Alaska Life

Curious Alaska: Why do Alaskans call it a snowmachine instead of a snowmobile?

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Question: Why do Alaskans call it a snowmachine instead of a snowmobile?

One of the quickest ways to get caught as a newcomer to Alaska is calling a gasoline-powered vehicle on skis a snowmobile.

A March 3, 2011, reader letter to the Daily News explained it:

“It is a principal tenet of Alaska exceptionalism that all vehicles made to travel on snow are called snowmachines, not snowmobiles,” wrote one Todd Dalton. “Using ‘snowmobile’ when quoting a Minnesotan is fine, but outside of quotations they are and always shall be snowmachines.”

The snowmachine vs. snowmobile question endures, the stuff of endless Twitter threads and Facebook flame wars. (Sample content: “A ‘snow mobile’ is a decoration you hang over a baby’s crib!”)

It’s one of the ways — like capitalizing the O in Outside — that Alaskans like to differentiate ourselves from the “Lower 48.” (Another term in standard usage here.)

When Sarah Palin hit the national stage as vice presidential candidate in 2008, a flurry of feature articles attempted to explain “snowmachine” versus “snowmobile” to an apparently puzzled Lower 48 audience, since Palin’s then-husband Todd was an Iron Dog snowmachine racer.

“Time to clear up a campaign trail mystery: What the heck is the difference between a snowmobile and snow machine?” asked one Washington Post story from that year. “Nothing.”

So where exactly does the term “snowmachine” come from? And how has it become a part of the state lexicon people weighted with so much insider/outsider meaning?

To find out, I took a deep dive into the archives of the Daily News and its precursors.

The very first reference to a “snowmobile” in the archives of the Anchorage Daily Times came in 1928, in an article recounting the exploits of an expedition to “the vastness of northern Labrador,” in Canada. The explorers “fared inland by snowmobile — a motor car equipped with runners.”

In 1936, an article described a Chickaloon trapper planning to use a “Super Snowbird,” a Model A car with skis on the front and treads on the back, to run the trapline. “The last stronghold of the sled dog — the trapline — is being replaced by the gasoline motor,” the article lamented.

In 1967, local references to “snowmachines” suddenly pop up in classified ads: One hopeful person wanted to trade a “brand new dishwasher” for “a snowmachine or color TV.” For sale in 1967 Anchorage: An Evinrude Skeeter snowmachine. A listing of an Arctic Cat snowmachine with a “$970 value” appeared as a contest prize.

By the end of the 1960s, the term “snowmachine” was in wide use, in Alaska advertisements as well as news stories.

In 1969, an article lamented that the “old winter sport — motorcycle racing on ice — has fallen by the wayside.” Just a few years earlier, dozens of motorcyclists with handmade studded tires would show up at area lakes to race, according to the article.

Alas, “the snowmachiners have taken over,” an owner of an Anchorage motorcycle store is quoted as saying in the article.

Snowmachiners may have taken over, but the term “snowmachine” has never been universally used, especially by events and clubs. There’s an Anchorage Snowmobile Club. The Iron Dog race, the highest-profile competition in the state, calls itself the “World’s Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race.” The major manufacturers are headquartered in places such as Minnesota, Quebec and Ontario. All make and market “snowmobiles.”

“If you Google search ‘snow machine,’ you’ll get a snow-making machine,” said Bob Menne, the executive director of the Iron Dog. (He recently moved to Alaska from Minnesota.)

How’d the snowmachine name come to be? That’s not quite clear. “Snowmachine” may have been a reference to the utilitarian nature of the machines in rural Alaska, where they are a staple of winter transportation over long, frozen distances.

Snowmachine isn’t the only term used to describe the vehicles. In rural Alaska, they’re often referred to as a “snogo” or a “snowgo.”

Harley Sundown lives in Scammon Bay, in Western Alaska. Growing up, his father used to call the machines “Ikamgucuaq,” a Yup’ik term he says roughly translates to “a type of sled.”

“It stuck with me,” Sundown said by phone this week.

These days, Sundown hears young people in his region talk about riding on “Skidoo” or “Polaris” rather than a snowmachine.

In Canada, it’s also common to hear of people going “skidooing,” according to Dan Long, the president of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, a national organization that advocates for access to land for motorized snowsports.

Ski-Doo is a brand of snowmachine, but it’s also become a generic verb for riding.

In Nome, the term “snowmachine” dominates, said Kevin Bahnke, race director of the Nome-Golovin 200 snowmachine race. “Sno-go” can be heard in some of the region’s villages, he said. Where’d sno-go come from? Bahnke wasn’t sure.

Paul Hughes, the owner and manager of Eagle River Polaris and Arctic Cat — on Snowmobile Lane! — doesn’t see what the big deal is. Snowmachine and snowmobile are two words for the same thing.

“It’s kind of like McKinley and Denali,” he said.

Hughes said he first raced the Iron Dog in 1985, and as long as he can recall, he’s known it as a snowmachine. Manufacturers, he pointed out, use the term “snowmobile” and so do multi-state or international races.

There’s also another term: “sled,” according to Hughes, the dealership owner.

That’s reserved for “when you’re talking about something prideful,” he said.


Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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