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At the beginning of this winter, I decided it would be fun to try snowmobiling. My only problem was that I didn’t have a snowmobile. I knew a little bit about then, but not as much as I should have when I decided I was going to buy one.
My decision to purchase a snowmobile was much like my decision to buy jet-skis, it was quick and impulsive. The only difference is that I don’t regret buying a snowmobile; I just regret buying the one I chose.
At the time I had never ridden a “real” snowmobile. I had only driven my dad’s ancient (1973) John Deere around our yard. I figured the best place to start looking was Craigslist. The only problem was that I had waited too long to decide I wanted a snowmobile. I was trying to buy one at absolutely the worst time. They were never more expensive than just after the first snow. This is because everybody that wanted to buy one, wanted to buy one immediately. Because of this, most are very overpriced.
Because of my lack of knowledge about the subject, I only had the prices at McGrath Powersports to compare the Craigslist posts to. Now it seems common knowledge that McGrath can be overpriced by more than 200%, but at the time I didn’t know. Comparative to those numbers, it seemed like I was getting a good deal.
I ended up buying a 1996 Polaris Indy Trail 600. It was about $1,500, which is about $400 too much, not a horrible deal considering it was the middle of December. Even though it was old, heavy, and slow, I was proud of my new purchase…at least until I decided to take it farther than my own property.
My first actual ride was with Ben. It was difficult to keep up; he had been riding snowmobiles since he could walk and, needless to say, had much more experience than me. He also had a heavily modified 2004 Polaris RMK 800 snowmobile. It weighed less than half as much as mine, and had more than twice the horsepower.
I still don’t know where we were going for sure, but I know we ended up at a gas station near Brandon. It had already been a pretty hard trip. I had crossed a fence for the first time. This involves going up a steep wooded ramp barely as wide as the skis, and then immediately back down the other side. Too little throttle will cause a loss of momentum and the sled will get stuck. Too much throttle will cause the sled to become airborne and possibly smash the fence crossing.
I had also learned the basics of climbing ditches. I learned the proper way to lean and turn to prevent the sled from rolling sideways down the hill. I had just barely learned this however, and I wasn’t very good at it yet. That hadn’t been a problem yet that day, because all of the ditched had been small and we had crossed them perpendicularly, which takes considerably less skill than climbing at an angle.
As we sat in the gas station, we discussed where we were going to go next. It was around noon, and it didn’t seem like it was time to go home yet, so we decided to follow the trail and see where it took us. I had been informed that the trail got “pretty sketchy” from there on, but Ben told me I would be fine.
I wasn’t fine. The first part of the trail, the heavily ridden, and therefore packed, trail that left the gas station seemed okay. After that, it started to get a little rough, the snow got deeper quickly, and my heavy sled started to sink. The small studs on my track, which was made for groomed trails, couldn’t get traction. Because of this loss of traction, I started to slow down, which worsened the sinking. Soon the air intake on the front of my sled was under the snow. The engine then began sucking snow through the intakes. This snow then melted on the drive components, the clutch and belt. This caused my sled to lose so much power that it cold barely move.
It was then that I realized there was an unusually tall, steep ditch in front of me. I knew I had nowhere near enough speed to make it up if I followed the trail. I decided to go straight up, rather than curving to the left with the trail. I took the risk of hitting a culvert, which can total a sled and also result in broken bones. Luckily there wasn’t one, but there was a huge snow drift. I hit it pretty hard, and it finished my already challenged sled. When I hit the drift it packed even more snow into the front end. It couldn’t melt fast enough, and the engine died.
At the time I didn’t know why my sled had lost power, or why it had died. I thought there was an engine or transmission problem, because I knew it had been leaking fluid. After a useless attempt to pull the 600 pound snowmobile from the drift, I decided it was going to stay there for awhile. We decided to go back to the gas station to figure out what to do.
When we got there, I called everyone I could think of that owned a truck. I hoped we would be able to pull the sled up the hill with the truck from the road. Hopefully we would be able to lift the sled into the back of the truck to haul it away. It wasn’t going to be easy to do, however, because the snowmobile happened to be stuck alongside a busy highway.
As we sat in the gas station, two trucks arrived, on was my dad, and the other was Matt. We figured that was enough people to do whatever needed to be done, do we drove to the stuck snowmobile.
By the time one truck was ready, with a tow rope attached and thrown into the ditch, I had the sled running. It still had no power, but it was running. I still didn’t know the cause of the loss of power, and I didn’t know how long I had before the sled broke down again. Eventually, I had enough power that I could slowly back the sled out of the drift and turn it around.
We decided that we would drive the sled back towards the gas station because the ditch was not nearly as steep. That way it would be easier to pull out of the ditch, and there was a chance that we could keep the truck off the highway and on the gravel road if we did it there.
Ben led the way as we slowly rode back. He made sure that there were no holes or other hazards in the trail that would be problematic for my crippled sled. If it got stuck in the middle, between two driveways, it would be almost impossible to tow.
I walked alongside my sled. I didn’t want my extra weight slowing it down. This was a bad idea. I held the throttle wide open as we moved at a snail’s pace through the ditch. Suddenly there was a loud squeak and a bang from inside the engine compartment. The belt caught on the clutch and the sled regained full power before I realized what happened. As the snowmobile launched forward I barely held onto the handlebars.
My death grip on the handlebars meant I also had a death grip on the throttle, holding it wide open. The sled was quickly accelerating, but I managed to jump on enough to regain control and let go of the throttle. Once I was in control of the snowmobile, I stopped and signaled for Ben to do the same. I wanted to see exactly what had happened.
We determined that the belt was worn out. That, in combination with the large amount of water that had been dumped onto the belt and clutch by the melting snow had caused the malfunction. Once the water dried, the belt was able to grip the clutch. This was a huge relief. All we had to do was swap the belt with the spare, and it ran like new, I felt confident enough with that simple repair, that I didn’t even haul it home in a truck, we were able to make it all the way back home on the trails.