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Era of Tundra snowmachines is coming to an end

Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Over the last decade, Roger Siglin and his traveling companions have logged more than 50,000 miles across the Alaska and Canadian arctic on Tundra Ski-Doos, most of the time while pulling sleds loaded with 500 or more pounds.

''We've never had to haul one to town,'' said Siglin, a veteran of several long-distance snowmachine treks across the Arctic. ''That says a lot.''

Then there was the man who walked into Compeau's, the state's largest Ski-Doo dealership, not too long ago and wanted to trade in his 1993 Tundra for a new one. It had 28,000 miles on it.

Indeed, the Tundra is something of a legend in Alaska. It is a trapper's best friend. It is the Subaru of Alaska snowmachines, so to speak.

Small enough to be lifted out of deep snow by a single person. Able to wind through the woods on only a sliver of trail. Strong enough to pull a sled loaded with gear. Slow enough to get you home in one piece.

''They're light enough that you can maneuver them around and lift them up if you get in a bad spot,'' said Tundra lover and trapper Steve Verbanac at Angel Creek Lodge, 50 miles east of Fairbanks. ''I've never had one stuck where I couldn't maneuver it around. All you have to do is pack a trail in front of it and give it a push.''

Hard as it may be for some Alaskans to believe, however, the Tundra has met its end after a 15-year run. Bombardier, the company which manufactures Ski-Doos, has decided to no longer produce the Tundra, despite protest from Ski-Doo dealers in Alaska and Canada.

''We've been bugging them to keep building them and they're not going to do it,'' Compeau said. ''We're not done hounding them but we've been told they will not build them next year.''

For Craig Compeau and many Alaskans, the end of the Tundra is like a death in the family.

''It's been our bread-and-butter sled,'' said Compeau. ''It has been the most bulletproof sled we've had.''

At $4,399 and 380 pounds, the Tundra is the cheapest, lightest full-size snowmachine on the market. The top-end speed for a Tundra is 50 mph ''probably with a tail wind,'' said Compeau. Ski-Doo made two series of the 440cc Tundra, the Tundra and the Tundra LT, which they converted to the Tundra II in 1993.

Chris Kriendler at Central is a member of the Tundra fan club. He's owned nine Tundras and currently has three Tundra IIs.

''I live in Central so I park my truck and all I use in the winter is a snowmachine,'' said Kriendler, who puts about 1,500 miles a year on his snowmachine.

''I'm 60 and I've got a crippled leg, (but) if I get stuck with a Tundra I can get unstuck.''

Like most Tundra owners, Kriendler wasn't happy to hear Ski-Doo no longer would be making them.

''I think it's a dumb move,'' he said, a statement as simple as the machine itself.

Siglin said Alaskans should lobby Ski-Doo to keep making the Tundra.

''I think people should be complaining to Bombardier about it,'' he said.

It is the Tundra's versatility that won over the hearts of Alaskans.

''The Tundra was a great trapping sled; it was a great first sled for kids, you can fit them in a Cessna 185,'' Compeau said, rattling off a few of the Tundra's attributes.

When Siglin began making his cross-country, snowmachine Arctic treks 12 years ago, he said he flipped a coin between the Tundra and Yamaha Bravo. The Tundra won and Siglin has never regretted it.

''They're lightweight, inexpensive and easy to work on,'' Siglin said. ''The simplicity of the machine made it easier for us to maintain on the trail. We had some minor problems, but nothing we couldn't fix with simple tools.''

Of course, there's not too much that can go wrong with a Tundra, which is one of the things that endeared them to Alaskans.

''They're simple, basically a track and a torquey, little motor,'' Compeau said. ''They don't require a lot of maintenance. You keep the track tight and that's about it.''

Gas mileage is another reason why the Tundra was so popular, especially with trappers and Bush travelers. Siglin averages 13 miles to the gallon on his expeditions.

''That's day in and day out and we're almost always pulling a load of 600- or 700 pounds,'' he said.

Verbanac can make the 80-mile trip from Angel Creek Lodge to Central on one tank of gasoline.

To be sure, Tundras are definitely not a high-performance, high-speed machine. Most people use them for the same thing Siglin and Verbanac do.

''I would say probably 70 percent of the Tundras we sold were for utility work -- hauling wood, hauling water, trapping,'' Compeau said. ''You go out to (Bush) villages and that's what they drive.''

The elimination of the Tundra is simply a sign of the times. Yamaha no longer produces the Bravo, which was its version of the Tundra and a popular machine in Alaska.

''All the companies are getting away from the entry-level, utility sleds,'' Compeau said.

The demand for high-performance machines has increased in recent years and the bigger machines carry a higher price tag, which means a bigger profit for the manufacturer, Compeau said.

The Ski-Doo Summit, a 700cc mountain riding machine, sells for $5,500 to $8,000. The MXZ, another high-powered machine, goes for $4,300 to $8,000.

''The bigger machines are real popular right now,'' he said.

Actually, the death of the Tundra is the second fatality in the Ski-Doo family over the past five years. Bombardier stopped making the Elan, an even lighter-weight sled than the Tundra that was popular in Alaska, in 1996.

''That was the end of first era,'' Compeau said. ''We're still getting calls from people in villages asking us, 'Why did you guys quit making Elans?' '' Compeau said. ''Now we're going to be getting calls from people asking us 'Why did you guys quit making Tundras?' ''

Compeau said the Tundra's so-called replacement, the Skandic, is ''a grown-up Tundra.'' It has a two-cylinder engine, a longer track, the same suspension and a price tag that is about $1,500 higher. It also weighs almost 100 pounds more than the Tundra.

''They say it's the same, but it's not the same,'' Compeau said.

Compeau bought the last 26 Tundras he could get his hands on and said there are only about a dozen of the sleds left. ''We're not even advertising them,'' he said.

In March, Siglin and three friends are planning a 2,500-mile expedition from Inuvik to Churchill in the Northwest Territories. They again will use Tundras, which they bought in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and will have shipped to Inuvik in the next month or two.

Normally, Siglin and his companions sell their machines at the end of the trip rather than spend the money to ship them back to Fairbanks. This time, however, Siglin said they may bring them home as collector's items.

''We might bring these back from Churchill if we can get them shipped back at a reasonable price,'' he said.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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