Monthly Archives: October 2016


a halSome snowstorms are common, some are a little more severe, some are memorable, but only a select few become legendary.  The Halloween snowstorm of 1991 is one such storm, it started on Halloween which helped add to its lore, it was virtually completely unexpected, and it was the single biggest snow total in the state of Minnesota’s history (Until it was eclipsed just ten years later by a fluke lake effect storm in Finland).  But most importantly for our purposes here, it crippled a city and thrust the snowmobile back into prominence as the only reasonable mode of transportation and single handedly helped revive the ailing snowmobile industry.  This is my personal firsthand account of perhaps the most famous snowstorm in Minnesota History.

            Although I was born in New York City, my parents moved to Duluth, Minnesota when I was just six months old.  There was an Air Force base here then, and my grandfather was stationed in Duluth and absolutely loved it.  My parents wanted to escape from the big city so they settled here to be close to family.  I grew up riding snowmobiles at first with my parents and later with my neighborhood friends.  As I reached adulthood I joined the Air Force and was stationed in Sacramento, California, not much of a snowmobiling hotspot to say the least.  After my stint in the Air Force was over I returned to Duluth with my wife to attend college at the University of Wisconsin Superior. We rented an apartment in downtown Duluth so there wasn’t room in our lives to own a snowmobile, plus we were poor college kids which really put snowmobiling out of reach for us.  October had been a fabulous month and when Halloween rolled around we were all still on cloud nine from the Twins winning the World Series.  The forecast was pretty generic in the morning- maybe a little rain and maybe a little snow for the kids Trick-or-Treating, but nothing that would hamper their quest for candy.

            As my wife and I sat in class at about one o’clock in the afternoon someone said “Hey look it’s snowing.”  We looked outside to see some light flakes falling on the sidewalk but it was a little too warm for them to stick.  By the time we left school the temperature had dropped and snow started accumulating on the roads and soon traffic slowed in the icy conditions.  I had to work that night and as I drove to work the forecast on the radio now said that we could get 1-3 inches of snow.  No big deal.  By five o’clock there were vampires and princesses heading out Trick-or-Treating decked out in snow boots with snowmobile suits under their costumes and passing porches lined with Jack-o-lanterns covered in snow.  I returned home from work and my friend Allen stopped by for a beer. We watched the ten o’clock news to find out that they had upgraded us to a winter storm warning and were now predicting 4-6 inches of snow, again no big deal for Duluth.  At 1:00 AM Allen left my apartment and we were shocked to see a foot of snow on my porch.  “This is a lot more than 4-6 inches,” he said, “I’d better get home.”  When my wife and I went to bed, I fully expected to wake up the next morning, dig out my car, and go to School, but when I woke up I was shocked to see fifteen inches of snow on the ground and all classes cancelled.  The snow was falling harder than it had been the night before and by the time the sun was going down there were over twenty inches of snow on the ground.

The next morning I woke up expecting to see the plows and life returning back to normal- instead, I opened the shades to find it still snowing and storm totals approaching 30 inches.  Instead of a plow going by I watched a snowmobile cruise past, then another, and another.  It seemed cars were now an impossibility and the only thing moving were snowmobiles.  There were so many in fact that stoplights were now controlling snowmobile traffic, I had never seen anything like it.  Being an avid snowmobiler conditions like this were something that I always dreamed about but now here I was trapped in my apartment with snowmobiles buzzing up and down the street torturing me.  The rest of that day and night was ruled by snowmobiles with all of the parking lots of downtown bars and grocery stores full of sleds.  Snowmobiles lined up at the gas stations for fuel and the entire city was their playground. It was like living in a remote Alaskan town where cars are nonexistent.  We continued to watch the snow pile up until it finally ended on November 3rd with an impressive 36.9 inches on the ground and drifts in some places ten to fifteen feet high.  It was then that the digging out began.

So what caused all of this and why did the weatherman fail to predict this storm?  It all started with a low pressure system moving up from Texas and heading due north where it met a cold air mass dropping out of Canada.  The Low gathered strength as it worked its way north and was fueled by warm moist air it was sucking up from the Gulf of Mexico.  The clash of warm moist air from the south and cold air from the north produced ice in Iowa and snow in Minnesota but it when it reached Duluth that’s when things really got interesting.  There was a blocking high in the East which held the low pressure system right over Lake Superior, allowing it to pick up moisture and dump it right on Duluth, like Lake effect snow on steroids.  It took Duluth weeks to recover.

The interesting byproduct of this storm was it effect on the snowmobile industry because after this storm the snow just kept coming: another thirteen inches in November creating a fifty inch base.  Local snowmobile dealers sold out of inventory and this started a sales explosion for the industry that would last for a decade. Fueled by a multiple seasons of good snow, sales climbed to a peak of 260,000 units in 1997, and it was all started by the Halloween Snowstorm of 1991.  Since then snowmobilers anticipate the arrival of Halloween because they know that once the calendar hits October 31st a snowstorm can happen at any time. Will this winter bring another legendary early season snowstorm?  We can only hope.


img002Everything has its time:  the horse and buggy, dirigibles, oil lamps, the dog sled.  But with time comes progress and new inventions.  In 1958 Joseph Armand Bombardier created an economic small single tracked vehicle with a front mounted engine that could easily glide over snow and it changed how we view winter forever.  For centuries snow had been seen as a burden, but now it was eagerly welcomed by scores of people in the north.  Winter was no longer a time to be cooped up inside your home, it was a time for the whole family to get out and experience the gloriousness of the winter world. The snowmobile was an inexpensive way to access this new frontier and snowmobile sales skyrocketed.    Just 13 years after the sale of the first Ski-Doo there were over 100 snowmobile manufacturers and sales climbed to a staggering 495,000 snowmobiles sold in 1971, and more importantly there were over 1.5 million snowmobiles cruising the woods and frozen lakes of the north.  In the early seventies, snowmobile magazines were over 100 pages thick just to accommodate all of the ads.



Full page snowmobile ads like these filled snowmobile magazines in the 1970′s











Snowmobiling was on the national news as America’s hottest new trend and all of the industry experts predicted that sales would reach over one million units per year by the late 1970’s.   When sales dipped slightly to 460,000 units in 1972 no one hit the panic button, after all there were now over two million registered snowmobiles on the trails.  1973 saw EPA regulations for noise which meant testing and remanufacturing to make less noisy sleds, the result of this added research expense coupled with the first oil embargo in 1973 resulted in some of the weaker manufacturers closing up shop, as sales dropped to 450,000 the industry still seemed exceptionally strong and the disappearance of many of the fly by night manufacturers was seen as a good thing.  By 1974 gas prices had increased by 300% and the stock market crash tapped into many American’s pocketbook and sales dropped again to 435,000, but with almost three million sleds now out on the snow it seemed that the industry would weather the storm, the one thing it couldn’t weather, however, was the weather. 


Every industry has its growing pains and the snowmobile industry was about to face an avalanche of market forces that would combine to decimate the marketplace.  The 1973 EPA regulations were the first shot, then the oil embargo did its damage, but something else was taking place- saturation.  There are only so many climates that make owning a snowmobile a worthwhile investment, meaning that there were only so many snowmobiles that could be sold. Add to that the emergence of two new recreational vehicles:  The Jet Ski and the new three wheeler ATV’s. Now consumers had more choices and their recreational dollars were going elsewhere.  Finally came the one thing that everyone in the snowmobile industry dreads:  Poor snow conditions.  A few lean snow years and then the second oil embargo in 1979 caught the snowmobile manufacturers totally off guard as sales plummeted to under 200,000 leaving many of them with excess inventory.  With no way to pay their creditors due to lack of sales, snowmobile companies began collapsing and huge industry mainstays like Sno-Jet, Rupp, and Scorpion were suddenly gone.  Other manufacturers that had businesses outside of the snowmobile industry like Johnson, Evinrude, Mercury, Kawasaki and John Deere got out of the snowmobile market.  Even the mighty Arctic Cat went belly up but was revived by its employees banning together and resurrecting their old company. With sales dropping to a low of 103,000 in 1986 it looked like the snowmobile might be a thing of the past.  There was one silver lining in all of this, however, in the mid-eighties there were still over four million snowmobiles being used around the world, a peak number that may never be seen again.  The remaining manufacturers began making higher quality machines with excellent suspensions that could take advantage of what was now a well-established trail system.  When the nineties began with some monster early snow years, snowmobiling experienced a giant resurgence.  Although sales never reached the numbers they achieved in the early seventies, snowmobiles had made a comeback.  Everything has its time and for the snowmobile that time was the early seventies.  It was an exciting time to be experiencing an exciting new sport and today the popularity of vintage shows brings us back to a time when the snowmobile was the undisputed king of the recreational vehicle market.


These days it seems that people make “best of” lists for just about everything, not wanting to be outdone the staff of got together and compiled our own list of the ten best things about snowmobiling. Here it is:

10. Reigniting your love of winter:

CIMG1070Remember when you were a kid and you would pray for snow days so you wouldn’t have to go to school and then you would spend your winter days out sliding or skiing or skating? Meanwhile your parents would be complaining about having to drive and shovel snow. As a snowmobiler you forget about all of the hassles that snowstorms bring and once again find yourself watching the weather every night hoping for a huge blizzard, the bigger the better!

9. Escape: You know the feeling, you are sitting there in your cube in your office going through the same mundane humdrum of your workday, watching the clock and counting down to quitting time so you can hop on your sled and get away. Or sometimes the pressures of everyday life are crushing you and you just want to find a way to get away from it all. A snowmobile is a passport to freedom and an hour or two in the saddle can alleviate a lot of stress.

8. Adventure: Every time you climb aboard your sled you have no idea what is in store for you. I learned at a very early age that even the most routine ride can turn into an adventure of a lifetime. It is this uncertainty that keeps me coming back year after year. Trail conditions are always changing and no two rides are the same.

7. The Bonding of Man and Machine (AKA Speed and Power): Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like being on a lake or long straightaway and cracking the throttle and feeling the sheer power of horsepower meeting snow at your fingertips. Ever since the invention of the internal combustion engine we have been obsessed with horse power. The same can be said for the overall feeling you get of your snowmobile floating through a field of deep powder or dropping into a mountain pass. The snowmobile is, after all, a machine and as human beings we have an instinct to create and use machines to feed the curious nature of our brains. The snowmobile delivers in this area in spades.

6. Seeing Things You Can’t See at any other time of year:

CIMG1056One of the greatest things about snowmobiling is being able to go places that you have never been and see things that you have never seen. Snowmobiles are capable of bringing you to places that are not accessible by any other means. There are many places around the world that can only be reached in the winter due to swampy or rocky terrain. These places are equally difficult to reach in the winter without a snowmobile. The opportunity to experience some of the places you can visit on a snowmobile cannot be equaled5. The Clothing: Snowmobile clothing has come a long way from the snowmobile suits of the sixties and seventies, now there is every imaginable style of jackets, pants, bibs, helmets, gloves, boots and anything else you want. The snowmobile clothing industry is as big as the actual snowmobile industry itself, primarily because of the awesome styles and the overall warmth and effectiveness of snowmobile clothing and layers. There has been a huge crossover here because the designers of snowmobile gear make some of the most attractive winter clothing ever made.

4. Being Part of The Snowmobile Community:

AIMG_0365 (2)People want to belong. The snowmobile fraternity is a great group to belong to. There is a sense of comradery when you pull into your favorite trailside bar for a burger or when you stop to take a break at a shelter. There’s a lot to be said for sitting by a cozy fire with other snowmobilers after a long day on the trail recapping the days adventures. There’s also a lot to be said when you have buried your sled and other riders stop to help you dig out! The snowmobile community is truly a brotherhood of people that share a passion, and in a world that can’t seem to agree on anything these days, it feels good to be around people that love something as much as you do.

3. Connecting With The Wilderness: Human beings were not meant to be confined in an office or caught in traffic or sitting on a couch in the suburbs, we were meant to be free and to be interacting with the natural world around us. Snowmobiling helps you escape the concrete jungle and get back into the wilderness where you belong. This is the reason that every weekend there is an endless caravan of trucks and trailers fleeing the city and heading to Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, the U.P., the mountains, or wherever that great snowmobiling paradise is in your state. Snowmobiling can get you into wild areas where you can see animals that you won’t see in your everyday life. Here in Northeast Minnesota we’ve run across moose, deer, owls, bald eagles and even a few wolves and we can tell you there are very few things that can compare to seeing these animals in their natural habitat.

2. Snowstorms:

CIMG0735 (2)You are watching the weather forecast on the ten o’clock news and the weatherman says that a big storm is coming, you wake up in the morning like a kid on Christmas morning and you look out the window to see snow falling at a furious pace, school has been cancelled, work is closed, roads are closed, everyone is snowed in. You grab your gear throw on your helmet and hit the powder and you spend the rest of the day riding. This is every snowmobilers’ dream scenario and when it happens there is nothing that can really compare to it. For every bad snow year and every time that conditions aren’t ideal they are all erased by being able to ride in one good storm. We’ve heard many snowmobilers say that it’s worth owning a snowmobile just to be able to ride when there is a big snowstorm and we agree.

1. Family:

CIMG107795% of all snowmobiliers cite “Spending Time with Family” as one of their favorite things about snowmobiling. Snowmobiling is the ultimate family sport and is enjoyed by mothers, fathers and children alike. Many snowmobilers that started out riding with their parents as youths continue to ride with them throughout their adult years and it’s common to see three generations of snowmobilers out on the trail together. In this world where every person in the family seems to be constantly on the go doing their own thing, to have something like snowmobiling to bring a family together makes this hands down the number one thing on our list.


CIMG0747 (2)
Late last winter I was on a ride with the other staff members and we stopped at one of our favorite watering holes to take a little break. As I was sitting outside looking at all of the snowmobiles parked in the lot, it struck me how many older style sleds there were (by older style I mean the pre rider forward design). I began wondering why with all of this fantastic new technology available that there were still so many people punishing their bodies on the trail riding old iron.
I saw this same trend back in the eighties as the overwhelming majority of snowmobiles on the trail in that decade were still sleds built in the 1970’s. This is relevant because some of the same forces that were at work in the 80’s are repeating themselves today.
The 80’s were a horrible decade for the snowmobile in general, the trail systems were not well established, the sleds being built weren’t that far off from what had been developed in the seventies, the economy in the northern states wasn’t that good and most important of all snowfall was scarce. It would take a landmark technological advancement to change the face of snowmobiling and launch it into the future, and that technological advance came in the form of Polaris’ Independent Front Suspension.
When Polaris’ IFS sleds hit the market, it quickly became clear to the remaining manufacturers that to survive they had to develop some sort of IFS sled themselves or face certain death. The IFS was so superior in ride quality that it finally put those hordes of 1970’s era sleds and even a huge number of 1980’s sleds out to pasture. Led by Polaris, the snowmobile industry saw a rebirth in the nineties as sales climbed into numbers not seen in over a decade, and the undisputed champion of the era was the Polaris Indy 500. As we passed into the new millennium it seemed that the snowmobile had found its perfect evolution of design and that the real work left to be done was in suspensions and in creating purpose built snowmobiles for the mountains, trail performance, crossovers and touring. But in 2003 Ski-Doo once again shocked the snowmobile world with its introduction of the rider forward designed REV chassis. Once the public experienced the superior ride quality of the rider forward design, the traditional snowmobile designs of the past met a rapid demise. Polaris, Yamaha and Arctic Cat suddenly found themselves scrambling to catch up as Ski-doo captured huge portions of market share.
Now that all of the manufacturers have adopted the rider forward design and the snowmobile of today provides such a superior riding experience to the sleds of the past, then why haven’t those 1990’s era sleds disappeared as readily as snowmobiles from the 70’s and 80’s did when the 1990’s IFS sleds arrived? By the mid-nineties one would be hard pressed to find any remaining 70’s or 80’s sleds left on the trail, but yet here we are, fourteen years after the advent of the REV chassis and still nearly 60% of the snowmobiles on the trails today are still of the old 90’s type design. The reasons for this slow disappearance of 90’s style sleds can be attributed to a number of factors…
1. PRICE: The snowmobiles that are sold today are the best snowmobiles that have ever been manufactured. Their reliability, durability and ride quality are unmatched by anything that has come before but all of these technological advancements come at a price and unfortunately those prices get passed on to consumers. The result of this technology boom are high price tags and in an economy that is in various stages of unstableness, price is a huge limiting factor in new sled purchases. The price of a brand new snowmobile puts many of them out reach for the average consumer so if you want to buy a rider forward sled without buying new your only other option is a very small used rider forward sled market. Not a lot of rider forward sleds come on the used market and when they do they are bought up right away usually at a premium price. Ski-Doo was the first to notice that their early REV chassis sleds were commanding big dollars in the used marketplace which made them introduce the low end TNT with a carbed 600 engine in the REV chassis for a very reasonable price. This gave perspective buyers a better option: instead of paying premium dollars for a used REV sled with loads of miles on it, they could now purchase a new snowmobile with the same technology for less. Arctic Cat picked up on this trend with the introduction of their Sno Pro 500. The huge success of the TNT and Sno Pro helped nudge Polaris into bringing back the legendary Indy nameplate with a 600 fuel injected sled hoping their loyal old Indy riders would take the leap to new technology. Still even with these less expensive new sled alternatives you can still buy a quality 90’s sled for $1,000 or less, sure the ride isn’t as good but it is still respectable and for dads with snowmobiling kids that want their own sled, those reliable 90’s machines are a great way to go to build your family’s snowmobile fleet for not a whole lot of cash.
2. THE PROLIFERATION OF 1990’s SLEDS: In the nineties snowmobile sales saw a huge resurgence. From 1990 to the advent of the rider forward sled in 2003, 2.7 Million snowmobiles were sold. Compare that to the 1.9 million that have been sold since and it is obvious why there are still so many 90’s era sleds still on the trail. This same bubble was seen in the 1980’s. From 1970 through 1979 a staggering 3.4 Million snowmobiles were sold- compare that to 1980 through 1989’s numbers (snowmobiling’s worst decade) of only 1.3 Million and you can see why there was so much 70’s iron on the trail through the 80’s.
3. APPEARANCE: Let’s face it, there were a lot of people turned off by the funky looking rider forward sleds and they are a giant pain in the butt to work on compared to all that room you had under the hood in the 90’s.
4. DURABILITY: Unlike snowmobiles of the 60’s and 70’s which spent as much time getting wrenched on in the garage as they did on the trail, the 1990’s sleds set new standards in reliability and quality and they flat out last. So why buy a new snowmobile when your old one gets the job done with not much more than routine maintenance? Personally it took me blowing up my old Indy and needing major suspension and engine work on a well-worn chassis that finally made me say goodbye to my old sled and join the 21st century. I soon found out, however, that the market for junked Indy 500’s is huge. I literally sold my dead Indy within five minutes of it hitting Craig’s List. This is another factor keeping those 90’s era sleds on the trail- parts for them are plentiful and makes rebuilding engines and suspensions a cost effective alternative.
5. SNOW: Nothing dictates snowmobile sales more than snow. One of the biggest factors that drove the 90’s boom were some really big snow years. For the last few seasons snow has been hard to find. Considering that Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin are responsible for the overwhelming majority of snowmobile sales in the United States, a bad snow year in those three states can put a real damper on new sled sales and three or four bad snow years in a row can be catastrophic. Lack of snow keeps the existing snowmobiles sitting in people’s garages and as a result they don’t wear out, thus no need to buy new. Throw in a few winters of heavy snow and many of those 90’s sleds, like my Indy, will meet their demise. As they say, father time is undefeated. The more snow there is the more of a need there is for snowmobiles. When snow is abundant, the inventory of new sleds can dwindle quickly.

Inevitably the 90’s body style snowmobiles will slowly disappear as more and more people experience the superior ride quality of the new rider forward designs and as the used market continues to offer some of the older rider forward snowmobiles at prices closer to their 90’s era counterparts. One day the 90’s style sleds will be relegated to vintage shows where grandpa will be telling tales of trailing arms and sore backs, much like we speak fondly of bogie wheels and leaf springs of the 70’s. But with the massive amounts of quality snowmobiles sold in the nineties, the availability of parts and that eras sleds level of overall toughness, I don’t think that day will be here any time soon.