ROBERT WETTSTONE WITH HIS 1968 SKI DOO
My father probably wished he could have shook the hand of Joseph-Armand Bombardier. Joe certainly improved my dad’s life. In fact when dad heard what Bombardier invented, he probably smiled a long, slow, Chesire cat grin.
Bombardier, a French-Canadian inventor and businessman, built the first snowmobile. The Ski Doo. Actually he invented the Ski Dog, but a typographical error forever changed the Dog to a Doo. The first Doo was launched in 1959. But it wasn’t until 1968 that the Ski Doo really took off. The majority of these machines were Olympique models with a suggested retail price of $695.00. By the late sixties, 70,276 snowmobiles rolled off the assembly line in one year alone. And my dad was among one of those proud owners. Not surprisingly, he negotiated a price of $400.00. (Which was a princely sum for him at the time.)
Bright yellow with a black cushioned seat, dad’s Ski Doo’s sported one of the first engines specially designed for a snowmobile. Packing 35 horsepower, dad was magically transformed from a mild-mannered minister to a veritable Nanook of the North. He loved the speed and excitement of zipping down snow packed trails. (And he passed that love onto me…more on that later.)
To understand dad’s unprecedented joy at owning a Ski Doo, I need to back up a bit.
Start at the beginning. To do that we harken back to the early sixties when there were three kids under the age of five, two cats, and a dog in the Wettstone household.
Every Christmas, the entire entourage was packed up and hauled north. It was a long slow 14-hour journey. I remember searching for colored holiday lights as we passed through the night until the hour grew too late and the lights were extinguished.
On this particular night, the year was 1965. My brother was a toddler. I was three years-old and my older sister was nearly six. The moon was straight up in the sky when we arrived at the cabin road off Federal Forest Highway 16. Even though it was midnight, the brilliance of the snow illuminated the frosted fir and spruce trees. Each one warmly snuggled into a draping cloak of snow.
While the truck huffed a steady trail of steam from its exhaust pipes, Dad pulled on his snow boots and got out. What he saw was mind-blowing mountains of pure white. In the early sixties, it was not unusual for the cabin to see twelve and a half feet of snow in a season.
There was absolutely no way the vehicle could maneuver through all that snow. Even with four wheel drive, it was impossible. Dad knew this and he was prepared. He had performed this task many times before this night. With a flashlight beaming straight ahead, Dad tromped through the three quarters of a mile of snow to the cabin.
We stayed inside the warm cocoon of the truck. The heater blowing nonstop. Waiting impatiently to see that circle of light coming round the bend back to the truck.
What we couldn’t see was dad first digging his way to the front door of the cabin. When he was done, the surrounding snow formed an icy cave around the entrance. He lit the fires in the cook stove and the fireplace. He lit the kerosene lamps that hung from brackets in the logs. Then he dug his way into the garage to fetch his snowshoes and the toboggan.
With toboggan in tow, he walked the nearly one mile back to the truck to start the process of loading critters and kids and pulling them back to camp.
On this night, he was nervous. “Dottie,” he said to my mother as he returned to the truck. “I saw some very large paw prints in the snow.”
“Going which way?” she asked.
“Toward the cabin,” he replied. “I’ve never seen prints that large. He pointed to his snow shoes. “They were nearly as big as these!” he exclaimed.
Dad’s face was pale in the moonlight. He looked concerned. For good reason. There were cougars, bobcats, and Canadian lynx that roamed the Northwoods.
Mother, ever being the naturalist, was the best go-to person for this issue. “Let me take a look,” she said. Pulling on her snow pants and boots, mom waded through the snow in dad’s tracks.
“This way,” he called heading back down the cabin trail.
At nearly six, my sister was the most clued in on what was happening. “Dad thinks there’s a monster out there,” she informed us. “A big one!”
“Monster?” I said, trying the word around my mouth. This sounded incredibly scary, and I felt a shiver of fear as I stared in the moonlit night.
“Dad will get it,” said my sister confidently. “He’s done it before.”
I was impressed into silence. After a moment, I ventured, “But what if he doesn’t get it this time?”
“Then mom will,” said the all-knowing older sister.
I believed her. In my eyes, dad was superman. But mother was no shrinking violet either. She could handle her own.
Time slowed as waited for our parents to return. When they did, my sister and I were stunned.
They were laughing. Or more specifically mother was chortling.
“What was it?” we squealed in unison when the door was opened.
“Oh girls, it was nothing to worry about!” said mother whose faced was flushed pink from the cold. Her eyes twinkled as she continued. “It was a lepus americanus!
“Ooh,” I gasped. This sounded serious.
“No, no, nothing to worry about,” mother continued. “That’s just another name for a snowshoe hare! Your dad found the tracks of one heading into the cabin!”
Well, to be fair to dad. Snow shoe hares do indeed have big, scary-looking paw prints. Their back feet measure about the average size of a six-foot man. So they do look impressive in the snow.
Dad got plenty of chances to see the tracks that night. First he put two kids and cats on the toboggan with as many supplies as he could pull. We hunkered down. The snow piled above our heads. Inside our coat jackets the cats were well zippered into our body warmth.
It took dad four trips with the sled to bring the family and all the supplies to the cabin. He then parked the truck well off the side of the road and snow shoed in for the last time that night. He was wiped out.
Mom had the coffee pot going for him. But inside the cabin everything was frozen solid. With the cabin powered by a generator, there was no electricity. So we kept our coats on through the night. Mother usually walked around with a cat clinging to her because it refused to be put down on the cold floor. It would be hours before everything warmed up from the two fires. During the night as the three kids huddled together in a sleeping bag, I would hear dad routinely get up to keep the fires going until first light.
In the morning, the cabin would be warm. Outside a fairy kingdom of snow. Thick icicles hung from the roof. Trees ribboned in white. Long snowy trails fingered through the woods. To my child’s eyes. There was simply nothing more beautiful.
Four years later, we were again sitting on the side of the highway waiting for dad to return from his first trip to the cabin. This time we had the windows cracked. Each of us wanting to be the first to hear the roar of an engine signaling dad’s return. That’s right…riding on Mr. Bombardier’s invention, dad proudly sped through the snow, the trusty toboggan bumping along behind.
The snowmobile made all the difference. More passengers could be towed at once. Fewer trips and there was no more trudging through the snow for dad hauling a toboggan loaded down with kids and supplies.
I can only imagine what dad must of thought that first night freed from the toil of dragging a toboggan. Now he had wings as he sailed through the snow swept night. The drudgery turned delight. The mundane magical. I have to believe that as he spun around each curve he was mentally tipping his hat to a man named Joe.
TERRY, MOM, AND ME CROSS COUNTRY SKIING
A VIEW AROUND THE BACK FORTY