Powering The ‘Workhorse Of The Arctic’

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The following story appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

Story and 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 thesnowmachine’s track settled on the hard ice below, which brought 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 very bad situation. As I tried to dry out, the two guys I was with wrestled my machine from its slushy grave, all the while reminding me of what I should have done and the fact that I was wasting valuable hunting time.

That experience happened 20 years ago, but it’s still a constant reminder of what not to do when you’re riding in the far north.

The first snowmachine I ever saw, I rode. It was an awkward experience, to say the least, and something that I wasn’t comfortable with, especially as a newbie from the Lower 48. I buried it more times than I can remember, and instances like above happened more often than I can remember. 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 rural Alaska.

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SNOWMACHINES, OR “SNO-GOS” as they’re sometimes called locally, are truly the workhorses of Arctic. Getting around without one can prove to be difficult, especially when most of the year the land is covered in snow and ice.

Starting in October, when the first cold spell hits and the 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 sparkplugs take the place of old ones. It’s time to get ready.

People rely on snowmachines for all sorts of reasons: For many living in rural Alaska, it’s their only mode of transportation. They don’t drive a car or truck, or even a 4-wheel-drive – just a snowmachine waiting to make its appearance once the white stuff starts to fly. All brands are represented too, and in all sizes. There is everything from the really big machines made for hauling freight and long trekking to the smallest, which can be seen loaded down with kids circling backyards all over town. It’s a great time and creates a new appreciation and a sense of celebration that only the cold dark months can allow.

I have seen my share of snowmachines over the years, but I’m still a novice when it comes to most. Here in the Arctic, being able to ride one is only part of the sno-go experience; to truly understand one you must know how your machine works and be able to fix it when and if the time comes – and believe me, that time will come.

Most hardcore snowmobiles that push the limits in the backcountry – where things can go wrong in a hurry – are truly some of the best mechanics when it comes to this endeavor. They 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 group, and have good reason to be so.


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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. If we were lucky, we’d also take home a sheep or two.

It was a 100 miles from town and would take us all day to get there if things ran smoothly. Everything was going well until we ran out of snow. The temperatures fell below zero and we were miles from any marked trail, so we did something dumb and tried to push through it. We shouldn’t have.

My machine immediately overheated, frying everything inside. It was scary, to say the least, but luckily there were two of us and we were able to limp back home on one sled. That was a long night, but we made it.

It was three months before I could get back up there and get my machine and gear, worrying the whole time if it would even still be there upon
my return.

My machine was old back then, but even the newest machines can have problems. Some of the old timers still swear that the older sleds are better, while the new generation only want the latest and the greatest.

One thing is for sure: snowmachines have evolved over time, especially in the last 10 years. Refinements include everything from four-stroke engines to super-wide tracks to digital controls with built-in global tracking systems that are the norm now. How did we ever do without them?

If you’re new to the snow-going world, deciding on a specific brand of machine to buy can become as important as selecting a soul mate and, at times, may be even more so. It’s a hot topic among those who love trekking through the snow on the back of one. When you do, it will forever seal you to a particular camp.

Much like the Ford versus Chevy debate, 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 their own pluses and minuses. Size is also important, and depending on what you plan to do with it, ultimately should dictate
your decision.

There are many places throughout Alaska that offer rentals as well. It’s a growing business and in some of the bigger communities it has become quite popular. Rentals can run anywhere from $100 a day to more, depending on the village you’re in. Most who rent are visitors or tourists who want to experience what gliding across the tundra or digging through deep powder
is like.

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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; that was not a feasible solution due to the expense. I checked around and found a place that had a couple of older machines that I
could borrow.

At first glance I could see that these were early models, though they appeared to be in decent shape. But after 20 miles on the trail I could see that they weren’t. I did get my ox, but getting it back became a problem and we ended up having to call for help. We were fortunately 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 and made me realize just how important having the right snowmachine at the right time is, especially if you live in the Last Frontier. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an author and outdoor writer from 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.

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