Snowmobiles have had a profound effect on our winter experiences. In the photo of Bill Wilson and his 1958 snow machine in The Bones of Skeleton Lake (page 219, 227), it is readily apparent how designs have changed. Bill’s was one of the early recreational snow machines, the Polaris Autoboggan, weighing close to 1,000 lbs with a speed of about 20 mph.
Polaris Sno Traveler Autoboggan, 1959
Research for Bones uncovered reports of accidents on the lake ice. Before snow machines appeared, a horse-drawn sleigh pulling logs broke through the ice and the team and sleigh were lost. On December 20, 1889, Charles Robertson, the first Reeve of Cardwell Township, disappeared while walking on a frozen Skeleton Lake while carrying out tax collecting duties. Around 1910, Samuel Alexander, a tax collector, drowned in High Lake while inspecting logging camps.
Dennis Goring was the first of several cottagers to mention a more recent incident that occurred in the 1960s. A large snow machine broke through the ice in some sixty feet of water and sank while pulling an ice hut from Wilson’s dock to a cottage on Anderson Island.
Art Insley described the snow machine as having a large red cab that could hold a few people, similar to Bombardier’s Snow Cat, a commercial or industrial-purposed vehicle built to carry passengers in a covered cab. It was early winter and the group had been advised not to go on the ice as the centre of the lake was not sufficiently frozen. Luckily, they had cleared the snow off the top, so were able to open the roof escape hatch to get out. A group of scuba divers from the city came up to attempt a salvage but had no success. They put the ice huts around the hole for warmth and protection, but apparently had no experience at that depth and water temperature.
Bombardier B7, 1939
Brian Lacombe said the salvage had to wait until summer. Water depth remained an issue but divers brought in a barge and worked for a month to bring up the machine. The Lacombe kids rowed over from Island M to watch for some summer entertainment. It was pulled to shore at the White Boat Cove Marina in Beaman’s Bay and towed away.
Does anyone else remember this winter time-accident or other close calls?
A Little Bit of Snowmobile History
Snow machines began to evolve in the 1920s. In 1927 Carl Eliason of Wisconsin patented his motorized toboggan that defined the first workable, single-track, one-passenger snowmobile. At a young age Carl was interested in hunting and trapping and started operating his own trap line. His chronic foot problem made it difficult for him to use snowshoes and led him to experiment with other forms of winter transportation. In 1924 he began working on an over-the-snow vehicle he called a Motor Toboggan. It was powered by a 2½ horsepower Johnson outboard marine engine mounted at the front of a long toboggan. It was steered with skis under the front and driven by a single rear endless track over which the operator sat. Production was limited.
In the mid-1930s, Joseph-Armand Bombardier of Quebec built the first commercial machine. Bombardier’s interest in a winter vehicle also came about with a health issue when after a blizzard, his young son fell ill from peritonitis and died because he could not be taken to the nearest hospital. It was Bombardier’s sprocket wheel-and-track system that defined the first practical snowmobile in 1935. Bombardier’s machine floated on the track that propelled it while other machines floated on a ski or toboggan frame propelled by a track system. Bombardier’s design principle was the basis for present-day snowmobiles.
Bombardier patented and began to sell his B7 (Bombardier; 7 passengers) commercial model machine in 1937. It could carry seven passengers and travel at 30 miles per hour. The B series machines that evolved were used by country doctors, ambulance drivers, utility and telephone companies, forestry operations, and the post office. The front-ski design made the machine difficult to use in deep snow or rough terrain and while new technologies have replaced it, they continue to be used mainly in the north.
In 1959 there were many companies building recreational machines but Bombardier launched the first commercially-produced snow machine for recreational sport, the Ski-Doo. Bombardier had christened it the Ski-Dog but a printing accident in the promotional material gave it a new name, the Ski-Doo. Bombardier is now one of four major producers of recreational snow machines but has sold off its commercial snow machines.
By the '60s there were many producers of snow machines but few survived the inflation period in the early ‘70s. In 1980, Polaris company that had started production in 1954 was bankrupt but a new company emerged to produce the Arctic Cat line.
The snowmobile has given Canadians a new form of winter recreation. With continuing improvements in engines, transmissions, suspensions and comfort, they have encouraged winter tourism and the year-round use of cottages.