There was a day when Ski-Doo was simply a generic name for a snowmobile. Early on, as I recall, Ski-Doo was the only game in town. In the early 1960s, you went “Ski-Dooing,” not snowmobiling. The machines were the invention of Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier. Although the inventor worked many years trying to come up with a snow-going machine, the Ski-Doo didn’t hit the commercial U.S. market until 1959.
The Ski-Doo caught on fast in Maine and by the mid-1960s the loud little machines were popping up everywhere in the wintry byways of the Pine Tree State.
In the winter of 1968, back in Maine after a three-year hitch with the Navy in Oceana, Va., and eager to rejoin Maine and enjoy some ice fishing, a friend and I borrowed a 1962 Ski-Doo from my brother- in-law, Averill Black. My ice fishing buddy and I wanted to ice fish what was at that time a fairly remote body of water, Northwest Pond south of Millinocket. Dragging a tote sled behind us loaded down with pack baskets of tip-ups and a bucket of live bait, we portaged our way into the pond by using an old cutting road off the Brownville-Millinocket highway.
At the time, we thought the machine was the cat’s meow. Not being convinced of its reliability, however, we carried snowshoes with us just in case.
By comparison with today’s “hot,” high-performance snowmobiles this contraption was pretty basic: you might say it was a Model T Ford compared to a Porsche.
The canary yellow Ski-Doo boasted a single-cylinder, 12-horsepower Rotax engine. In idle, it vibrated like an old washing machine with a bad bearing. It was loud and blue smoke was not unusual.
Electric start was not part of the package. You first primed the engine and then pulled a starter cord just like an old Evinrude outboard. But, when it was operational, it was a slow, plodding machine that got you where you were going.
Looking back, this early snowsled had its advantages. It was light. If you went off the trail and got bogged down, it didn’t take Arnold Schwarzenegger to right it or move it to firmer snow. Mechanically, it was as simple to troubleshoot. Like a ’57 Chevy, you knew what everything was when you “lifted the hood.” Spark and gas. Gas and spark. You could actually access and adjust the carburetor jets and change the spark plug yourself!
And properly primed, these 1960s era Ski-Doos would start under the coldest conditions. One January morning in the late 1970s at Shin Pond, with the thermometer pegging at minus 10 degrees, my vintage Ski-Doo cranked on the first pull when a number of later model machines stubbornly refused to fire up even with an ether prime.
One other thing: snowmobile fatalities were a rarity, if not unheard of, back in the early days of Maine snow sledding. The sleds were so slow in those days that they were more a utilitarian machine for ice fishermen, winter campers and trappers than a thrill machine for recreational riding.
Yes, you are right. The unrelenting march of technology cannot be stopped, or even slowed, by an aging outdoor writer’s nostalgic reflections. And, yes, the modern, high-performance snow machine has created not only a major recreational industry, but a lot of winter fun for a lot of Maine folks.
Still, the memory of woodsy winter places made accessible to me and my family thanks to those chugging, rattling Ski-Doos holds a special place in my heart.