An invention that snowballed; Vehicle: Joseph-Armand Bombardier's 'la belle petite machine' is at the core of the multibillion-dollar snowmobiling industry.


VALCOURT, Quebec -- Nestled in the Riviere Noire valley, 30 miles north of Vermont, is a shrine to the man who revolutionized winter recreation with his machine.

"When it comes to history, I'm like, 'Ugh, boring.' But I really wanted to come here," said Annette Turgeon, 32, of Bangor, Maine.

Turgeon, her husband and their two sons roared into the parking lot of the J. Armand Bombardier Museum the other day astride four gleaming sleds, as snowmobiles are called by the 2.1 million North Americans for whom they are a high-powered passion.

Removing her crash helmet, she scrutinized the meticulously restored old workshop attached to the museum, a snowball's toss from the huge modern factory that churned out her noisy, speedy snow machine.

"It's awesome, being where it all began," she said.

The snarl of engines and the whiff of exhaust are commonplace throughout snow country, from the Inuit realms of Canada's Nunavut Territory to the Sierra Nevada.

But in 1922, when 15-year-old farm boy Joseph-Armand Bombardier started tinkering with a Model T engine, a wooden airplane propeller and a battered set of sleigh runners, snow travel meant slogging on rawhide-webbed shoes or mushing behind a dogsled.

Snorting monstrosity

The fruit of his first labor was a snorting monstrosity that spat blue smoke and threatened to dismember gawking bystanders with a rear-mounted blade that spun madly in the air, powering the rig over and through the drifts.

Bombardier's father ordered him to immediately dismantle the contraption in the interest of public safety.

During the next few decades, Bombardier designed and built treaded snow vehicles that served as logging machines, transports for mining prospectors, military ambulances for winter battlefields and conveyances for rural doctors.

The machines, like those of competing inventor-entrepreneurs in the United States, were too cumbersome and expensive for the average buyer. Then, in 1959, Bombardier's modest factory garage in Valcourt started turning out a new, lightweight, inexpensive and highly maneuverable vehicle.

He christened it the Ski-Dog. A printing accident gave it a new name, the Ski-Doo. And history was made.

By most reckonings, the brightly painted machine was the first mass-produced recreational snowmobile. A winter industry was born.

"Joseph-Armand transformed life in northern places," said Louise Lemay, communications officer for the museum, which attracts 35,000 visitors a year to this French-Canadian town. Valcourt also remains home to the Bombardier Inc. plant, where Ski-Doos rumble off the assembly lines, 2.3 million of them to date.

"They are a wonderful recreational vehicle that brought joy to so many people who used to feel trapped by winter," Lemay said.

Critics' view

There's another, quite different view.

Critics say snowmobiles are noisy, exhaust-spewing despoilers of nature, polluting the air, and running roughshod over public lands and private property.

Even now, 40 years after becoming a fixture of rural life, snowmobiles are the subject of bitter debate over their use in national parks and other pristine places.

The battles rage, in courts and in feuds that have split communities. But Americans and Canadians continue to purchase about 210,000 "sleds" a year, and snowmobile registrations in the two countries have risen 32 percent during the past six years, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, an organization of the four biggest manufacturers -- Bombardier in Canada; Polaris and Arctic Cat, both based in Minnesota; and Yamaha in Japan.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier died in 1964, having founded one of Canada's greatest industrial empires. The company's divisions manufacture everything from passenger jetliners to subway cars, and have 53,000 employees.

"But I think, for the average person, we are still best known for 'la belle petite machine,' " Lemay said.

Bombardier's "lovely little machine" and those manufactured by competing companies form the core of an industry with estimated sales of more than $10 billion annually in North America.

Snowmobile sales account for about $1.2 billion of that. The bigger economic benefit comes from money that snowmobiling tourists spend.

Americans and Canadians, with their wide open spaces and booming economies, are the world's most avid snowmobilers. "But it's starting to seriously take off in Scandinavia," said Edward Klim, president of the snowmobile manufacturers' group.

Finland is doing what states such as Minnesota and provinces such as Quebec have been doing for years: aggressively marketing itself as a center for the sport and offering thousands of miles of free, marked trails.

Big spenders

A study found that the typical snowmobile tourist spends $4,218 a year for hotel rooms, fuel, meals and other goods or services.

A Quebec official involved with promoting tourism said, "Cross-country skiers bring their own granola bars. Snowmobilers come with wallets full of Visa cards and cash."

The typical snowmobiler is 40, married with 0.8 children and an annual income of $56,000, drives a sport utility vehicle or pickup truck, spends $5,780 for a typical snowmobile and rides it 1,202 miles a year, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.

Visitors at the Bombardier Museum come from as far away as Argentina and Russia, but they are mostly from Canada and the colder regions of the United States. Canadians seem to be drawn by the mystique of the inventor, Americans to marvel at the displays of vintage snow machines.

There's the Bombardier B-7, a 1936, V-8 powered vehicle that carried driver and up to six passengers in what looked like a Volkswagen Beetle mounted on skis and Caterpillar tracks. It was popular, according to the museum, with "country doctors, funeral directors and priests."

Feats and records

Snowmobilers have attained speeds of 190 mph and have reached the North Pole. They've hauled elephants in pulling contests, skimmed across lakes in the popular competition called water cross, in which participants see how far they can travel before they sink, and shot off ramps to fly through the air. The world record in that event is 108.2 feet.

The snowmobile, it seems, is one of the great cultural ties across the northern border.

"Americans and Canadians love the same stuff," said Alain Bishop, 27, of Ontario, gliding up to the museum's popular "la machine extravagante" racing snowmobile exhibit. "Especially," he said, admiring the glittering chrome exhausts of the 12-cylinder engine, "anything that burns lots of gasoline, goes fast and is kind of dangerous."

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