason I never got together with them.

My love affair with snowmobiling began to cool as I grew older. The trouble started one Saturday when my father took me on a tour of snowmobile dealerships. We had no interest in actually buying anything -- we were just curious to see what was on the market. The long and short of it was that for a few thousand unavailable dollars we could purchase a lighter machine capable of reaching speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Also, it wouldn't be too much longer before I turned 16 and could drive a real vehicle -- one with over 350 cubic inches and eight cylinders under the hood. The snowmobile, seemingly in tune with my fickle affections, began to act up. If I pushed the accelerator, she responded only to a point, then cut out and died.

We took it to mechanics. We took apart the carburetor and replaced all the gaskets and aeration screws. We propped the rear on a cinder block and fiddled with the carburetor settings for hours. Nothing seemed to work.

For a while I could ride it at half-throttle, but before too long she wouldn't let me coax her past a quarter-throttle. My younger sister wanted a tobogganing/snowmobile birthday party, and I was enlisted as the designated rider. I ferried eight-year-old girls around the tobogganing hill and through a copse of poplars. The girls seemed pleased with the experience, but beneath my balaclava I burned with shame as cross-country skiers glided effortlessly past me.

I don't remember how the snowmobile finally disappeared from our yard. I expect my father sold her, and passed the money back to his father. The fact that this event didn't even register on my personal radar indicates just how out of love I was with the "sport."

Still am, really. I think these things are a blight on our landscape and a menace to our ecosystem -- possibly even to our survival as a species.

But I have to admit: it was fun at the time.


Carl Dyke said...

Great story and photo!

That's a classic beauty from the age before multiple g-force acceleration became a mandatory design element. Modern sleds don't need a seat as you just hang on the handle bars in horizontal flag flying formation.

I only wish the newer snowmobiles were as loud (quiet) as that old one. The finely tuned rockets that run up and down our streets are noisier than ever. It's really quite noticeable at 2:00 AM - from blocks away.

Darrell said...

You'd think newer machines would whisper through the woods like rubber-tracked Priuses, but no. Louder, whinier and more annoying than ever. And you're right: not a welcome noise at 2:00 in the AM.