Exactly 50 years ago seven men set off to test the new Polaris Sno-Traveler against Maine's challenging Allagash wilderness, and two teams of dog sleds.
The snowmobiles won and even rescued the two drivers and their dog sled teams.
This February history will repeat itself as the Polaris test ride will be reenacted by relatives of those original seven men, and the event will coincide with Millinocket's annual Winterfest, starting Feb. 18.
The purpose of the original ride in 1961 was to determine if the Polaris Sno-Traveler, made on the prairies of Minnesota, could tackle the mountainous terrain and rapidly changing weather conditions of Maine's woods.
"The product that was being built was designed in the Midwest and used in flat country. Back then, the vehicles that were being built worked well in the Midwest, but didn't work in Maine and New Hampshire," said Mike Hetteen, son of Allen Hetteen, who was one of the snowmobilers on that 1961 ride.
"The conditions were totally different. Snow in the Midwest is more wind-blown and hard-packed. It is a rare occasion that we get 20 inches of snow all at once in Minnesota. The northeast was good snow country and the company figured out we needed to build a different type of product for those conditions.
"I think those early rides on the Sno-Traveler opened up winter activity for many people. The vehicles built prior to those days were big and commercial. They weren't built for sportsmen or for a husband and wife who wanted to go off and see the countryside in the winter. The snowmobile has allowed people to see areas in the winter that are too far to reach by either snowshoe or skis."
The younger Hetteen is now purchasing manager for Polaris Industries in Minnesota and will take part in the 2011 ride. The group will use vintage sleds for the trip including two Sno-Travelers used in the original trip.
In 1961, seven men (today, all deceased) consisted of Earlan "E.B." Campbell- the owner of the local Polaris dealership, Reggie Boynton - millworker, Bob Hume - writer of the Millinocket Journal, Richard Rideout - who later became Millinocket's police chief, Allen Hetteen - president of Polaris Industries, Art Erickson of Polaris, and Bob Drew, writer for the Bangor Daily News.
The ride pitted the snowmobilers, who rode from Chesuncook to Chamberlain Lakes and back against two teams of dog sledders that left from Patten, Maine, at the same time. With the vintage sleds, the trip took an entire week to complete, but the snowmobilers won and even rescued the two sled drivers and their dog teams.
David Johnson, who is 88 and a co-founder of Polaris along with Allen and Edgar Hetteen, will take part in the 2011 ride. Johnson is known for making the first Polaris snowmobile. Steve Campbell, whose father Earlan ("EB") Campbell was on the 1961 trip, is organizing the 2011 anniversary ride. Campbell also organized and took part in the first reenactment ride in 1985.
"This is really putting Millinocket on the map. We became a real snowmobile destination after 1985," said Campbell. "The trip in 1985 was a real blast from the past. We all wore the same clothing and used the same machines as they did in 1961. On that trip we started from Millinocket and it took two days to get to Chamberlain Lake. You can do that on a modern sled in four hours. In 2011, we will start in Chesuncook. It will be a culmination of restoring sleds and enjoying the sport."
Many consider that first test ride in Maine as the birth of snowmobiling as we know it today. Polaris began its test rides in 1961 and continued those rides over the years, making improvements to sleds so they could handle rugged terrain and brutal weather. Polaris also conducted test rides in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and Manitoba, making changes in the sleds to meet the needs of hunters and trappers.
The 50th anniversary of the test ride is being run in conjunction with Millinocket's annual Winterfest, Feb. 18-20, a highlight being a snowmobile parade through the downtown on Feb. 18, followed by fireworks.
On Saturday there's an antique snowmobile show and rides, along with an ice fishing derby, poker run and other events. The three-day historical trip gets underway at 8 a.m. Sunday, depending on weather conditions.
"It is exciting to be a part of this historic event. I did part of the ride a few years ago and I had my son on the ride too, so there have been three generations of my family on the ride," said Hetteen. "It is neat to go back to the same areas where my father was 50 years ago and do the same thing."
More info on Winterfest at www.katahdinmaine.com, or call the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce at 207-723-4443.
By Cathy Genther
The first test of the
Polaris Sno-Traveler took place in 1961 using these snowmobiles, on a trip that
traversed the rugged terrain and conditions of the Maine Allagash wilderness.
The trip began on Chesuncook Lake included stops at lumber camps
(photos courtesy Polaris Industries).