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VIDEO: Vintage snowmobiles offer ride down memory lane

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Don Omdahl of rural Roseau, Minn., a member of the Snowmobile Hall of Fame who raced for the Polaris Factory Team in the 1970s, was on hand for Saturday's AK Vintage Snowmobile Show in East Grand Forks. Here he sits on a clone of the Polaris racing sled he drove back in the day. Friend Randy Cwikla of Thief River Falls owns the replica sled. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 2 / 4
John Deere snowmobiles were well represented during Saturday's AK Vintage Snowmobile Show at the Blue Moose in East Grand Forks. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 3 / 4
Snowmobiles such as this 1973 Sno Blazer (left), a one-ski machine that resembles a cross between a scooter and a snowmobile, were among the old sleds on display during Saturday's Seventh annual AK Vintage Snowmobile Show at the Blue Moose in East Grand Forks. The sled, along with the Sno-Jet and Rupp next to it, long ago ceased production. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 4 / 4

The snow that fell Saturday outside the Blue Moose in East Grand Forks provided a perfect setting for the collection of wintry, North Country nostalgia displayed outside the bar and restaurant.

Vintage snowmobiles took center stage Saturday afternoon as about 65 old-time sleds were on display for the Seventh Annual AK Vintage Snowmobile Show. The event was open to sleds 1987 and older.

A fundraiser for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, the show is named after Anna Kozel, an East Grand Forks woman who died of cancer in 2010.

Organizers held the first vintage show in East Grand Forks nine years ago. The event then was put on hiatus for a couple of years before being revived in 2014.

Now a fixture on the vintage snowmobile show circuit, the event is held the first Saturday in February every year.

"We try hard to put on a show that everybody talks about," said Merlyn Werner of East Grand Forks, one of the show's organizers.

Don Omdahl, a legend from the glory days of snowmobile racing in the1970s, was on hand for Saturday's vintage sled show. Inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wis., in 2014, Omdahl, of rural Roseau, Minn., raced for Team Polaris as one of the famed "Starfire Kids" from 1970 to 1976 when oval and cross-country snowmobile racing was at its peak in popularity.

A replica of the sled that Omdahl raced for the Polaris factory team was on display Saturday. Friend Randy Cwikla of Thief River Falls owns the clone sled.

"That was the heydays back then," Omdahl said. "Everybody was out there watching the races, everybody had a snowmobile, everybody was snowmobiling on the weekends. Now it's a lot different."

Barely out of high school, Omdahl recalled one of the first big races he competed in for Team Polaris was the Winnipeg to St. Paul I-500, a grueling cross-country race.

"I remember that first day, I had the fastest time, but the next morning, I tried to get out of bed and I couldn't even hardly move, I was so stiff," Omdahl, 66, said. "It took about 5-10 miles to get limbered up."

Omdahl, who raced the I-500 several times, never completed the race.

I had a lot of fastest times the first day but I'd just drive them too hard and break down," he said. "One year, I froze my face and they made me quit. That was pretty rough."

Snowmobiles on display Saturday ran the gamut from industry survivors such as Polaris, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo to long-discontinued brands such as Viking, Rupp, Evinrude, John Deere and Sno-Jet.

In the glory days of snowmobiling in the late '60s and 1970s, "well over 200" different brands of snowmobiles were manufactured, according to Al Seydel, one of the show's organizers. At least a dozen brands, some as obscure as the 1973 SnoBlazer that resembled a cross between a scooter and a snowmobile, were on display Saturday.

The fascination with the vintage sleds is difficult to put into words, Seydel said.

"Everyone had their preference as kids—you grew up on a Polaris, Evinrude, Arctic Cat, whatever, if your dad had one," Seydel said. "Now, we're old enough where we're bringing that back into our era again."

Today's snowmobiles, he said, ride like Cadillacs by comparison.

In addition to snowmobiles outside the Blue Moose, a silent auction and swap meet inside the bar and restaurant featured dozens of items for people to try and win part of the fundraiser, and a sizeable crowd gathered to browse and buy tickets.

"It's a fundraiser, but we also want to have fun," Werner said, adding the vintage shows help to preserve a history that otherwise might be forgotten.

"If you don't have these shows for people to bring and showcase what they have, the interest goes away and the younger generation is going to have nothing to follow," Werner said. "And then it's just going to go by the wayside."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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