Snowmobiles are essential vehicles when it comes to getting around the snowy terrain of Northern Labrador.
“Everybody in Labrador these days, it’s just a part of our general way of life up here,” said Jamie Brake, an archeologist with the Nunatsiavut Government based in Nain.
That’s why Brake and many others are excited about ongoing work that may see the first snowmobile used in Labrador one day ride again.
Built in 1926, the Model T Ford Snowmobile — actually a truck converted through the aid of a kit — came to Labrador as part of the Rawson-MacMillan subarctic expedition. The front wheels on the truck were replaced with tracks, with those tires moved to the rear end and tracks then wrapped around the two wheels aligned side by side.
William Duncan Strong retrieved the remains of 22 people from a Christian cemetery in a settlement south of Nain called Zoar in 1927 and 1928. They were kept at the Chicago Field Museum until the Nunatsiavut Government arranged to have those remains returned to Labrador in 2011.
Archeologists discovered the scattered bits and pieces of the snowmobile in 1995 while conducting assessment work in Anaktalak Bay relevant to the eventual establishment of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine. Area residents were well aware at the time of the expedition site, with some still able to remember the man who led the expedition, Donald MacMillan.
Brake first visited the Rawson-MacMillan site in 2011.
“I was pretty amazed when I saw the snowmobile and the kind of condition it was in — the parts of it I could see sticking out of the snow at the time,” he said, recalling that spring visit.
The idea of removing the snowmobile and bringing it to Nain had been discussed ever since its discovery.
“People recognized how special a thing this was back in those days, and also recognized how vulnerable the site — and the snowmobile in particular — were.”
Brake is amazed at how well the snowmobile and it parts have held up after being left to the elements for decades.
“The chassis is in really good shape and we’ve got still attached to that the body and two of the fenders, and we’ve got the other two fenders as well,” he said. They also found the engine and transmission unit, tracks, the exhaust, carburetor, hood, front axel and one headlight.
“There’s quite a lot still attached to the chassis, and then I think we collected something like 42 other objects, not including the engine/transmission unit. There’s a good bit of it, and what we recovered is in pretty amazing shape.”
With the Nunatsiavut Government responsible for archeological resources on Labrador Inuit land, Brake and another professional archeologist based in Nain set up an excavation grid last October to begin the recovery process.
After systematically recording, mapping, and labelling to create a field catalogue, light parts of the snowmobile were moved to the shore and loaded onto a freighter canoe and a later a speed boat.
The chassis and engine were left there over the winter. Archeologists returned to the area in early March to take the remaining parts to Nain. All parts are now being stored in a warehouse belonging to Jens Haven Memorial School.
A plan to restore the machine is being developed. Brake expects that process will take years to unfold.
“There are people out there who restore machines like this who are into Model T (trucks) and even Model T snowmobiles,” said Brake. He said experts who were contacted about the Labrador snowmobile are optimistic it can be restored.
As a link to the past, Brake said the snowmobile presents a wealth of interpretation potential. Given the original Rawson-MacMillan expedition was well funded, there remains lots of documentation to draw upon, including video footage, journals, and other notes.
“This machine is referenced in some of these journals, and there’s quite a few photos of it, and there’s even silent film footage of it. So not only is it an amazing thing anyway, but it’s so well documented that it’s something you can really do a lot (with) in terms of interpretation.”