SUMMER SNOWMOBILES

THE CONTRARIAN

 

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Dryden was a wealthy place, full employment at good wages, lots of construction going on, and lots of innovation – our paper company was a leader in many ways, especially in forestry technology.  We had a progressive, can-do attitude.

Small aircraft were popular as a way of connecting with the wilderness, floats in summer, skis in winter.  There were even a few snowplanes around as well, for winter access, these were sort of like airplanes without wings, sliding on skis, driven by an engine and propeller.  They could easily get around in open country, especially on our lakes.  Except when they got into slush on the ice, or hit an ice ridge.  They went so fast, so far, so easily, any problem could be serious, a really long, dangerous walk home.  There were also a few Bombardier type machines around, the size of a car, but too much machine for the casual moose hunter.

When practical personal size snowmobile designs became available, Dryden embraced them with a passion, and there were an awful lot of snowmobiles here, very quickly.  There were a variety of designs, the oldest I remember was called an ‘Autoboggan’, built in the 50’s and possibly even 40’s, a wooden-cleated track topped by an air-cooled engine, slow and clumsy but a great improvement on a dog team and at least one local trapper was still using one into the 70’s.  My first experience was with something called a ‘Husky’, again a wooden-cleated track, but on a tractor which pulled the passenger sleigh.  The design which came to dominate by the mid 60’s was what we see today, two skis in front, with a rubber track underneath, and an air-cooled engine driving the track through a variable pitch belt drive which served as both clutch and transmission.

Jim Shorrock was a local blacksmith/welder/handy-repairman, slogan ‘fix anything but a broken heart, make anything but money’.  He was a talented metalworker and inventor, and came up with a number of gizmo’s and gadgets.  As you might expect, he turned his attention to that new contraption, the snowmobile, and some of his inventions became standard on these machines.  First, adjustable, carbide-tipped ski skegs.  Second, he made and sold a very popular kit which would allow snomo owners to modify their machines by widening the ski stance; setting the ski’s further apart than Mr. Bombardier and all his imitators thought right.  This eventually proved to be a universally accepted improvement.

Not directly related to snowmobiles, but something I always thought Ford and GM aught to adopt, was his invention of a simple mechanism to be attached to the back of your pick-up truck, so when the tailgate is dropped, a step emerges below it making it easy to get in, when the tailgate is put back up, the step disappears.

There was a lot of interest in making snowmobiles work in summer, so folks could enjoy the trails year round – we have hundreds of miles of abandoned bush roads to be explored. I believe Mr. Shorrock invented a kit which replaced the skis with wheels; I could be wrong, but certainly there were a number of designs for adapting snomo’s for summer use.  None were particularly successful.

This interest in accessing the trails in summer went in other directions as well; as far back as 1962, Popular Mechanics ran an article with pictures of a home-built motorcycle which ran on two very fat, low pressure knobby ‘donut’ tires, and this attracted the attention of local snowmobile buffs. .  These tires were originally designed for motorized concrete buggies, which were used on large construction projects instead of an army of men with wheelbarrows.  These soft, fat tires made it possible for them to go over and through all kinds of things on a construction site, as mobile as a Billy goat, and that looked like something that might work on our abandoned bush roads.

My job in the mill at the time was making engineering drawings from machinist’s sketches of parts they had made.   I had a good rapport with these very skilled individuals, and one day they brought me the Popular Mechanics article, and asked if I could work from the picture and make drawings they could use to build such a machine.  I did, and they did, and various models of home-made, donut-tire motorcycles appeared on our trails over the next few years.  These were moderately successful, and no doubt the Popular Mechanics article had something to do with the development of donut-tire ATV’s over the next decade.

There also were assorted home-made and commercial models of dune buggies around, but these were primarily designed for running in the desert, not really suited to the brush and ruts and washed-out culverts to be found on our abandoned bush roads, and so easily navigated by snowmobiles.  Dirt bikes appeared, fine for off-road fun, but not able to carry a load and of no use at all on a moose hunt.  So by the late 60’s there was still a demand for a summer version of the snowmobile.  More next week.

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