Snowmobiles are the workhorses of the north. Almost everyone seems to own a snowmobile or two. Some are old, battered and wheezy, while others are shiny new and extremely powerful. Many people use snowmobiles as a tool, to move supplies or people, herd reindeer, check on livestock, etc. Snowmobiles are perhaps even more often used as a toy, a way to get out and cruise around at high speed in the woods.
I have seen people riding with dogs sitting regally behind the driver. I have seen snowmobiles pulling long sleds with a half a dozen people and gear, and I have seen hundreds of pounds of long lumber being pulled on a sled. Some diehard users will drive them on bare ground as well.
A skilled driver can take a snowmobile almost anywhere. Many times I have scaled steep and difficult ascents on skis only to shake my head in disbelief at seeing snowmobile tracks from a reindeer herder at the top.
Our friend Sofia grew up driving snowmobiles and to watch her drive is very impressive. She is about 5’4 with a slender athletic build. On flat even ground she sits on the seat and opens the throttle so we speed along smartly. On variable terrain is where she comes alive, standing and leaning this way and that; deftly convincing the roaring machine to remain upright. Sometimes she will swing one leg over the seat so she is standing with both feet on one side and then aggressively lean outward like she is sailing. All of these movements are fluid and easy, giving the impression that she is dancing with the snowmobile.
Last week I rode with Sofia and our coworker Elin to some cabins located about 10 km across a large frozen lake. The hydropower dams cause water fluctuations which force the lake to heave up miniature mountains of ice, especially where there are rocks that protrude from the water. These small ice mountains can be 30 or 40 feet tall and give the impression that one is walking on a landscape from a far off planet.
Traversing the lake requires negotiating these ice heaves. The marked trail dips and climbs steeply and large cracks in the ice loom very close by. I would be nervous to walk on this terrain, let alone drive a snowmobile pulling a sled with two other people and a dog. Sofia charged forward prudently but with confidence, gunning the snowmobile as we approached uphills in order to maintain enough speed, and leaning aggressively to keep us upright.
Several times we came to pools of water that had collected on top of the ice. These are places that are easy to get stuck as the water mixes with the snow to form something akin to concrete. I was riding in the sled with my back facing forward, so I could not see what was ahead. Suddenly I would feel us accelerate, a crescendo rising from the two stroke engine, and then we would plunge into the water, droplets showering over me. Sofia maintained enough speed to keep us from getting stuck, and we were all thankful for her driving skills.
Sofia’s skill were not developed overnight; she began driving snowmobiles at a very young age, perhaps before most kids learn to ride a bicycle. I watched a 6 year old driving a snowmobile with his dad sitting behind him. The young boy turned the snowmobile around and drove by us, casually waving before speeding off across a frozen lake and climbing a series of small but steep hills.
Saltoluokta Fjällstation relies on snowmobiles during the winter to transport guests and their baggage along the 4 km isleden (ice road) across Lake Langas. The isleden is marked by orange poles drilled into the ice and one must be careful to follow it closely, as weak ice can be found on either side.
Warm temperatures and long sunny days have finally weakened the isleden enough to make it unsafe. We took one of the last snowmobile transports across at the end of April. I noticed Jore, our driver, wearing a set of ice claws around his neck, a security device you can use to pull yourself out of the water in the event you fall through. We crossed the thin ice at high speed, and the water that had accumulated on top of the ice splashed over us as we rode behind in the transport sled. The next day the isleden was closed and a new transportation method was put into place: the helicopter. More on that soon!