Snowmobiling 101

I was ten when my family moved from Florida to Colorado. We went from sea level to an altitude of 9000 feet.  Upon this mountain, my family bought a Dude Ranch. My parents had what mom called a restless spirit. Later I realized this was a euphemism for bug eyed crazy.  Life was a tad different in the mountains. Our school in Florida was a ten minute car ride away.  In Colorado we rode snowmobiles 8 miles to catch the school bus which carried us another 8 miles to town. My parents had definitely lost their minds.

Preparing for our daily descent required layering; lots and lots of layering.  Long Johns, jeans, two layers of socks, boots, undershirt, over shirt, sweater, jacket, scarf, snow mobile suit, goose down mittens, down face mask, goggles and helmet.  Skin exposed to the elements at -40 degrees suffered frostbite.

In the numbing cold of early morning, my father had to start our snowmobiles. Eons ago snowmobiles were pull-started.  Imagine hand cranking a commercial sized lawn mower and you’ll get the gist.  At ten and twelve years of age, my brother and I didn’t have the strength to turn over a cold engine. Pop would crank them up and send us on our way.

Our skills were challenged on many days. Bad weather could drastically altered conditions on the narrow dirt road.  At times, several feet of snow or huge drifts appeared overnight.  After making it down, we’d get into our truck, peel off several layers, and call my parents on the CB radio.  If we didn’t call within a half hour, my dad came searching for us.  He said letting us attempt the trek on our own was “Character building”.  I was becoming quite the character.

I was notorious for wrecking my machine. My mother said I was more adventurous than my older sibling, but I think my father had a different perspective. He shook his head and muttered a lot.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’d have stand in front of him and explain what happened. An example is the time I fell off my snowmobile at the top of a hill. I watched helplessly as it zoomed down the slope and dead centered one of only three trees in the field below. This time, I managed to barrel roll into a steep ravine, snap off my windshield, and sling a few parts far afield.

My father loaned me his snowmobile hoping against hope that I would keep it intact. It had  the largest engine of all and brakes that could best be described as non-existent. I had made it through the whole week with nary a scratch on his machine. A few more days and I’d be in the clear.  On Friday we got off the school bus and headed to the machines.  It was nice, warm, 10 degree day in February. Cranking up dad’s behemoth would be much easier.

We used some clever tricks to get the snowmobiles started by ourselves. The engines were not frozen solid as in the early morning, but getting them to turn over still took all of our strength.  Here was our system.

1)      Wrap bungee cord around throttle, keeping it wide open

2)      Pull choke out to full

3)      Use both hands to pull crank 3 or 4 times

4)      As the engine sputtered to life, remove cord from throttle and disengage choke.

I wrapped the throttle, set the choke and grabbed the pull-cord with both hands.  Normally it took three or four cranks to get it started.  I gave one hearty yank and the engine unexpectedly sprang to life.  Stunned, I had only a nanosecond to jump onto the running board as the machine sped off. I was barely clinging on, frantically trying to get the bungee cord off the throttle, as I passed my brother.  The kill switch was on the other handlebar so there was no way to reach it.  I raced down the road, gaining speed as I fought that cord.

Two seconds later, I launched up the ice hill. You know, the one made by the snowplow? My brother later said, “You rocketed off the top of the ramp and went up 15 or 20 feet. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen you do.”

I knew all was lost as I slip the surly bounds of earth. Everything quieted as I achieved altitude.  The sun had begun to soften in the sky and the wind stilled as upward, upward I flew.  Like the space shuttle losing its main fuel tank, the snowmobile rolled slowly to the left as I arced to the right. I was floating, soaring, and then falling in slow motion. Houston…we have a problem. I heard a crash and felt the sudden thud as my helmet hit the frozen tundra.  As I lay on my back, parts of snowmobile sailed over my head like a skein of geese.  I’m talking major parts here: Tread, one front ski, and a few sprockets of some sort.

With a mixture of horror and relief, I realized I had survived the crash.  Not only did I survive, I didn’t have a scratch on me.  No broken bones, twisted ankle, cut, or bruise.  The same could not be said for Pop’s machine.  I started to cry as my brother came up beside me on his snowmobile. “Are you okay?”  I blurted out, “Pop’s gonna kill me!” I begin gathering pieces of god knows what and putting them in my pocket.  I clearly was in shock.  This amount of devastation could not be fixed.

We walked over to what was left.  The carnage at ground zero was amazing.  I never knew there were so many pieces under the plastic and metal housing.  I looked at the part in my hand and gently dropped it upon the carcass.  In shame, I rode home behind my brother as snotty sobs froze my nose shut. I dreaded standing in front of my father to once again explain how I managed to destroy another snowmobile

My brother took it upon himself to tell my dad the tale.  Very sporting of him, I must say.  My dad’s face went crimson as the story unfolded. He stopped my brother halfway through.

“It’s my fault.”

What did I hear?  Could this be? My father continued,

“I came down to town and on the way home I warmed up your snowmobiles so they’d be easier to start. I guess I should have left a note.”

Relief flooded my soul. I was going to live to face another day!  My father asked my brother, “How bad is it.?” An uneasy silence filled the room. Slowly, I reached in my pocket, removed some parts and laid them quietly on the table.  My dad lowered his head and muttered something, but this time I think I caught a glimpse of a smile.

©Bowen Barrs and Communicationchaos January 2014 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bowen Barrs and Communicationchaos with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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