A Ride with the Chumps!
Yes, you read the title correctly. This is not to be confused with the Ride with the Champs, a long ride with well-known dignitaries of the snowmobile racing community's past, which takes place in Wisconsin each year.
This was a ride undertaken by some highly non-dignified unknowns in Minnesota. And man, was it fun!
Back in February of 2015 I had a spare Monday on my trip to Minnesota, and found my friend Swede up in Pine River wanted to guide me on a bit of a back country ride on old leafers. My friend Goose, purveyor of all things vintage Ski Doo, was game as well, and drove up from Cambridge, MN to come along.
We had an awesome time that Monday! Highlights of the day included my John Deere 300 seizing the engine half a mile from Swede's place; Swede's Yamaha powered Scorpion Super Stinger shearing the bolts in the drive sprockets a mile or two back on the trail; and Goose and I having a lovely sunset ride, two upping on a '72 TNT as Swede became the pilot of the 335 Oly Goose had been riding.
Naturally, the ride had to go on for the 2016 year, as well! Both Swede and Goose were in, and word was put out on a couple sled sites around the world wide web to see if anyone else wanted to come along.
A Monday ride isn't for everyone. But we found that if you want the trails and the back country to yourselves, it's the icing on the cake.
Monday after the Waconia, MN show, we met at Swede's just north of Pine River, MN. I was right behind Goose with his trailer load of yellow machines, my own trusty '73 Oly in the bed of my Dad's rusty S10.
Shortly, Chris arrived from Brianerd, his '63 and '65 four stroke powered Ski Doos in his trailer, then Duane showed up with his '71 634 Cat.
We exchanged greetings, insults, and off-color jokes before enjoying a short tour of Swede's pole barn of sleds, and had a warm up in his wood-stove-heated shed/workshop as we suited up to ride.
Goose had brought along four yellow machines. Last year, I rode a nice '72 TNT single he had, and decided I would ride that this year, too. Chris determined his '65 Ski Doo with the single digit horsepower Kohler four stroke was not speedy enough for this crowd, so he took Goose's offer of a '72 399 Ski Doo Olympic. Swede, of course, was on his Super Stinger with Yamaha liquid power, and Duane's Montana-piped '71 Panther let us know where he was at all times!
Off we went! You have to ditch bang about a half mile from Swede's driveway to reach the main trail on the old rail road bed. Well, the TNT was not running well, four-stroking intermittently and bogging. Then something flew past my head! It was the rewind handle.... Fearing the worst, (I had a recoil explode on me a couple years back, taking out the starter cup), I turned back to Swede's.
My next unintended victim was “Thor,” the '71 Ski Doo Elan Goose had brought along, with a swapped-in 335 in place of the standard 12 horse my '71 Elan had in high school, and Thor had electric start!
A twist of the key and off we went. However...something was not right with Thor. His secondary clutch was sticking open, stuck in high gear. On the railroad grade one has to stop for road crossings and drive ways. Each stop meant having to coax poor Thor up to speed. Once up to speed it was just fine.
A mile down the trail we stopped again. Duane's Cat had some electrical problem. Some wires had gotten hot and his lights were inoperable. This wasn't of immediate concern, but the loss of spark on the PTO side was. Nothing a little fiddling couldn't solve, and we all needed a beverage break, anyhow.
Once the Hirth in the Panther was cracking out both pipes, we rode on. I was following behind our host and guide Swede. The plan was to run the 5 ½ miles on the railroad grade to the town of Backus for an early lunch before heading in to the back country.
Swede stopped at a crossing, then immediately past it hooked right onto a little side trail which was not thin and icy like the railroad grade. I followed right along, it was less than a quarter mile of detour and we were out on the main grade again. We stopped and waited....Chris came along on the 72, but where were Duane and Goose? We figured they would catch up and we hit our throttles and went on, not far to go now. With Backus in sight, Thor suddenly lost power and came to a halt....
I popped open the hood – the engine had lots of steam coming off of it, and would NOT turn over. Uh-Oh! Well, that was the end for Thor the Elan that day. I looked the machine over while we waited, and noted the plastic drive sprockets were disintegrating, as well. Good thing he died right on the trail near a road crossing in sight of town!
I hopped on back of the 72 Oly with Chris and we followed Swede right in to town. Still no sign of the other two. I called, and Goose said that he thought Duane wanted to turn back and Duane thought Goose wanted to turn back. So Duane had headed back to Swede's and Goose followed... good thing! We had them put the Cat and my Ski Doo from the bed of my truck on to Goose's trailer, and drive up to Backus, where we would be waiting in Willard's bar. Burger baskets were ordered along with some warming beverages. The missing two arrived, and the party was complete again.
We decided to get going. Once outside, we unloaded the Cat and my Ski Doo, and picked up the dead Thor. Then I noted a chunk of rubber on the ground near the Oly that Chris was riding. A bogie tire piece! Investigation showed the rubber had come apart on two of the back tires, so now the metal flanges were riding right on the track. Thus poor Thor was robbed of a bogie set, and his gas tank was pulled out and the gas donated to my Oly, which was low. See, I am so cheap, I wait for another machine to break down, then take its gas...We FINALLY got rollin', all of us together! We turned off the railroad grade, crossed frozen Pine Mountain Lake, and headed in to the Foot Hills state forest and miles of unbroken trail. Now this is the kind of riding we all liked...like the old days, just boondocking through the ATV and horse trails where nobody had laid a track. About 8” to a foot of snow, plenty to ride over and cover any boo boos in the route, but not enough so we all got stuck! Yes, a low snow year, but if there had been 2 feet plus back there on those unbroken routes, we would have just been burying one machine after another, as the trails were tight. The 72 Oly that Chris was riding was having a really hard time on the hills, just spinning. Goose stopped and tightened the track some, but it persisted. We reached a spot with a fairly short, steep climb, and the machine just would not make the grade. I was in back, and stopped while Goose got off the sled he was riding, and grabbed a ski along with Chris and pulled/dragged it the last few feet to the summit.
I recalled riding with a friend of mine years back, his Elan was doing the same thing. Broken bogie suspension springs! The track just was not being held against the ground. I got off my machine and walked up the hill, as the wounded Oly was blocking the summit. Both the Scorpion and the Cat had easily made it to the top, but then discovered there was no place to turn around, and had to manhandle the machines 180*.
Meanwhile, we had to do something about the tractionless 399 Ski Doo. Goose whipped out his tools from the cavernous Swiss Army backpack he wears, and got to it. The center set of bogies was borrowed from the '70 Oly (“Trusty Rusty” as his daughter has named it) and put in the rear on the 399, and the front bogie set from the 399 which was still good, was moved back down from the raised set of holes to the stock position. The bogie set with the broken springs was safety wired (more tricks from the bag of Goose!) and put in the center spot on Trusty...follow so far? Machines were manhandled around, and back we went. Ahhh it was sweet! Wending our way around the trees, up the hills and down, around a couple ponds, and down the logging roads. Following Goose, we went around one or another deadfall in the trail, and bored through the brush. This is not the ride for you if you don't want branches scraping your hood, for sure. We stopped for a break and decided to cut back in to the town of Hackensack, top up fuel as needed, and head on up the railroad grade. Why? So we could go past the place we broke down LAST year, so we could say we went farther, that's why!
We headed out of the Foothills forest and ditchbanged our way to Hackensack. Now THAT takes me back....I don't recall any actual marked trails back in the early 80's as a teenager, but I do remember lots of road shoulders, driveway approaches, and crossing frequently as the “ditch” ran out on one side or the other. Duane started sidehilling on some of the steeper parts along MN371, and we all followed suit to a degree- I stayed back from that Cat, as that combination of a cleated track and a big Hirth under the hood could sure throw the snow chunks out the back! I can describe the visual, but unfortunately, words just cannot convey how sweet the music was coming from those Montana pipes. And while I am at it, the smell of what ever oil Swede was running in that Scorpion was fine enough to be marketed as ladies perfume.
As always, the 1970's iron get lots of second looks when you roll up into a gas station, even one right off the trail that gets snowmobiles pulling to the pumps regularly. People are always surprised that we actually ride them for distance. After this we stopped at the Hackensack beverage store for some “cough syrup” for the road. We then headed back down the trail, and this time made the turn off we wanted to, where last year we were thwarted by sheared driveshaft bolts! That little spur route unfortunately ended up to be in rough shape, with lots of bare spots as there is an uphill section facing south, and it had gotten some traffic the previous two days. We regrouped at the next road crossing. It was getting dark, Duane had no headlight, and we all decided to head on back out to the route we came in on.
We started to get spread out- Duane was intermittently losing spark on one side with the Cat, and then we lost the Goose. Yep, 'Ol Trusty Rusty let out a puff of smoke and died along the way. Goose had to hop on with Swede and make it to where I was waiting with Duane, who would quickly swap his 634's PTO side plug with the non-firing magneto side plug, which would then pick up spark and run on two (for a few miles!) For the second year in a row, Goose and I had a nice, cozy ride together on a vintage Ski Doo. Swede's Scorpion had something wrong in the suspension. And when we reached Backus, it was obvious – a bearing had gone in one of his rear idlers on the “para rail” suspension! The Scorpion went on the trailer with the wounded Elan. The 399 Ski Doo Chris was riding was loaded, as well – and I was told one ski was nearly cracked in half at a spring saddle! This left Duane, with no headlight, to follow me on his Cat the remaining five miles back to Swede's manse, while the rest of the party piled in Goose's pickup to do a search and rescue on the dead Olympic back on the trail a few miles. Oh! My tail light was now dead. Still had a brake light though...but shoot, Duane like myself is from Todd county, where we don't need no steenking lights! Duane did not seem to have a problem following me, but I kept trying to look back and make sure he was there. I would slow down until I heard the RAP RAP RAP of his pipes, then go again. All was well until the turn off from the railroad grade to run the ditch over to Swede's. The ditch was tight, several driveway crossings, having to cross from the left side to the right and back when it got steep or ran out of snow. Finally Duane gave up, I saw sparks as he had to slowly take the shoulder for a few hundred feet.
Mrs. Swede came out and met us, Duane loaded up, and we said our goodbyes as he had to get going. I lit a fire in Swede's warming shack. The rest of the gang showed up, and we had a warm up and a few laughs about the day. I had heard someone refer to this as “Eric's ride” and to me, that seems wrong...then I said this was more like “Ride with the Chumps!”
I can't wait to continue the tradition next year. Until then, keep those bogies greased and the track side down.