Alaska’s Rise Of The Snowmachines

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

Photos by Paul D. Atkins


The only thing you could see was the hood above the icy-cold water. I was still hanging onto the handlebars as the snowmachine’s track settled on the hard ice below, bringing me to a complete standstill. My snow pants and boots were full of water, and I was in panic mode, wondering if this was the end for yours truly.

Luckily, I made it out of the overflow –water on top of ice–and built a fire to warm up, easing the pain of what could have been a bad situation. The two guys I was with wrestled my machine from its slushy grave. It reminded me of what I should have done, as well as the fact that I was wasting valuable hunting time. This experience happened 20 years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I MISS SNOWMACHINES. I long for the just “jumping on” of turning the key and going – heading out of our Kotzebue, Alaska, yard towards Front Street and out onto the ice. It was fun, but even more so, it was freedom. There were those early morning meetings with Lew in front of the post office, deciding what we were going to do for the day. I miss it all.

The snow and ice we had here in Oklahoma recently reminded me of all that and how much I truly cherish those Last Frontier memories, and it also got me thinking and reminiscing.. The first snowmachine I ever saw, I rode. I call it an awkward experience, to say the least, and it was something that I wasn’t comfortable with, especially as a newbie from the Lower 48. I buried it more times than I can remember; instances like I related above happened more often than not. It wasn’t until years later that I learned to ride one and came to realize the importance and significance of these incredible machines, especially to the people of the far north.

SNOWMACHINES, OR SNO-GOS, AS they’re sometimes called locally, are truly the workhorses of Arctic Alaska. Without one life can prove to be difficult, especially given that much of the year the land is covered in snow and ice.

Starting in October, when the first cold spell hits and snow begins to fall, a frenzy of snowmachine activity begins. Covers are pulled from machines and inspections start taking place in yards and garages around town. Tracks are inspected, grease guns emptied and new spark plugs take the place of old ones. It’s time to get ready!

People rely on snowmachines for all sorts of reasons; for many who live in rural Alaska, they’re the only mode of transportation. Sometimes there’s not even a car, truck or even a four-wheeler to rely on; just your trusty snowmachine waiting to make its appearance once the snow starts to fall.

All brands are represented too, and in all sizes, from the big machines made for hauling freight or hitting the backcountry, to the smallest models loaded down with kids and found circling backyards all over town. It’s a great time that creates a new appreciation and a sense of celebration that only the cold dark months provide. I have seen my share of snowmachines over the years, but I’m still a novice when it comes to most. In the Arctic, being able to ride one is only part of the sno-go experience, but to truly understand one you must know how your machine works and be able to fix it when and if the time comes.

Believe me; that time will come. Most hardcore snowmobilers – those who push the limits in the backcountry, where things can go wrong in a hurry, – are truly some of the best mechanics. You have to be, especially when you’re miles from home in subzero weather and your machine breaks down.

Being able to fix the problem and get back home before you freeze to death will give you a better appreciation for what you can and cannot do. Some guys go solo, which is even more demanding and the danger levels are a bit higher, while others choose to travel in bands, hoping that somebody in the group has experience. I belong to the latter, for good reason.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I was traveling north through miles and miles of snow- infested tundra with a hunting friend of mine. Our goal was to make camp that evening in hopes of taking a few wolves and maybe, if we were lucky, a sheep or two. It was 100 miles from town and would take us all day to get there. Everything was going well until we ran out of snow. Amid below-zero weather and miles from any marked trail, we did something dumb and tried to push through it. We shouldn’t have.

My machine immediately overheated and fried everything inside. It was scary, but luckily there were two of us and we were able to limp back home. That was a long night and it was three months before I could get back up there and get my machine.
Even the newest machines can have problems. Some of the old-timers still swear that the older machines are better, while the younger generation only wants the latest and the greatest. One thing is for sure: Snowmachines have evolved over the years, especially in the last decade. Everything from four-stroke engines to super-wide tracks to digital controls with built-in global tracking systems is the norm now. How did we ever do without them?

If you’re new to the over-snow- traveling world, deciding on a specific brand of machine to buy can become as important as selecting a soul mate; at times it may carry an even higher degree of difficulty. It’s a hot topic among those who love trekking through the snow on the back of one. When you pull out your wallet, it will forever seal you to that particular camp.

Much like the Ford versus Chevy controversy for car owners, choosing what is best depends on what you like. There are many brands to choose from and many places throughout Alaska to buy one. Skidoo, Polaris and Arctic Cat are the more popular selections in the Arctic, each with its own pluses and minus. Size is also important and depending on what you plan to do with it should dictate your decision.

There are many places throughout rural Alaska that offer rentals as well. It is a growing business, which in some of the bigger communities has become quite popular. Rentals run from $100 a day and up. Most of those who do rent are visitors or tourists who want to experience what gliding across the tundra is really like.

MANY YEARS AGO, I drew a muskox tag in a community other than my own. I didn’t have a way to get my machine there other than pay to have it flown in by aircraft, which was not feasible due to the expense. I checked around and found a place that had a couple of older machines that I could borrow.

After arriving, I could see that these were older models but they appeared to be in decent shape. After 20 miles on the trail, I could see that they actually weren’t. I did get my ox that trip, but getting it back became enough of a problem that we ended up having to call for help. Luckily, we were found by a couple of true-blue backcountry guys who knew snow and were riding machines built for the Arctic.

It was an incredible experience, to say the least, and it made me realize just how important having the right snowmachine is when you live in the Last Frontier.

I still own a snowmachine, even though I retired and moved south. I kept one old Polaris and my old wooden sled. They both reside at my pal Lew Pagel’s place in Kotzebue now. They sit in his Conex, lonely and waiting to get out on the snow.

Hopefully I will get back up there one day to travel the ice and cut trails through the deep mountains, even though I always left leading up to Lew. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an author and outdoor writer formerly of Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.