Snowmobiling is as familiar a sport to me as sky-diving. There was a time when I wanted to try both. A mid-winter heat wave cancelled my first snowmobiling date; the second was tabled due to an accident on the trail involving someone else in our group.
I took these as signs that I am not destined to be a sled head. Besides, I’ve had the experience of bundling up for a cold ride, relying on a colorful but dubious-looking vehicle to skate me across icy, snowy, bumpy terrain at high rates of speed.
It was the January when the heater went out on my 1974 purple-with-red-interior, stick shift Austin Marina. I loved that car. But I digress.
Snowmobiling is important to Michigan and much of the Great Lakes Region. The snowmobile was practically invented here. There’s ongoing debate about the lineage of the machine, which evolved and was modified by multiple guys tinkering in garages and barns in Canada and the U.S.
What’s known is that in 1916 Ray H. Muscott of Waters, Michigan received the first U.S. patent for a snow vehicle with the now-familiar combination of front skis and rear tracks. Carl Eliason of Sayner, Wisconsin, patented his machine in 1927, and he is often called the inventor of the snowmobile. Likened to a toboggan on skis, it went 2.5 mph.
The sport grew in popularity in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s, but interest remains high; the Michigan Snowmobile Association represents more than 380,000 registered snowmobilers in state and 100,000 outside the state. They enjoy 6,100 miles of maintained, interconnected trails, mostly in the Northern Lower and the Upper Peninsula. Trails in the Lower Peninsula officially close March 31, but depending on conditions may remain open later than that date in the U.P.
Charlie Vallier, one of the volunteers behind the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum and the annual Antique & Vintage Snowmobile Show & Ride in Naubinway, says this winter has been great for the sport, and it should hold for, well, with the way this winter has played out, who knows how long?
The original Snowmobile Museum opened in 2007 in a temporary facility just off US-2, and this year formally dedicated its permanent home on the highway in beautiful downtown Naubinway. The 7,800-square foot space showcases over 120 vintage snowmobiles plus advertising material, photos, snowsuits and other paraphernalia.
I may never be a sledder, but even I liked learning about the subject at Michigan’s newest museum.
Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum
Naubinway, a blinker-light fishing village at the northernmost point of Lake Michigan, is about 45 minutes west of the Mackinac Bridge on US-2.
(906) 477-6298 or (906) 477-6192
Open year ’round, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays
Admission: $5; kids 16 and under free