Outdoors/Adventure

It’s snowmachine season. Here’s what to know about getting into a ‘new to you’ model.

Polaris, ayrshire road, february, snogo, snowmachine, winter recreation, winter sports

The snow is here to stay for a few months. It is time to enjoy it. “I’m not quite ready for snow yet.” “Brrr, it’s getting cold out.” Well folks, you are in Alaska — figure it out.

Think about it; would you rather be in Los Angeles sitting for hours on the freeway trying to move a mile across town? How about New York City, or Boston in a snowstorm? Alaska winter seems like a cakewalk compared to those places.

And — a cakewalk it is if you have the foresight to find a decent snowmobile, or, as they are known up here, a snowmachine. Snowmachines come in many types. You do not need the latest and greatest to have a really great time tooling around outdoors.

Price some of the new machines that are available these days and there is little doubt that “sticker shock” will immediately strike you and send you looking at kids’ sleds at Walmart. Think about it; your new motorized machine doesn’t need to be spanking-new.

Your new toy just needs be “new to you.” When you purchase a new showroom sled it should come with a college course in advanced electronics. Unfortunately, the book that comes with the fancy machine solves breakdowns with the advice to “see your dealer.” Invite him along when you think of riding the backside of the Alphabet Hills.

The majority of the older sleds have a plug wrench, a 10mm/12mm combo opened wrench, a couple screwdrivers and a pair of pliers in the tool compartment. No need for the college course. You might consider adding vise grips, some wire and a small hatchet. That will likely get you out of the hills on your own hook.

If you are new to snowmachines, one of the new sleds is probably beyond your level of expertise. Heck, I have been riding machines for more than 50 years and they are out of my league also. Before you make a commitment to buy a machine that can take you — in an hour — farther off the beaten path than you can walk back in a day, consider your goals.

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The average rider puts less than 1,000 miles per season on his machine. There are a lot of used sleds available with less than 3,000 miles on them. A look at Craigslist will find snowmachines 20 years old that have under 5K on them. If you are riding established trails, pulling kids on tubes or out for a day of ice fishing, you don’t need fancy. Affordable trumps shiny.

New snowmobiles cost at least two bucks for every mile one drives it. To get it down that low you will need to put a couple thousand miles per year on it. A decent used sled will cost less than half that much to drive.

So ... you have your new sled; what now? Before taking it for a spin in the driveway, drive it in the garage, lift the cowling and take a real close look at it. Sure, you did that before you bought it, but you had a purchaser’s glaze in your eyes then.

The two items that need a close look are the wiring and the fuel feed. Unless the previous owner specifically told you that he replaced the fuel lines recently, buy new line and change the old one out. Change the primer line, if so equipped, also. Take a look at how the wiring to the headlight is routed. The most common failure point on older machines is where the light wires come out of the snowmobile tub and are attached to cowling on their way to the light. It won’t hurt to wrap that portion of the wire with tape, even if it looks good. Use hockey tape, not electrical tape.

Familiarize yourself on what everything looks like. Every time you lift the cowling it should look the same way. Almost all machines built after 1980 have an oil injection system. Keep it full. Few older machines have low oil warning lights.

One last thing before you drive away — support the back end and inspect the undercarriage. You need to be certain nothing is loose or broken. Worn rear idler wheels are common. Start the machine and give it enough throttle to turn the track slowly to see if there are any wobbles.

When all is good to go, take your new-to-you ride out for a spin. The first trip or two should be close to home or with friends who, hopefully, have reliable machines.

When you are comfortable with your new toy, take the family out for a few hours of play in the snow. Snowmachines make great portable rope-rows for sledding hills. They can carry all of your ice fishing gear a mile across the lake. A flat sled or a light drag pulled behind can give you an instant ski trail.

Snowmobiles don’t need to go 70 mph. One is not required to “high-mark” on the mountainside or ride from Anchorage to Nome. Hunting by snowmachine is not an owner requirement. The machines were designed to get you outdoors. Be certain you have adequate gear for the weather, and your intended use, and you will find that snowmobiles can open up the winter wonderland of Alaska.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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