Snowmobiles were a huge new thing fifty years ago, folks would ride all over just for the joy of getting out in mother nature in winter. I remember the Hillcrest School yard and Hatch’s fields around it being tramped flat and shiny ice all winter long as north Dryden folks used it as a testing ground, and kids roared around there. Leo St Aubin, our neighbour on Second Street, brought one home, and all winter his three sons, too young to go out on the land on their own, would roar it endlessly around their backyard. Until it ran out of gas, or more often died of natural causes and Leo had to resurrect it. Good start to one of Dryden’s longest-running businesses, the St Aubin’s are still proficient at handling and repairing snowmobiles.
We would go out in groups at night, usually with a wineskin — $4.99 at Canadian Tire, looked like leather on the outside, was plastic on the inside, chemicals leached out of the plastic by the wine (item 411 on the liquor store list) probably shortened out lives by an average of let’s say a year or more. Those early machines were notoriously unreliable, if a group of say five went very far, it was a fair bet one would end up being towed home. So it was a bit risky to go very far by yourself, anyway going in groups was more fun. Also the lights on those early machines were grossly inadequate; anything over 10 miles an hour at night was taking your life in your hands.
One of the mainstays keeping the town running back then was Public Works Manager Eric Oliphant, and he became my right hand man when I went to work for the town. Here is one of his favourite stories.
A popular night snomo run was from Dryden down Wabigoon Lake to Wabigoon; spend an evening imbibing and listening to country music at the Tavern, then ride home in the middle of the night. Eric and wife Marg, riding double, went on that Wabigoon run one beautiful night, with a contingent of maybe eight friends. Returning after midnight, in an appropriately mellow mood, he did not notice Marg fall off the back of the machine. Arriving back in Dryden, they all scattered to their various houses. When Eric got off his machine at his house and discovered Marg was missing, he had to round the convoy back up and they all went roaring off toward Wabigoon to find her.
She recounted that after falling off on an ice ridge and waiting what seemed forever, a flock of machines came roaring back across the lake from Dryden, but with their pitiful little lights they could not see her and roared right past. When they came back, she ran toward the nearest one, waving her arms and shouting, but he still went roaring by. After several passes, exhausted, she sat down on the ice ridge and got out a cigarette. She had hardly struck a light before she was surrounded by machines; they just needed that little cigarette lighter flame as a beacon to find her. Good thing she was a smoker!