BRAD DOKKEN: There’s something about those old snowmobiles

My mechanical know-how is limited to changing sparkplugs or putting on gas, but I've always been a fan of old snowmobiles. Just don't ask me to fix them. I spent a fun couple of hours talking old snowmobiles -- or snowcats, as we call 'em in nort...

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My mechanical know-how is limited to changing sparkplugs or putting on gas, but I’ve always been a fan of old snowmobiles.

Just don’t ask me to fix them.

I spent a fun couple of hours talking old snowmobiles - or snowcats, as we call ’em in northern Minnesota - with Merlyn Werner, Allen Seydel and Kyle Kozel one night last week for a story about the East Grand Forks Vintage Snowmobile Day that’s set for Saturday at the Blue Moose.

The show returns after a two-year hiatus, and this year’s event is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in memory of Kozel’s mom, Anna Kozel.

Werner, Seydel and Kozel are among the organizers of the show, which promises to be a lot of fun.


Talking about the old snowmobiles also brought back memories.

Time may have skewed the exact course of events, but the first snowmobile I remember driving was a neighbor’s Polaris Playmate, a single-cylinder sled that was basically the snowmobiling equivalent of a bicycle with training wheels.

The Playmate might have gone 20 mph, but that would be pushing it.

It wasn’t long after that when I talked a relative into letting me drive his considerably faster Polaris. I don’t recall the model, but I remember it had three cylinders and a motor that extended through a cut-out portion of the hood, as was the style of the faster Polaris sleds in those days.

Assuring the owner I knew how to drive a snowmobile, I hopped on the sled and proceeded to do exactly what I’d done at the helm of the Playmate: I clamped the throttle right to the handlebars.

That, of course, meant the snowmobile in very short order was going as fast as it could go. Might have been 80, might have been 90. It’s difficult to say for sure, because I was frozen to the machine as my surroundings flew by in a blur.

I was no more than 9 years old, but I can still see the car heading down a gravel road that was getting closer by the second. Somehow, I came to my senses and let go of the throttle before I jumped the road - but just barely.

We got our first snowmobile a year or two later, a used Sno-Jet with a 372 Hirth engine. It was a good-looking sled with a rich, blue, color, but it also was dependably undependable. Breakdowns were the order of the day, if it started at all.


Aside from its unreliability, the thing I remember most about that Sno-Jet - or “Sno-Junk,” as we grew to call it - was the engine, which was mounted almost directly below the handlebars. That put the carburetor at about chest level for a 10-year-old sitting on the machine.

I also remember not being strong enough to pull the recoil rope to start the snowmobile.

One day, I was driving the Sno-Jet in a field about a mile from our house. I was wearing one of those long stocking caps with the yarn ball at the end.

Somehow, the end of the stocking camp swung over my shoulder, and the yarn ball got sucked into the carburetor, killing the engine.

That would have been a minor inconvenience if I’d been strong enough to pull the recoil rope. Instead, I had to walk through a field of deep snow back to the house to fetch someone strong enough to start the snowmobile again.

We traded the Sno-Jet a short time later for a 1973 Polaris Colt with a 250cc engine. I remember my dad saying he paid $300 on trade-in, and he talked the dealership into throwing in a snowmobile suit as part of the deal.

Today, you’d be lucky to get the snowmobile suit for $300.

Unlike the Sno-Jet, the Colt was dependable and just about always started on the third pull, whether the temperature was 30 above or 30 below. The only flaw was the design of the hood, which had a large vent on either side of the headlight that caused the engine compartment to fill with snow if driving in fresh powder.


Growing up in a rural area, we lived on snowmobiles in the winter, and all the neighbor kids had them.

Most of the snowmobile manufacturers from the glory days of the 1970s are gone, and today’s machines serve up smooth rides and creature comforts that would have been unimaginable back in the day.

There’s something about those old sleds, though. Part of it, I think, is the memories they serve up of a simpler time.

And every now and then, that’s a fun ride to take.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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