Confession: this is as close I’ve been to a Ski-doo since childhood – a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Ski-doo from 1961, this model first built in 1958, a permanent fixture at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Many 20th-century inventors worked on creating a vehicle that could travel easily over snow. However in Canada, Bombardier’s Ski-doo became king, the term a generic equivalent to “snowmobile” much like “Kleenex” equals “tissue.” Since the 1960s, Ski-doos and their competitor cousins have been a popular form of transportation over snow in a country where, for the most part, we have a lot of the stuff.
Transportation Canada says there are 700,000 registered snowmobiles in the country. Those in Canada’s far north use snowmobiles like southerners use their cars, for all-purpose travel, on road and off. Those in southern Canada, where snow can come and go in the winter, tend to use snowmobiles for recreational riding, sticking to designated trails. Snowmobiles aren’t permitted on public roads.
My first (and only) Ski-doo ride came courtesy of an older neighbour boy. That family, with three sons, went ski-dooing, as it’s called, regularly. One wintry day one of the boys asked if I’d like a ride. Pre-teen me was pretty shy about straddling the beast and holding this (rather cute) teen boy around the waist. What I remember most from the ride is the noise – snowmobiles tend to roar – and seeing branches fly by, seeming inches from my terrified, albeit helmeted, head.
My dad sometimes said, “23 skidoo!” when he wanted to shoo someone or something away. I thought then it was related to the Canadian snowmobile but learned later that it’s an American phrase first spelled skiddoo, which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. Webster’s Dictionary postulates it is a derivative of “skedaddle”. Why the 23 attached? Google pops up a variety of theories, including the too-good-to-be-true supposition that police officers shouted “23 skiddoo!” at men who would hang out around New York’s Flatiron Building on 23rd Street to watch women’s skirts blow up in the wind magnified by that building’s pointy shape.
How did the phrase skiddoo morph into the brand name Ski-Doo? As much as I wanted to find a juicy branding story, according to the company history, the name was an accident. It was supposed to be “Ski-Dog”, after the dogsleds these machines were meant to supplant. Someone made a typo in the advertising brochure. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
Photo: Chris Moorehead