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The snowmobile life

I feel I should start this piece by mentioning my own (one-day’s worth) background in snowmobiling. It involved:

  • Hitchhiking from Hamburg to Springville during a high school Christmas break;
  • Being properly dressed for neither hitchhiking nor snowmobiling;
  • Vowing to never do either again as long as I live.

That said, after talking to a few avid local snowmobilers, I’ve decided I might be talked into taking another ride on the back of a sled. (See? I’m already talking the lingo!). But I need to be picked up at my door. Thumbing a ride is still out of the question.

Snowmobiling in this day and age is nothing like it was back in the late 1960s, when I climbed aboard a friend’s uncle’s Ski-Doo on their family farm in Concord. Today’s sledding culture is much more organized, regulated and high tech.

One guy who’s grown up around the winter sport is Lawton’s Kenny Kaczanowski, whose father, Gerald Kaczanowski, Jr., not only operated a dealership/repair shop (Kacz’s Sports Service) for years, but was famous in snowmobile racing circles, where he won the World Series of Snowmobiling in Weedsport back in 1976.

A while back, I sat down with Kenny for a chat in the Langford garage of fellow sledder Corey Winter (full disclosure: Winter is married to my cousin Mary Ann, so I guess it’s also her garage), to try and understand why anyone would subject themselves to spending so much time outside during the cold winter months in WNY. We were joined by Kenny Jr., which goes to show you that yes, maybe it’s in the blood.

“What might I expect to spend, from scratch, if I wanted to get into snowmobiling?” I asked the trio. They looked at each other and laughed. “From scratch,” Winter said, “first you need a sled. Figure at least a grand for a used one, or up to 18 grand or so for a top-of-the-line new one.” The two Kennys chimed-in with a list of other necessities, including warm gear, helmet and a trailer. Then there’s insurance, registration, gas, and — oh yeah, if you don’t have a decent tow vehicle, add that into the mix!

Okay, maybe not everyone has to start from scratch. Let’s say you already have a nice pickup. Just throw the sled in the back and be on your way? Maybe. Figure an average sled to weigh around 600-750 pounds. Not a problem… if you have some sort of ramp for driving it up into the truck. But then, as Don George, Jr. of Don George’s Sports Center pointed out: “If you’re planning on going to Canada to ride (which, as it turns out, many do), it’s illegal to drive in Ontario with your tailgate down.” So, either your pickup needs about an 11-foot bed (which doesn’t exist), or you’ll have to hoist the front of the sled high enough to hang over the truck’s roof, so the whole thing fits into the bed and the tailgate can be closed (good luck with that!). Buy the trailer.

Once you’ve got the equipment, what’s next? As was pointed out by everyone I spoke to, join a club. The Kaczanowskis are members of the Tri-County Drifthoppers out of Arcade. At the northern end of WNY, Keith Lucas belongs to the Shawnee Sno-Chiefs in Niagara County.

There are more advantages to belonging to a club than getting a neat patch for your jacket. As Lucas pointed out, Sno-Chief members can start their rides right from the Shawnee Fire Hall on Lockport Road in Sanborn.

“From there you can head all the way down to the Southern Tier,” he told me, “with a bit of ‘road-riding’ you can go all the way to Holiday Valley.” George mentioned that a New York State registration, which is required of all snowmobiles (even if you’re riding on your own property) is $100, but only $45 if you belong to a club.

And belonging to a club opens up a whole system of maintained trails. Back when I was freezing my behind off in Concord, snowmobilers were pretty much riding roughshod over any open area of land. It’s much more regulated (and maintained, thanks to the registration fee dollars), partly due to, I suppose, the NY-state-of-mind, which regulates everything.

But as Kacz, Sr. pointed out, “A lot of landowners decided to ban sleds from their property due to a lack of respect from some of the riders.” Part of it was, of course, noise related — “straight pipes whizzing by your farmhouse at midnight” — while others were out there when there really wasn’t enough snow, which just tore up the property.

But getting back to the “why would anyone do this when it’s so cold?” question.

My one snowmobile ride left a memory of nose icicles and blue fingers. Lucas, who makes snowmobiling a family affair with his wife Debbie and their nine-year-old twins Cooper and Addison, filled me in on how they stay warm.

“Today they make snowmobiles with heated seats and hand grips. The clothing is high-tech and we layer to stay warm. There are battery-powered gloves, socks, and just about everything else to keep you from getting too cold,” said Lucas. Of course, with nine-year-olds, you also plan stops along a typical three- or four-hour-long day on the trails. And they have their own mini-sized sled to drive, which keeps them engaged.

Staying on the trails is important. I’m sure you’ve passed a sled or two hugging the shoulder of the road. This wreaks havoc on the machine, because not only is the rear tread designed more for soft snow than it is hard pavement, but that snow is also part of the built-in lubrication system.

As Kacz, Sr. told me, “The rear tracks use the snow for keeping the track system lubed, and it’s also part of the machine’s cooling system.” So driving them too much on the road can cause overheating problems as well as the inevitable wearing-out of the rear tracks (not to mention the front skis). Growing up in a racing family, the Kaczes both told me about replacing the rear track with a racing-type slick for summer events. No need for heated seats there!

Getting Started

If you’re thinking snowmobiling is something you might be interested in trying, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Look for a sled that gets decent gas mileage. They’re much better these days than they were years ago, but there are no filling stations in the middle of the woods. Lucas told me he tops-off whenever the chance presents itself.
  • Maintain your equipment. Kasz, Sr. says that non-maintenance is the major cause of breakdowns, especially at the track end.
  • You don’t need a separate sled for every member of your family. As George pointed out, they sell adapter kits to turn most sleds from a single-passenger unit into a one+one.

One thing we haven’t talked about yet is snow. Or rather, a lack of snow. These past couple of winters haven’t been kind to snowmobilers…or to those in the business. You shouldn’t ride after a slight dusting of snow — it’s not good for the sled or the trail. What’s needed is a good, packed base, something that’s been lacking lately as we seem to be in a heavy snow/complete meltdown series of cycles the last three or four years. But everyone I talked to, after sitting down and figuring out their cost per outing, isn’t discouraged. “Whatever is comes to, it’s still worth it!” said the Kaczes. Those guys have snow in their veins.

Done correctly (see the opening paragraphs) I can see where sledding could be a great outing for the family, or maybe a day out with the boys/ladies. Whatever you decide, drive safely and smartly; get the most reliable equipment you can afford; and for heaven’s sake — dress for the weather!

WNY snowmobile clubs and associations
New York State Snowmobile association

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