From the ATA Archives: Making It Back

The advent of the snowmobile is, arguable, the single greatest improvement to Alaska trapping since Sewell Newhouse first began producing the leg-hold trap. Maybe a bit of dramatization? Possibly, but no one can deny the profound impact it has had in Alaska's remote areas, where, until its introduction, the only access to long-line trapping was the dog team.

This article is not about the pros and cons of snowmobile versus dog team. Both have their merits. One glaring truth is that a dog team will always get you home. With proper planning and precautions, the snowmobile can be about as dependable.

Running a remote trapline on a machine used to be a risky business as far as breakdowns were concerned, and it still can be. The first snowmobiles were ill suited for the rigors of the Alaskan bush. There have been vast improvements in design and dependability over the years, and the industry has developed a reliable machine that is well suited for the trapper.

There is no exaggeration in the statement, "A breakdown on a remote line can cost you your life;" it can and has happened. The snowmobile can take us many miles in a relatively short time. Alaska's harsh, bitterly cold, unforgiving environment can spell disaster to the unprepared. Many, if not all of us, are intimately familiar with that helpless, sinking feeling that rushes through us as our trusty steed stumbles and dies. The sudden silence is ominous. Indeed even the slightest sputter or the sudden change in pitch of the steady drone of the engine can cause that twinge of fear to shoot through us.

The whole secret to avoiding misery is to be prepared. Expect the worst and you may never have to deal with it. This preparing starts long before the first foot of trapline is covered.

Once you have decided to use the snowmobile for your trapping, there are numerous decisions yet to make. There are a multitude of makes and models to choose from. A "trapping machine" can virtually be any snowmobile make today. Everyone has his or her favorite sno-go based on their own particular wants and needs. Many perform double duty as the family winter entertainment, and around-the-yard work machine.

I'm not going to make the mistake of expounding on the virtues of one particular make and model and condemning all others as inferior. This would indeed be the height of folly and draw a line in the sand for many an argument I would otherwise hope to avoid. The truth be known, I haven't found the Holy Grail. The perfect trapping machine is still a quest for me. Also, I am no expert on the profuse number of makes and models available to today's trapper. But the fact remains; they all have the same basic design. They all are composed of skis, track, undercarriage, and that wonder and curse of the mechanical age, the internal combustion engine. All these components must be in working harmony to carry you happily along your fur-choked trapline. Keeping these main components "on line" has been a major winter concern of mine for as long as my feeble memory can recall.

I am by no means an ace mechanic or sno-go expert, but if what I say here can save just one trapper that long miserable walk out, then my words were not in vain.

First and foremost is a mechanical knowledge of your particular machine. Much of this knowledge will develop as you use the sno-go, and its strengths and weaknesses will present themselves. Sometimes the hardest thing to deal with is finding the problem. Troubleshooting. Some things are obvious, a broken tie-rod, busted sprint, etc. Others are not so easy. The engine has just stopped. Why? The problem may be easily remedied if the cause is found. These are learned skills, and the degree is obtained from the school of hard knocks much of the time. Hopefully the cost will be minimal. We are dealing here with preventive measures and so will save repairs for another time.

Something said about simplicity of design should be mentioned. The more things that can go wrong, will go wrong. It's Murphy's Law and unavoidable. The more complex a system becomes, the harder and more complicated it is to deal with. At one end of the spectrum is a machine such as the Ski-Doo Elan. Its no-frill basic design is much simpler to work on than say, your run of the mill triple carbed, triple cylinder, triple throttled, oil injected, high compression, fuel injected, paddle tracked, tuned exhaust, fire-breathing, mega horse-powered snow monster. Which one would I rather work on in the dark at 40 below in the middle of nowhere? Which one would I rather have pulling a heavy sled in deep, wind-drifted snow up a long, steep hill? The happy middle ground is a personal choice.

The most important item to have at your disposal is a small tool kit tailor-made for your machine. It's obvious you can't drag a 50 pound tool kit with you wherever you go. Just a basic kit will get you by. Your intention is not to completely repair the problem, but to just remedy it with a quick fix to get you home.

A ratchet and a set of sockets that cover the smallest to the largest nuts or bolts on your machine and a set of wrenches and screwdrivers that meet the same specifications. I also carry a roll of electrical tape and tie wire, which most trappers have in profusion any way. I carry my kit in a small military ammo box. It's with me at all times.

My spare parts list has shrunk over the years. I carry a throttle cable, several sparkplugs, fuel pump, light bulb, tie-rod ends, some rewind cord, and a handful of nuts and bolts. That's basically it. I used to carry a lot more and for a real long trip I might add a few things, but you get the general idea.

The main thing I do before going out on the long-lines is to give my machine a good going over. A sort of "pre-flight inspection". Check everything for tightness and wear. Pay special attention to the condition of tie-rods, engine mounts, suspension bolts and springs, the throttle cable, and check the lights. Many problems can be found by simply giving a tug or shake. Anything that has loosened or broke in the past should be given special attention. The more familiar you become with your machine, the faster and more thorough this inspection becomes. Grease all fittings and check all fluids. My personal standard is 100 miles. If I have any doubts of any part's or component's ability to survive 100 miles of hard use, I replace it. How many times have you broken down, found the cause, and then screamed into the frozen air, to no one in particular, those immortal words, "I knew I should have fixed that!"

So far, so good. Our sno-go is slick as a whistle. Tight as a drum. Our sled is loaded with supplies and there's still room left over for the pile of fur we must bring back. With the greatest of confidence, we head down the trail with that keen sense of anticipation only a trapper can know. What now? Well, the way you drive has a direct influence on how long you drive. If you are tearing down the trail like you've got hell's hounds on your tail, banging off every tree and tussock that has the audacity to be anywhere near your trail and slamming through dips and humps with the "I'll just skim the tops for a smoother ride" theory, you may run into problems sooner than later. Take your time; you are in the great outdoors. Enjoy it, check out the scenery, look for tracks, and stay warm! If you get stuck, don't crank on the handle bars or drag the machine around by a ski tip. The rougher you are on the machine, the more things you will break. I'm guilty as charged on all counts.

Always be aware of that evil little gremlin that lives and hides near water: overflow. It can hide under an otherwise harmless layer of snow and turn a dreamy day into a nightmare. Don't dive in to a creek bottom or down a steep pitch unless you're sure you can climb back out or go by a different route.

Another problem I run into occurs during those days when I'm running through deep powder. After a few hours of plowing along or going through snow-laden brush, the carburetor begins to ice up. All that snow getting into the engine compartment melts on the exhaust and turns to steam. Eventually, it gets to the air box and builds up in the carb. This causes the engine to begin sputtering and will eventually cause it to quit altogether. I carry covers for my air vents and put them on when conditions warrant, but sometimes it happens anyway. To cure this common problem, remove the carb. On most sno-goes, it's a simple process. Give a good shaking out until all the gas and accumulated water has dripped free. Then replace it and you should be good to go. If it is allowed to freeze, a fire is needed to thaw it out and that can be tricky with a gas soaked carb!

All right, we are well out on our line, we've done everything right, and our sled is loaded with fur. Life is good. But fate is against us today. Our gallant steed coughs sickly, stumbles and with finality, collapses as if head shot. We go through the motions. It has gas and spark but will not fire. Further examination finds a lack of compression. Let's say we broke a ring. It happened to me once. We have 15 imaginary miles to go. It's disturbing to say the least but no reason to panic. Panic is the most useless and the most dangerous of all emotions in such a situation. Walking is now our only option. We adjust our clothing so that we are warm but not likely to sweat very much with the added exertion of walking. Bunny boots are heavy; a light pair of good mukluks is handy to have in your survival gear. Take a liberal supply of food that can be eaten cold. I generally just carry quick-energy candy bars. Grab your sleeping bag and snowshoes if the trail isn't hard-pack, and begin your walk. Fifteen miles isn't a walk in the park but not an extremely long distance either. If you begin to sweat, slow down or shed a layer. If you get hungry or tired, stop, build a fire, and eat or crawl into your bag for awhile. Take your time, go easy, and you'll be fine.

The odds of such a walk are greatly reduced if you are properly prepared and do your homework beforehand. In fact, I would say it's not even worth worrying about.

Twice in over ten years, I've had to walk. Once was a bad plug wire and boot. It happened my first year in the bush and would not be a problem today. The second was the aforementioned broken ring. The sno-go had been running odd prior to it quitting completely, and so the walk was half expected and so was short also.

One more point I heard made of pilots but is quite applicable here. All living pilots (or trappers) have one thing in common; they all use good clean gas.

I've come home with a bent ski, half a ski, no ski, busted springs, bent handlebars, broken handlebars, broken engine mounts, busted exhaust, broken chain case, bent crank, broken tie-rod, tipped track, screwed-up carb, smashed hood, busted frame, leaky gas tank, broken throttle cable, bad coil, frozen bearings, leaky crank seal, stripped bolts, busted bolts, missing bolts, collapsed suspension, cracked gas line, bad knees, a sore back, and one case of pancreatitis but I've always fixed it, taped it, wired it, or just plain endured it till I got home.

Have a good safe season, boys. Watch your topknot and keep your powder dry.

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