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„An ice monster"
God.., what am I doing here? Instead of sitting somewhere in a comfortable chair behind the desk, I am looking for adventures in a completely foreign land, which I only know from stories about Santa Claus. This was my first thought after taking off from Bergen, Norway, towards Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. The closer to Lapland, the more the landscape seemed harsh looking from above, reminiscent of an ice desert which went on forever. Only is it possible to work in such a place? Can it be a pleasant journey at a temperature oscillating within -30 degrees Celsius a vehicle being a hybrid of a motorcycle and a Quad bike with a pinch of jet ski? It turns out that yes. I didn't even think that one of the greatest adventures of my life was just beginning. After reaching the base located in the forest on the frozen Lake Vikajarvi, 19 snowmobiles appeared to my eyes which in fact looked much larger and more massive than those from the pictures I was looking at during my stay in Poland. The landscape around resembled a fairy tale about a snowy land surrounded by forest dotted with millions of trees bending under the weight of white, powdery snow. The problem is that you can perish there in many different ways. Forest paths for scooters stretch for hundreds of kilometers and seem endless. We can easily get to Sweden or to the most distant northern regions of Finland where for a few days there’s no one around. It is not easy to find gas stations, bars or vibrat towns along the way. There is wilderness, peace, nature, reindeers, snowstorms, auroras, the temperature that will successfully drain your phone's batteries in less than 3 minutes, one-meter snowdrifts, in which it is better not to get stuck because you will not remove the snowmobile from them , there’s no way in hell. Going deep into the forest, we are only dependent on ourselves, our skills and the machine, which can be quite capricious but I'll tell you later. However, before I began my adventure on the saddles of these powerful bulls, many "surprises" awaited me, which effectively influenced the decision to return to Poland earlier. In addition to the role of a guide, my duties included keeping machines in good working condition and preparing them daily for traveling with tourists into the unknown. Just then I found out what a polar night is, lying on the snow and removing ice from rubber driving belts, manually starting two-stroke engines at -40 degrees, removing skates and drive components frozen to the ground and also learned how to grasp, and basically not grasp metal tools with bare hands during such severe frosts. It turns out that after each ride on a scooter in deep snow its excess should be removed, which lies between moving parts inside the rubber driving belt.., and believe me that these are hundreds of kilograms if you have a dozen machines under your care.., what if you don't do it? Then the options are two; wait until May until the frost subsides or forge frozen snow formed into ice blocks that effectively block the machine's drive. I was laying for hours on ice with tears in my eyes (freezing anyway), I struggled with pain, powerlessness, frost, fear for my own health, at night, alone somewhere on a frozen Lake closer than further away from the Arctic. Today I know that I stayed there thanks to the support I received from Maciek (a traveler from Łomża) and a wonderful team from around the world, who were absolutely behind me, letting me survive this arctic hell. Fortunately, as it turned out later, it was a reasonable price for the admission ticket to the crazy snowmobile world in which I had been staying for several months.
Santa's Land is one of the most popular tourist destinations for the inhabitants of the Asian part of our planet. At first I felt chills when I saw the forthcoming buses full of sensation-seeking people who have never seen a snowmobile, and often even.., snow. As guides, we were all afraid and we had good reasons for it.These large vehicles are not toys, at least because of that they are fast, lively, heavy, unstable and in the hands of an inexperienced driver simply unpredictable.., just try to explain it to forty unaware people who don't speak English like we don’t speak Chinese. The first joint trips resembled a cabaret with a large dose of horror and inevitably coming misfortune. There were lonely rallies towards the river, dump trucks, "wheelies" and rodeo-like scenes, beyond any doubt, the bull had a visible advantage over the bullfighter. Fortunately, only a few spectacular but harmless episodes took place throughout the season. Most snowmobiles I've dealt with have been equipped with a CVT gearbox (Continuously Variable Transmission). The whole operate was basically limited to skilful use of gas, which is located on the right side of the handlebar and is similar to the one installed in Quad Bikes. For a long time I was wondering why the throttle is not opened like in motorcycles or by the so-called "gas roll". It turns out that at such low temperatures, "roll gas" would simply freeze, which would translate into driving safety. Imagine that you are driving at a constant speed while holding the unscrewed throttle in the same position at a temperature of -30 degrees and suddenly you cannot close it because the lubricant between the handlebar and the throttle has frozen. Of course, the handlebars in scooters are heated, and equipped with a red button with the charming name "Engine kill switch button" after pressing which the motor immediately shut down. After prolonged use of the snowmobile, I have the impression that the solution that the factory has chosen is convenient and allows you to better control the power and torque of the machine, especially when we need to balance your body sharply when turning. Well.., what if we don't move the center of gravity during a sharp charge in arches? The answer is trivial; we will fly out of the machine to a cruising height similar to that which can be reached by our ski jumpers on the flying hill. Remember that if you want to turn left you must first move the center of gravity by leaning to the left because the centrifugal force will affect the machine by tilting it to the right. In all this fun the ground on which we move is very important. The machine behaves differently on fresh, loose powder-like snow (this is what snow usually looks like during severe frosts), differently on heavily beaten snow or heavy after snowmelt and differently on a frozen lake where under the layer of white fluff there is ice. The worst is the compacted and frozen ground. I noticed that even then putting both legs and squatting on the footrest on one side, did not guarantee safety. This is because such a surface is very adhesive, the ground doesn't amortize, and skates and rubber splines on the driving belt literally bite into the snow. An average 4-stroke engine scooter weighs about 280 kilograms, which means that an adult male's weight of 80/85 kilograms on average is insufficient to compensate for the centrifugal force acting on the vehicle while overcoming a tight turn. Initially, "I struggled with the element" and I almost barely didn’t spill a few times. After several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the corner, my colleague Niko came to the rescue (experienced rider and ardent fan of snowmobiling), who showed me that the scooter can be driven sideways on one skate. It was a breakthrough moment in my scooter life because it was then that instead of fighting with centrifugal force, I started using it to control the tilt of the machine and keep the track with one ski up. There is only one minus of this game, namely if you push it too much or something goes wrong then almost 300 kilos will fall on your chest. Several such situations have happened to me and taught by experience I just released of the handlebar and took a dip in the snow. Most often, the machine did not tipped over, returning to the vertical. The safety laynard pinned to my cloth at the time of my "touchdown" cut off the ignition so there was no risk that the scooter would go far without a driver. To sum up; great fun and great delight when the knee touches the fresh snow rushing in a bend with the feeling of gravity not working on us.
The weather forecast for January 27, 2020 left no doubt. A „monster is coming” from the north I thought and I was not wrong. The expected temperature for Rovaniemi was -37 degrees Celsius, but for Vikajarvi where I lived -42. We all waited with some excitement for this day, but something kept me awake at night namely the morning start of engines, inside of which the oil was more like wallpaper glue than a lubricant that plays a key role in the proper functioning of every internal combustion engine on earth. 2-stroke engine with a capacity of 550 and 600 cm3 went first. Manual start of one engine took about 15 minutes and after just one such session I felt like after a whole day of hard physical labor at the construction site. In the „heat of the battle”, I didn't notice that my nose was sticking out of the balaclava and that was a big mistake. The pain and burning that radiated to the upper jaw area were difficult to bear and remained with me for several hours. Starting 4-stroke engines was a drama. There were not without cables and a large battery. Whenever I pressed the Start button, all the lights the scooter was equipped with, were on: "Check engine", "No lubrication", "No charging" and the starter made such terrifying sounds that I preferred to move away from the machine because I wasn't sure if in a moment the crankshaft would come out sideways breaking my legs. Snowmobiles have a rear brake similar to the one we know from motorcycles. The difference is that when you press it, the driving belt is blocked, and not the front or rear wheels (because they are simply not there). Unfortunately, at such low temperatures, the liquid loses its parameters and the handle becomes simply soft so we can forget about the brake. When the temperature rose to around -33 degrees and it got warmer, we set off on the first journey of the day with customers. The most persistent remained on the battlefield, and all the rest after a few minutes sat in a warm room, holding their feet by the fire. Everything freezes; hats, gloves, balaclavas, eyelashes, snots, fingers, feet and basically every living and dead cell of the body. On the following days there was a distinct warming (increase in temperature to about -20 degrees C) so it happened that we went straight out of the sauna in towels outside to admire the northern lights. Around mid-January, turmoil around the world caused by coronavirus was beginning to be felt by us. The number of tourists visiting the land of Santa Claus had clearly dropped, and we with the vision of the inevitably approaching premature end of the season decided to organize a journey into the unknown. A few days earlier, two new machines came to us, equipped with a two-cylinder, 4-stroke Rotax ACE engine with a capacity of 600 cm3 and 62 horsepower; supposedly not much, but believe me that enough to accelerate this 279 kilogram bull to a speed of over 100 km/h. Assuming that the capacity of the fuel tank is 37 liters, and the average fuel consumption is around 10 liters/100 km, we decided with the "Old Man" (nickname of my colleague Matteo from Italy) that we will try to drive a section of over 110 kilometers of forest paths within one day. The technique of driving in the forest is definitely different from the one we use for example on a frozen lake. Of course, there is a need to balance the body all the time, but there is also the ability to stand up and it is more like driving a motocross than a peaceful sightseeing trip. Speed around 70, 80 km/h on a narrow forest path is sheer madness. I felt like I was taking part in the rally Finland, and my attention was constantly focused on the winding road full of bumps. These paths are very unpredictable and really one mistake is enough to say hello to the God when you least expect it.By the way we are going through the forest, so who will prohibit the reindeer to rest somewhere in the middle of a sharp turn? The forest path is, according to Finnish law, a public road intended for use by all snowmobile fans, so it's not hard to guess that no one will really give you a guarantee that no other Arthur will not appear at the turn from the opposite direction rushing at the same speed. In this situation, the resultant force is about 140/160 km/h. A frontal collision at this speed announces the appearance of final credits with a charming engraving somewhere on the tree „In the movie took part…” The view of large glades covered with snow somewhere outside the main trawl is an irresistible temptation to try something new, but here the Arctic has a few surprises for you. Speeding beyond the designated road in deep snow, you may come across stumps (remains of a felled tree), fall into a deep ditch or simply hang on top of a tree cleverly hidden by nature under snow. And what does a punctured oil pan mean somewhere over 100 kilometers in the forest on the Arctic Circle? If there are two of you, it means a return on one scooter and a loss of about 11,000 Euro, but if you are alone.., then you will die, or at least you have a good chance.
This article is dedicated to everyone I have worked with, spent my free time and experienced one of the greatest adventures of my life. Thank you for that and I promise I will never forget you; Maciej, Matteo aka Old Man, Niko, Gabor aka Gabi, Josh, Guillermo aka Guillermo from Palermo, Miguel aka Senior Miguel, Guenda, Matias, Kilian, Saeko, Raymond, Andrea, Amora, Lei, Alice, Willy, Ekaterina, Liu. Thank you to Sun Wei, Susan and the entire management of Sunny Safari with Rovaniemi for your time and providing machines without which this article would not have been created.
„Snowmobiles it's not a joke.., it's a madness!”