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A History of Snowmobiling

June 20, 2024

Snowmobiling at Bobcaygeon: A pleasant drive through snow covered woods on a sleek, reliable snowmobile brings these young people on a visit to their woodland friends

By Guy Scott

Since the snowshoe, no other invention has revolutionized winter travel as much as the snowmobile. In fact, it can be said the snowmobile made the snowshoe obsolete, except as a recreational tool. Inventors had been dreaming for decades of a motorized vehicle that could travel efficiently on snow. In the era before 1950, a lot of weird contraptions were ‘invented’ to move over snow. The earliest contraptions were tried out in the American Midwest and ranged from motorized toboggans to propeller-driven machines on skis. Some inventors even converted Model T Fords as primitive snow machines. But most were awkward, expensive and had numerous drawbacks, including their large size.

In the 1920s, inventors such as Joseph-Armand Bombardier began to experiment with continuous ‘caterpillar’ tracks like those used on bulldozers or early tractors. The earliest steel tracks were too heavy, and rubber tracks were substituted. The earliest snow machines were large, half-tracked vehicles with skis on the front were designed to carry numerous passengers: kind of a bus on snow. These large ‘people-movers’ are still popular today for such groups as ice fishermen and skiers.

Bombardier was a clever mechanic who saw potential in winter travel machines. He set up a company in Valcourt, Quebec to build large passenger snow machines in the 1930s. Most of his early models carried 6-12 passengers and were used as school buses, mail carriers and transport for the army. But the world still lacked a one-person snow machine until the 1950s. After the war, the first reliable 4 stroke (small) engines were mass produced. With this technological advance and a newer rubber track system, Bombardier saw his chance. The first modern snow machines were built in 1956 by the Polaris Company in Minnesota, but they were heavy, slow and expensive. In 1960, Bombardier produced his first Skidoo model of snow machines. They were light, cheap and dependable. It didn’t take long for numerous other companies to release their own versions. By 1970, there were over 100 companies in the snowmobile business, but Skidoo was the largest. Between 1970 and 1973, over 2 million snowmobiles were sold in North America. The snowmobile market became glutted, and gradually declined since the 1970s. Today there are only 4 manufacturers left (Ski-doo, Yamaha, Arctic Cat and Polaris).

Snowmobiles arrived in Kinmount in the mid-1960s. They certainly added to the winter fun and made travel faster, but it soon became apparent that they could be a nuisance as well. The main problem was: Where can you drive them? Most snowmobilers quickly outgrew the backyard and began to range further afield. They became a nuisance on travelled roads and private property. Collisions with cars were common and machines falling through the ice became a regular occurrence, sometimes fatal in both cases!

By the 1980s, snowmobile clubs were organized to provide safe, organized and groomed trails. Anyone who has snowmobiled will understand the importance of the groomed trail. Constant use by snow machines causes a rutted or waved effect that can spoil the trail.

Kinmount was always on the fringe of various snowmobile clubs. To the south was the Somerville Club, to the North was the Haliburton Club and to the east was the Buckhorn Club. All their trails led to Kinmount. The Victoria Railway line became an idea thoroughfare for snowmobiling after the rails were lifted in the 1980s.

The Railway Corridor is linked with trails from all over Ontario and Quebec. It is not uncommon to have hundreds of snow machines pass through Kinmount on any given winter’s day. A count at the railway station one weekend a decade ago counted 1,200 machines on a Saturday and 800 on Sunday. The village became an ideal stop for the sledders; featuring gas, food and sundry supplies right on the trail.

Kinmount village also became a great starting spot for snowmobile tourists. The railway yard is often filled with snowmobile trailers since it is literally right on the trail. The various clubs keep their section of the trails groomed and smoothed. Each club owns several large Bombardier groomers manned by club volunteers. To pay for maintenance, the clubs sell trail passes, and only snow machines with these passes are allowed on the trails.

What was once a cheap and common sport has changed over the years. New snowmobiles cost $25,000-$30,000 each. Add to that the cost of insurance, transportation, gas and the sport is quickly becoming only for the serious.

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