TAMARACK -- There's plenty of vintage to go around at Mel Johnson's dairy farm in Tamarack. There's the old red barn, which until 1988 was home to Johnson's dairy herd. Today, the stalls are filled with rows of vintage snowmobiles, many from the ...
TAMARACK -- There's plenty of vintage to go around at Mel Johnson's dairy farm in Tamarack.
There's the old red barn, which until 1988 was home to Johnson's dairy herd. Today, the stalls are filled with rows of vintage snowmobiles, many from the 1970s -- including a Snoscoot, a green-and-yellow John Deere and Johnson's reliable old Chaparral.
Then there's Johnson himself. On Saturday, a month shy of his 80th birthday, Johnson will straddle that vintage Chaparral, don his stars-and-stripes helmet and lead the way for the 18th annual Tamarack Sno-Flyers 12-mile Vintage Sled Run. His 84-year-old brother, Lester, will make the run astride a vintage Yamaha.
"It's going to be good riding," Johnson said. There's been just enough snow in Tamarack to allow the run to go on. Johnson expects a few hundred enthusiasts to turn up with their vintage sleds, and hundreds more to gather and gawk at the colorful machines manufactured during the heyday of snowmobile production.
It's not a race, Johnson emphasized. Most of the sleds will make the run at less than 20 mph -- if they make it to the finish line at all.
Some of the old sleds have all the aerodynamics of a tipped-over refrigerator. Their engines whine and belch bluish smoke and diesel fumes, and some run on wooden skis -- but they are eye-catching.
Companies such as John Deere and Evinrude hopped on the snowmobile bandwagon in the 1970s, churning out their models to compete with those who built Sno-Jets, Hornets and Scorpions. There were once close to 200 snowmobile manufacturers in the world, but just four survived to become the familiar brands -- Polaris, Yamaha, Ski-Doo and Arctic Cat.
Johnson has a few of those new sleds, too, but he has sentimental feelings for the oldies.
On Wednesday, Johnson and a few Sno-Flyers took their vintage sleds on a short practice ride. It's important to keep the machines limbered up for the trip, Johnson said, though every year there are plenty of elderly sleds that sputter out and die along the way.
"You used to ride on the weekends and work on them all week," said Earl Romnes, who was riding a not-quite-vintage Polaris.
Riding the old sleds back in the day also produced stiff shoulders and sore legs.
"We can't believe we used to ride these all the time," Carmen Rinta said. She and her husband, Al, have a collection of 48 snowmobiles, and they spend time combing the Internet, especially e-Bay, for vintage replacement parts and fashionable old outfits.
Carmen Rinta was decked out in an ivory-colored Arctic Cat snowsuit with original purple-and-green piping, while Al was in John Deere from his helmet to his pants.
"Snowmobiling wasn't easy back then," Al Rinta said as he yanked repeatedly on the pull-starter of a 1965 two-piece Hus-Ski that belonged to their son, who had restored it to its full black and yellow glory.
While modern snowmobiles feature handwarmers, smooth suspension and comfy, padded seats, steering something like that Hus-Ski is like pushing an old lawn mower. The sled has a top speed of 20 mph, and sometimes the engine came unhitched from the trailer, "stranding the driver as the motor continued on its own," according to Snow Rider magazine.
Johnson led the group during Wednesday's practice run, the American flag lashed to the front of his sled flapping in the wind. As he made laps around Spruce Lake at a sensible 15 mph, he raised a mirror strapped to his left wrist every so often to check on his companions.
Just in case anyone was to break down, you know.
JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at email@example.com .