Bill Clarke Talks About
Snowmobiling in The Port Sydney Area

from an interview with Ryan Kidd.


Snowmobiles were probably being used by the Ministry of Natural Resources over in the Parry Sound Area before I saw any around here. So we heard about this machine that would go through the snow and we discussed it . The outcome of the discussion was that my brother Wilfred and my cousin Ross would go over to Parry Sound and have a look at these things because Wilfred was a pretty good mechanic and Ross was a good carpenter and bushman. So the two of them went off to Parry Sound to get this information. This was in 1963. So they went over and there were two dealers in Parry Sound. One was selling the Autoboggin. It was one of the new ones. The other was a little yellow machine with the motor between your knees. They returned home to report that it was noisier than hell and that it wouldn’t amount to anything. They reported that the one they really liked was this Autoboggin that had the engine at the back. As country boys they thought that you should have the weight over where the traction was and that this sled was the one to buy. It had a seven horsepower Wisconsin  engine at the back , no brakes  and just a throttle. The track was a chain track with wood cleats covered with rubber that gave pretty good traction.So they came back and said this is the one to buy.


The fellow from Parry Sound  must have smelled a sale so he brought two machines over a week  later and the word got around that they were going to be up at Jack VanAlstine’s garage up by the cemetery. The chap arrived and we got them off  and Ross and I were there and Ross said let’s go back along the gas pipeline and see how these things go. At that time there was about thirty inches of snow with no snowshoe tracks or anything. So the two of us got on this machine and just putted along with no problem at all. Then we got down and Ross said, “let’s go back down Uncle Arthur’s bush trail”. So we went through there until we came out to the road. At that time I said,  “lets go down into Port Sydney to the ski hill”. At that time there was a ski hill down the hill behind the community center. Up the hill we went, putting along with no problem all. When we got to the top we realized that we had no brakes. So being country boys we realized that if we kept it in gear  that the engine would hold it back. Well we came down the hill more or less under control.


When we got back to Jack VanAlstine’s, I said,” why don’t you be a dealer”? Jack said aw no I’ve got enough to do. I said I’ll buy one and Ross said he’d buy one as well. Now he had two customers and that changed his mind. So we bought one each at $931. and there wasn’t any GST back then. We were the first two. By the end of  winter there were four in the village of Port Sydney. Wally Hall got one. He was  a summer resident but he came up through the winter. Eventually some of the Somerset’s bought some. It expanded from there. So that was the start of snowmobiling in Port Sydney.


Of course there were no trails, but we knew where the old lumber trails were. My brother Wilf wanted to know how the machine would do going up through to Brunel where we have a trail at the present time. So we out and we climbed Gardner’s with no trouble but when we got towards Ferguson’s old farm there was a drift about four feet deep on the little incline. We got stuck and had to peel off and gave it a shove and away it went. These sleds would go through three or four feet of snow with no trouble. They were not too heavy. They weighed maybe three or four hundred pounds but we didn’t worry very much about the weight.


By 1965 there were enough machines around  and enough people were interested so that we formed a club. I think that it was called the Port Sydney Snowmobile Club. After awhile we changed the name to the Hill and Gully Riders. We used to go out , six, eight, ten of us to discover new areas. This one chap that we had invited along from Utterson one Sunday afternoon came back after riding over the hills and said you guys are just a bunch of hill and gully riders. That’s where the name came from. The leaders of the club in those days were Vera VanAlstine, Jack Van Alstine ,Ross Clarke, John Somerset, my son Bill. I believe there were ten of us in the first club. It was mainly drift riding. We knew where the lumber roads were and we started to make trails. Back in  those days nobody thought it was trespassing  to go off onto somebody’s property. That was the mindset in those days. You could go anywhere and nobody seemed to bother you. Most of us used the Autoboggin.  Polaris came out with a machine and Jack VanAlstine changed his ribbons over to Polaris.  Ski Doos came in and people were buying many different sleds.  There was great rivalry in the club about who got stuck where  and my machine would go where yours can’t.


We ran on the lake. There wasn’t any trail across the lake because there wasn’t any need. We just went where we wanted to. The winter carnivals started about that time and we started to have snowmobile races. Of course they only went about fifteen miles an hour but it was still a race. . Before that time we used to have dice on ice, which was a car race on ice. I used to make a mile track out here with a couple of dog legs and a straightaway. We ran that for five or six years from fifty seven to sixty three or four. When the snowmobiles started to appear the interest went away from car racing but when we had the car racing we used to have four or five hundred cars parked on the ice. You can’t get four or five cars on the ice to-day. People shy away from it.


People down south also started to buy machines and they were coming up here. Members of the club would invite their friends up to partake in this new discovery. No one knew about the small lakes back in from the roads except maybe trappers or bushmen. The local people had never been back in there. When you came over a hill and there was a lake in front of you, you would wonder what lake this was. It was like discovering new lands. I had never seen Gilleach’s Lake, or Sages Lake or Big Stephen or Angel’s Lake and I’ve lived here most of my life. It was like opening up new vistas.


As more people who went over the trails the darn things started to get rough like a washboard with what they now call moguls. We figured that we had to fix this so we started to drag bed springs behind our own machines. This worked quite well. The local people were quite happy with this but when they started to invite their friends up for the weekend to use our trails which were just the club’s problems occurred. Of course they’d arrive maybe eight or nine Friday night and maybe have a few drinks and maybe sleep in Saturday morning.By the time that they got out on the trails maybe Saturday afternoon, the people from the lodges like mine had been out and the trails were not in the shape that they wanted. So there a little friction. At that time there were maybe five small resorts in Port Sydney.

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Hill & Gully Riders
312 Beaver Meadow Rd. Port Sydney, Ontario, P0B 1L0 Canada

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