Upper Michigan snowmobile museum dwells on history

The last time I talked to Charlie Vallier, he was hoping for a snowstorm. The longtime snowmobile collector knows it’s good for his hobby and the economy where he lives, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Vallier is chairman of the nonprofit Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway. No Lake Michigan shoreline community is farther north. It’s at the edge of Sault Ste. Marie State Forest, on U.S. 2 between Escanaba (100 miles west) and Saint Ignace (40 miles east).

Michigan snowmobile trail UP2 skirts the museum parking lot. It’s classic Yooper country, quiet, beautiful and rugged.

Population of Naubinway is 580, which includes everything within the Zip Code. That’s the equivalent of three people per square mile. You likely buzz through this village when heading to Mackinac Island but may not notice the “Snowmobile Museum” sign, especially during the middle of summer.

I got acquainted because of Kath Usitalo, a colleague who lives in Naubinway and probably writes about her part of the world as much as I write about Wisconsin (check out greatlakesgazette.com). She persuaded me to make a quick stop while passing through last spring.

In a building that looks more functional than flashy, Vallier offers a tour, then tends to other business. He is a retired state Department of Natural Resources employee and Army vet.

“You gotta have a hobby,” he says. “Why not snowmobiles?” Of the 150 sleds on display, a few are his (but he says far more are stored at home).

The museum is all about the history of snowmobiling and opened 10 years ago. “We’re a destination now for the east end of the U.P., Vallier says. Visitors from as far away as Australia, India and Singapore have found their way here.

The variety of sleds – many one-of-a-kind or rare because of limited production – is what Vallier says makes his museum noteworthy and unique in Michigan. It’s not just the popular Arctic Cats and Ski-Doos.

“A lot of what you see was made through trial and error for fishing, trapping” or other reasons, he says.

For example:

A 1936 motorized sled by a Michigan machinist, to go ice fishing, was nicknamed “Pizza Oven” because it kind of looks like one.

The 1970 Luvbug, made by a steel company in Ontario, seats two people side-by-side. Only 50 units were produced.

A 1966 snowmobile made for J.C. Penney catalogs in Alaska ran on regular gas, using an 8-horsepower Kohler engine and sold for $588. Most of the 200 produced were sold to Alaskan pipeline developers.

The 1950 Tucker Sno Cat was bought by the Michigan Department of Conservation to feed deer on Drummond Island.

A handmade Trail-A-Sled from the 1950s was used to haul mail and groceries in northern Minnesota. It had an engine similar to what you’d find on a Stearman biplane.

The Autoboggan was invented by a Canadian businessman in 1956 and manufactured by Polaris Industries until 1966.

Most of what you see is on loan or donated in honor of a parent, friend or other snowmobile enthusiast. An exception is 33 vintage sleds donated in 2016 by the J. Armand Bombardier Museum in Quebec, which sought a home for holdings not produced by the company. (Bombardier products include Ski-Doo snowmobiles.)

Any stipulations? “We can’t sell them or throw them into storage,” which was fine with the museum’s board of directors.

“I think they liked that we are all volunteers,” Vallier explains. “We patted ourselves on the back after that one,” then came up with a way to raise the $2,500 to pay for shipping the sleds and getting them through U.S. Customs.

Vallier says nearly all of his museum’s sleds are operable. A part of that is because he and colleagues like tinkering with motors. The take the time to analyze and fix their donations.

That is easier for them than the average snowmobile owner, since museum acquisitions also include many operation manuals for snowmobiles and the library of a longtime historian for the Antique Snowmobile Club of America.

The 26th annual Top of the Lake Snowmobile Show and Ride is Feb. 16-17 in Naubinway, Mich. This year’s star of the show is the 1968 Ski-Doo Olympique.

The event begins with a group breakfast, then a 13-mile snowmobile ride from to Cranberry Lodge, part of Hiawatha Sportsman’s Club, for brats and sled talk before heading back to Naubinway for a look at the snowmobile museum, then a three-mile night ride with bonfire along the trail.

The second day is all about the snowmobile show. “Bring whatever machine you have,” organizers say online. Registration to participate is free. The event ends with an evening banquet, raffle and auction.

If ice conditions are good Feb. 18, an afternoon group snowmobile ride happens from St. Ignace, Mich., to Mackinac Island, using an ice bridge whose route is marked by Christmas trees. Ice bridge conditions can change quickly, so snowmobilers are not advised to make this trip on their own. Fatalities have occurred.

Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum, W11660 US 2, Naubinway, Mich., is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except major holidays. Admission is $5 (free for ages 16 and younger). snowmobilemuseum.com, 906-477-6298

In Wisconsin, Eagle River bills itself as the World Snowmobile Headquarters. Open for visits at 1521 N. Railroad St. are the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame, World Snowmobile Championship Derby Hall of Fame and Antique Snowmobile Club of America Museum. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Sunday. worldsnowmobilehq.com, 715-479-4424