FAIRBANKS — Snowmobile, snowmachine, sno-go or something else?

I’ve noticed people in different parts of the country disagree about what to call the things.

Officially, the massive winter race and party in the Hoodoo Mountains this week started as the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic. But promotional materials call it a “snowmobile” race, not a “sno-go” race. Here in Fairbanks, everyone I’ve ever known calls it a “snowmachine.”

Ever since I moved to Alaska in 2009, I’ve been puzzled by the divergent names for the snowmachine. In general, Alaska’s population is dominated by people who were born elsewhere. The state doesn’t have its own statewide English dialect, but there’s a big terminology split for this important Alaska vehicle.

I’ve had mixed results asking around this winter about how people in Alaska, and especially in the Interior, came into our own word for the vehicle. Lots of early Fairbanks snowmachiners are still around and some are still snowmachining. They were happy to talk to me about the early days, but generally remembered more about the fun they had than the terminology they used. Just to add confusion, I’ve come across lesser-used terms while asking around for this column: “snow cat,” “Snow Flyer,” “ski mobile” and “Ski-Doo.” The latter is used even if the “Ski-Doo” in question is actually a Yamaha or Polaris-brand snowmachine rather than the Ski-Doo brand.

Early history

 It’s not hard to find early written records of “snowmobiles,” something I haven’t managed with the term “snowmachine.”

The term “snowmobile” pre-dates anything anyone would recognize today. The word was used at least as far back as the 1910s to describe several early snow-traveling vehicles that closely followed the development of the first automobile.

In New Hampshire, the town of West Ossipee has a sign proclaiming it as the “Home of the First Snowmobile” for the kit to modify a Ford Model T that a local Ford dealer patented in 1917. In Fairbanks, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum has a snow vehicle from that vintage on display. It’s a Model T-adapted vehicle known as a Snow Flyer.

In 1956, a group of three men at a northern Minnesota agricultural and industrial equipment factory built one of the first modern snowmachines. The machine used a grain elevator conveyer belt for a track and a Chevy bumper for skis. The prototype led to the Polaris line.

I called Mitchell Johnson, the son of Polaris founder David Johnson, this week to see if he knew the history of the terminology. Mitchell is 65 and grew up during some of the early Polaris testing.

He associates the word snowmachine with Alaska but didn’t know exactly where it came from. The name “iron dog” was also born in Alaska, to his knowledge. That name lives on in the name of the world’s longest snowmachine race.

“We have always recognized snowmachine as an Alaska term,” he said. “I’ve been to Alaska 18 or 20 times and I’m always reminded that I’m in Alaska when I hear the term snowmachine.”

Like all the other major snowmachine manufacturers, Polaris calls its vehicles snowmobiles today. 

But Johnson used yet another regional term for it growing up. In northern Minnesota, they were usually known as “snow cats,” he said.


Alaska expansion

Snowmachine is a nice simple name for a machine that moves through snow, so I can see why it caught on instead of snowmobile. But I don’t know why early Alaska snowmachiners would have changed the name from the word used by developers in the Lower 48 and Canada.

The oldest written records about snowmachines I’ve found are a series of government environmental reports from the 1970s in Alaska. But early Alaska snowmachiners seem to remember the vehicle being called a snowmachine from the 1950s on.

Snowmachine and boat retailer Craig Compeau grew up in the snowmachine business in Fairbanks. His father’s business started selling Polaris Huskys in the late 1950s.

According to family lore, Compeau’s father and grandfather knew the product would be popular after taking one on a hunting trip to Cleary Summit. Fairbanks people call them snowmachines and rural people are more likely to call them sno-gos or Ski-Doos, in his experience, Compeau said.

Urban Rahoi was an early snowmachine adopter in Fairbanks and he continues to ride a ’65 Polaris Mustang in the Jurassic Classic part of the Tired Iron Vintage snowmachine race series in Fairbanks. I asked him about the name earlier this winter. As best he can remember, they’ve always been called snowmachines here.

“You didn’t pay much attention,” he said. “You just used them.”

Whatever you call the things, there are signs the term snowmobile is taking over or has at least made a beachhead in the 49th state.

In Anchorage, a snow-sports enthusiasts organization founded in 1991 calls itself the Anchorage Snowmobile Club. Everyone in the club calls their sleds snowmachines, but they went with snowmobile in the name of the organization to attract newcomers to Alaska, according to club president Les Kincaid.

Also, the Anchorage bureau of The Associated Press, which makes terminology guidelines for newspapers and other media, uses both words interchangeably. But it uses snowmobile for articles that are likely to have a nationwide audience. Here at the News-Miner, I’m glad to say snowmachine remains our word of choice. 

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.