Each year pre-season Snowmobile Expos and shows throughout the snow belts of the US and Canada offer a great opportunity to see, touch and feel the newest snowmobiles, technologies and products. They are also a great time to meet new friends, reunite with old friends, exchange stories of snowmobile experiences and plan for future adventures.
At the inaugural FCMQ snowmobile and FQCQ ATV show in Drummondville Quebec this past fall, something very special happened. It began as I was taking a shift at our SledMagazine.com / Motoneiges.ca kiosk display. Even though my French continues to be painful to myself and others, I always try to be a good Motoneiges.ca team member by attempting to introduce French speaking snowmobilers to the articles and information of Quebec’s #1 snowmobile web magazine.
During my kiosk presence, a guy walked past and I heard him speaking to one of his buddies in English. He also heard me speaking a few words of English. In a sea of French speaking Quebecers we latched on to each other for a few moments of effortless conversation in our native tongue. I quickly learned that he was from Northern New York State and he learned that I live not far away in Northern Vermont. We both had strong ties to Quebec and decades of snowmobiling experience.
As our conversations of Quebec riding experiences continued, he revealed that he owned a former dairy barn containing a prized collection of Ski-doo Elans as well as several other vintage models. I jokingly asked if he could confirm “that he indeed had more than a small snowmobile problem” and he easily assured me that YES he did.
I shared a short story of my family’s first snowmobile being sold in the mid 1990’s to a New York guy whose name I had long since forgotten. I recalled that I knew that the sled had been restored as the buyer had sent me a photo (since misplaced) of it in restored glory. Out of the blue my new friend of 4 minutes says “I know the guy and I know the sled”. I immediately had 2 thoughts “no way” and “unfortunately my new acquaintance is full of crap”. But my confidence quickly returned as he continued with the purchaser’s name (which I recognized as correct) as well as details of the sled which were also correct. I was excited that what was lost was once again known to exist.
My rollercoaster ride of memories took an immediate drop when he said that the guy had experienced financial setbacks in the late 1990’s and was forced to sell all of his show quality restorations. The rollercoaster quickly went up again when he added “but I know the guy who bought it and has it in his garage”. He must have seen the passion of that 1st sled in my eyes as he asked “would you like to see it sometime?” Oh my………….. YES, YES! Wow, what a ride!
When I sold it I was in my early 30’s and personal heritage preservation was not yet a priority. In more recent years I had thought of the sled and wondered what had become of it. I had unsuccessfully searched on more than one occasion for the restoration photo that was sent to me so many years before. We exchanged contact information and goals of a possible reunion and “ Bang “ our chance meeting at a Quebec snowmobile show was over leaving what might be only a cool short story. After he left, the memories of our first snowmobile filled my head and heart.
To start at the beginning
My Mother’s Father, my Grandfather, my “Grampy” was a quiet hardworking guy with a non formally educated mind that bordered on genius. That wasn’t just my opinion, it was an opinion of many. He was a self taught Engineer of many things and could design, build and fabricate anything that entered his mind as being needed or challenging. From electricity, wood and metal he could imagine and make anything happen. I was his first grandchild from his only child and the boy that he never had. I would often sit and watch him with wonder as he performed what was nothing short of mechanical magic in my eyes. He was my hero, he was my Grampy! I think that he and J. A. Bombardier would have had a lot in common.
It was the late 1960’s, I was an impressionable 8 year old and snowmobiling was still in its infancy in our area of Vermont. Based on what I had seen in magazines about a new motorized activity called snowmobiling, I often quizzed Grampy on how they worked or what might be involved with him making one.
In December of 1968 Grampy took my Dad and I to a local Marine dealer, Al’s Outboard in downtown Burlington Vermont. Al’s Outboard was also a Ski-doo dealership.
In a brightly lit center floor holiday display with a huge red bow was the crème de la crème of snowmobiles for the 1969 season. A highly polished Ski-doo 371 Nordic with matching dogsled in tow surrounded by the fluff and highlight of artificial snow! The sleek retractable headlight design, enclosed engine compartment with wood grained covered dash and shiny chrome accents were all beyond imagination.
To see a “real” snowmobile and a snowmobile of this caliber up close for the first time in this setting was a like a dream. Grampy asked my Father and I what we thought about what we were seeing and a dream became reality when he announced that the entire display including helmets and the sled’s trailer was our families’ Christmas gift.
In an instant, the Gilbert’s were snowmobilers! Merry Christmas 1968 and welcome to one of my life’s biggest passions. From those first rides with my Dad at the controls, me sitting in the dog sled with my younger sister between my legs and Mom standing in the back, to now and every snowmobile in between, it’s been an incredible ride.
Back to the present
My phone rings, it’s my Snowmobile Expo friend and the ball to see THE sled begins to roll. We met a few weeks later and immediately drove to the property that was said to hold the 371 Nordic that I had not seen for 20+ years. Introductions are made, idle chit chat is exchanged and excitement builds.
The current owner (name withheld) makes it clear that the viewing of this sled as well as the rest of his collection is off limits to strangers and that my connection with our mutual friend was the only reason I was there. As he listened to a few of my stories and began to see that I too have a larger than small snowmobile problem and long history, I believe that he became as excited to show it to me as I was to see it.
The unveiling began as the overhead door opened to a nearly filled to capacity garage. There were all kinds of vintage treasures within, but my attention was focused on only one. “See it?” he said pointing to a covered sled located half way back under a shelf with another vintage sled above. “If you want to see it we’re going to need to move some stuff”, “it’s been covered there since I bought it in the late 90’s”. So, move stuff we did and there she was.
When the cover was removed and my eyes saw the restored beauty, I was transported back to being my 8 year old self, seeing it on the showroom floor in 1968. Our time moved quickly and I remained polite as he proudly pointed out several other snowmobiles of significance. But my mission was complete; I had seen our Nordic the sled that started it all and was now kept in hidden but restored glory.
I think that she liked being seen, I think that she would like to be seen again. Maybe we will meet again someday and maybe someday she will find her way back home again. I dropped a few hints.
As a parting gift, I left one of the last items that I still had from our 1st snowmobile, one of the original helmets that was part of the fantastic Christmas of 1968. Together we put it under the cover and put her back to sleep until she wakes again.
The moral of this story is; be sure to check out a Snowmobile show each and every year, you never know the connections that might be made.