November 01, 2016
Snowmobiling is a highly modern way to have fun in the snow. The first United States patent for a "motor sleigh" was in 1916. Even before that, people were trying to motorize their sleighs, or put skis on their automobiles.
Still, snowmobiles didn't really catch on until the early 1960s, when Joseph-Armand Bombardier came up with what is considered the modern snowmobile. His Ski-Doo was lighter and smaller than anything which had gone before. These machines became so popular in snow country that a Minnesota insurance salesman, Ralph Plaisted, used them to lead the first undisputed surface conquest of the North Pole in 1968. (That's right. The expeditions of Robert Peary and Frederick Cook were never satisfactorily confirmed.)
As a child, I read about the Plaisted Expedition. It had fanned the flames of my adventure-seeking heart. Unlike rafting the Amazon (too many bugs) or climbing the Himalayas (too easy to fall off something,) this was a thrilling trek I could actually picture myself being able to do.
But, one thing at a time. I still needed to try snowmobiling.
the right terrain
There's a wonderful system of trails crisscrossing the Adirondacks, but I needed the benefits of a tour guide and the ease of someone else's snowmobile. This led me to Farmhouse Snowmobiling out of Gabriels.
This area is a great place to try snowmobiling, especially for first-timers. It has, for the Adirondacks, an unusual amount of relatively flat terrain. This is where we have our local farms, both tree and vegetable. Here is where the land offers beautiful vistas with a fringe of mountains. Here is where there are miles of interesting trails for snowmobiles.
As we might have guessed, the headquarters for Farmhouse Snowmobiling is a picturesque farm with a red barn, farmhouse, and fields on every side. It was a great day for it, with just enough overcast to keep the sun warming the air, and rather warm, just below freezing temperature. This was the afternoon, when the winter day reaches its warmest peak. Which also meant it wasn't going to get warm enough to get our snow all slushy.
There are many places near Saranac Lake where, every time I see an expanse of flat snow, I remind myself it's a lake. But that's not true here, because we can see the occasional giant rock or group of trees sticking up from the snow.
I park near the farmhouse and join a couple in ski attire and a group who have come up for a hockey tournament, which includes several pre- and early-teen boys and their parents.
We are all newbies who have signed up for the one and a half hour tour.
Skills most anyone has
I have come into this with one possible advantage: I used to ride a motorcycle. But the machines we will ride today are much easier. They have automatic transmissions, hand-warmers built into the grips, and windshields.
We pick up our helmets inside and then go out to where the snowmobiles wait. Here we get our orientation talk from our two guides.
The instructions are simple. Right hand throttle, left hand brake. How to hang on to your driver, which does not apply to me, as I am on my machine alone. Don't tailgate! An excellent precaution for folks who have no idea how long it will take them to come to a stop.
Soon, we are ready to head out.
LIKE JAMES BOND
One guide leads, while the other one moves in at the end. There's some teaching along the way, as people ask questions and even swap drivers and riders.
Though this is a low speed stage of the game, I already find the snowmobile remarkably easy to operate. When I first turn the throttle, I get noise before I get movement. Once I'm used to that, and my braking distance becomes known, it's easy for me to keep up with the pack.
By this time we have left the fields and are finding ourselves more in the woods, though the trails remain flat. This is an excellent choice for us first-timers. I can imagine how adding slants to the trails would make for a much more challenging learning curve.
As my confidence grows, I find myself goosing it a little on the straightaways, all the way up to the dizzying speed of almost 30 miles an hour.
It was exhilarating! I felt like James Bond!
The apparent speed feels much greater on the sled, with the scenery blurring by and the motor roaring beneath me. And I was one up on James Bond, too.
No one was shooting at me.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Perhaps more than any other winter endeavor, we must dress properly if we are contemplating snowmobiling. Thirty degrees at 30 miles an hour can actually feel like negative 3 degrees.
However, I never experienced such a drastic drop. I wasn't going that fast for very long because we got breaks. I dressed for it. The helmet, windscreen, and body of the snowmobile blocked much of that wind. The entire time, I felt warm and toasty.
As previously instructed, I had brought a thick scarf to seal my neck into the helmet for warmth. I had on my heaviest boots, the ones with a thick felt liner and padded uppers. I had on my parka, gloves with a Thinsulate lining (these also block the wind,) and my secret weapon; a layer of silk long underwear.
Many of my fellow sledders had on ski outfits, which also performed well. Many combinations of cold weather gear will work. As pointed out by the proprietor, "Don't show up in jeans and sneakers and expect to ride."
Unlike two wheeled conveyances, a snowmobile will balance itself on its wide-spread skis. This makes it easy to concentrate on keeping track of the sled ahead and staying in the center of the trail, away from the built-up ridges on the sides, which could be frozen into solid barriers.
Turning is a bit trickier, but anyone with bicycle experience can recall how we need to lean into the turn. Because of the skis, it's not a tight turning radius. It took me a bit of practice to learn where and when to get the turn started, and how fast I can go to do so.
Some of my fellow riders had to learn by doing. One set of riders took a turn too sharply, and had to slide to a slow motion stop in a snowbank. Another was probably going too slow; this can lug the engine and make it unhappy.
But such incidents were brief and no harm was done. From what I observed, early teens really want to operate the sled—but are not yet able to be that good at it on their first attempts.
Adults, on the other hand, are more able to keep multiple instructions in their head at once. Once I got a knack, I easily kept up with the group, negotiated turns with panache, and enjoyed our stretches of straightaway.
My growing expertise was confirmed by one of the guides, who complimented me by saying, "You are doing really well for a first-timer."
Our hour and a half tour seemed to go by quickly. It wasn't just the speed we were going at, it was how much fun we were having. On our return loop, I got to see some of the most spectacular scenery yet, as the Adirondack Mountains loomed up over a broad plain. It was difficult to keep my gaze focused through the windshield.
But I managed. Because that next North Pole expedition might just need... a blogger.
Another reason I Love NY!