Posted by: winteridge | November 25, 2007


Our Primitive snowmobiles

Here is a story about snowmobiling on the Tug back in the early days of the snow machine, when a 50 mile trip was an all day adventure. This took place back in the early 1970’s, and I originally wrote it for a creative writing course at Syracuse University. Got an “A” on it too. Enjoy.


“Know your limitations and when to exceed them.” This is one of the mottos I have used as a guide in my day-to-day living, and it has served me well on many occasions. I can recall one instance, however, a snowmobiling adventure some years ago on the Tug Hill, when my companions and I ignored this advice. Our disregard for the limitations of man and machine led us into trouble and near disaster.

Our adventure took place in the wilderness know as Tug Hill, or “The Tug”, in northern New York. It is a sparsely populated area, know for savage winter storms and deep snows, conditions which make it popular with snowmobilers, skiers, and other winter enthusiasts. The winter weather can be very inhospitable and unforgiving to the inexperienced or the unwary, but for those of us who were born and raised on the Tug, it is land of unique beauty.

Our large family and friends have been snowmobiling together for many years, and some of us try to get together for a trip nearly every weekend in the winter. This particular trip took place in a sunny Sunday in early April, I believe in 1972. Our snowmobiles were primitive by today’s standards; some early Yamahas, an old Moto-Ski, and the yellow Skidoos that were popular at that time. In most places at that time of year winter is on the wane, but on Tug Hill any signs of Spring were still buried beneath four to six feet of snow. The weather was sunny and mild, perfect conditions for a snowmobile outing.

Our group of eight sleds set out early in the morning for a sixty mile trip into the Lesser Wilderness. My brother Lee led the way, with brother Jim, his wife Antje, my wife Arlene, and two others I can’t recall. We planned to travel over a series of abandoned roads and trails to the west end of what was once the Glenfield-Western Railroad line, down the abandoned railroad to a bridge, where we would follow a network of beaver ponds across five miles of wild unmarked forest. This would bring us to another trail leading to a road and back to our starting point.

My 2 brothers and I had made the trip a few days before, traveling in the opposite direction, so it was familiar country. Or so we thought. We carried with us extra fuel, food, and equipment for emergency repairs to our snow machines if necessary. All of us were experienced snowmobilers, and our machines were in good condition. We were prepared for any possible problem. Or so we thought.

For the first half of the trip all went well. Snow conditions were excellent and all snowmobiles were running well. At first we met a few other travelers, but by the time we reached the old railroad, we were alone on the trails. We stopped for lunch, then traveled on, enjoying the stark beauty of the winter forest, an occasional glimpse of a wild animal, snow-covered hunting camps, and the ruins of a once thriving logging community along the railroad.

Our problems began when we left the railroad bed. We followed a well used trail, found the first snow covered beaver pond, followed up it to the next beaver pond, and we were on our way, we thought. We just had to travel up the pond, cross a ridge, up another pond, find a trail. Simple enough. Unfortunately, the series of ponds came to an abrupt end in a dense cedar swamp. All the old tracks were gone. The only way out was back the way we came.

“No problem, we decided, “we just took a wrong turn”. Finding a stream leading off in the direction we knew we wanted to go, we tried again. Another dead end. We retraced our tracks to the trail, again found another series of ponds, and set out once more. Another swamp blocked us, and only one way out. It took a few more tries before we realized that what we had assumed was a series of beaver ponds on a single stream was actually a vast network of streams and ponds, spreading out in all directions like the veins of a leaf. Without a track to follow, only by chance would we find the right one.

We stopped for a strategy session, and decided that it would be impossible to continue in the direction we wished to go. The short winter day was almost over, and although it might be possible to find our way through the unmarked forest in daylight, to try it at night could be suicidal. We had no choice but to return to the railroad and retrace our course. We must they return the way we cam, about forty miles to hour home base. Or we could follow the railroad in the other direction to the Black River Valley, where the nearest civilization lay about fifteen miles away, at the end of the railbed.

This decision was made for us when we reached the railroad and stopped for a fuel check. We had used so much gasoline in searching for our trail that some of the sleds were nearly empty! There was not enough fuel to get out even by the shorter route. It was time for another strategy session.

Our options were few at this point. We could wait where we were and hope for a rescue, which might take all night. We could pool our fuel, abandon some of the sleds, and try to get out by riding double on the others. Or we could transfer as much gas as possible into one machine and let one of us take the shortest route our to find help. We finally decided that the last choice would make the most sense.

Thus refueled, my brother Lee set out alone. His plan was to reach our brother Fran’s farm at Turin, near the end of the railroad, and return with a supply of gasoline. It would be a 20 mile trip in the dark, alone, over unfamiliar trails. Hopefully, he would have company on the return trip. The rest of us could only wait.

We followed our rescuer as far as our remaining fuel would allow, then found a sheltered spot on the trail and settled down for what could only be a long night. We put our sleds in a circle, wagon train style, then occupied ourselves by gathering firewood and building a fire. An inventory of supplies showed us to be out of food and beer, and down to only 3 cigarettes for seven of us. Rationing time.

There is nothing that can compare with the stillness of the forest on a night in winter. The ominous silence closes in around you like a blanket, with the quiet broken only occasionally by the call of an owl or the mournful howl of a hunting coyote family, either of which will send chills up your spine and cause you to edge closer to the fire and your companions. There seems to be safety in numbers in such a situation, and I think all of us were thankful that we were not alone.

We tried to keep the silence of the night away by talking, singing, telling stories, all reluctant to leave the safety of our circle until the need for more firewood made it essential. More than once it was necessary to reassure the women that distant howl was only a coyote, not a wolf, and not a personal invitation to have one of us for dinner. We probably only waited three hours or so, but to all of us it seemed like the longest night of our lives.

At last the silence was broken by the noise that we had all been straining to hear; the roar of a snowmobile engine in the distance. Then an occasional flash of a headlight against the back horizon, then suddenly our rescuers Lee and Fran were there. We refueled in the dark with no problems, but our problems were not quite over. One of our snowmobiles refused to start.

The result was a nightmare ride over 15 miles of bumpy trails in the dark, over streams and down winding hills, towing Arlene’s riderless snowmobile behind my own. The rest of the night was a hazy anti-climax. We left our snowmobiles at Fran’s farm, caught a ride back to our starting point at the family farm, and arrived home in the wee hours of the morning. We were tired and sore, but grateful that we had not been forced to spend the night, or even longer, stranded in those cold winter woods. And our parents, not knowing where we were or what was happening, were relieved to see us arrive safely.

Looking back upon the experience, it was one that should not have happened, and was an education for all of us. We knew the limits of our snowmobiles, yet we took them beyond those limits. As a result, we didn’t have sufficient fuel to return home. More importantly, we knew that our own familiarity with that area was limited, yet we assumed that we could easily find our way. We exceeded the limitations of ourselves and our machines, resulting in a bad experience that could have been disastrous.



  1. […] Hill wrote an interesting post today on A WINTER ADVENTUREHere’s a quick […]

  2. Enjoyed your cautionary tale…
    Reminds me of our family’s first ski doo in the late sixties. Pushing it through waist deep snow when it quit was not easy. No groomers then!

    Thanks for posting me on your site. Feel free to use full website as a link. I should be able to update regularly now that I am back after a hiatus.

  3. Thanks, Barb. This trip came up in a discussion at our family thanksgiving get-together, and I remembered that I had written about it. I never throw anything away, so I found the story and put it on my computer. Like it was yesterday.

  4. I discovered your weblog web site on google and check a couple of of your early posts. Proceed to maintain up the superb operate. I just extra up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Searching for forward to studying more from you later on!…

  5. A neighbor of mine encouraged me to visit your blog few weeks ago, considering that we both enjoy similar aubjects and I need to say Im quite impressed.

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    • thanks, but it just kind of evolved. still a work in progress. some day maybe I will figure how to make money from it.

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