People & Culture

Georgian Bay: The mise-en-scène where the modern day scoot evolved over the last century

Indigenous ingenuity shines through in this century-old mode of winter transportation, a marvel of design perfectly suited to the challenges of snowy landscapes, ice, and open water. Behold the scoot.

  • Mar 25, 2024
  • 1,513 words
  • 7 minutes
Métis Veteran Andy Trudeau, Sans Souci scoot builder and pilot leaning on one of his designs. (Photo courtesy of the Trudeau Family Archives)
Expand Image

This article originally appeared at biinaagami.org, a change-provoking initiative seeking to uplift the stories of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed.

Winters along the eastern archipelago of Georgian Bay were much different a century ago. Ice would have settled in and bonded the Thirty Thousand Islands along the eastern archipelago until spring. People known as the full-timers — those who lived among the remote islands and shores all year round — had the knack for reading the ice and getting around on it. They had to.

Prior to the days of the snowmobile, the scoot was unquestionably the most versatile mode of winter travel and was the vital mode of transportation for the shore people living amidst the eastern archipelago of Georgian Bay. Before the time of the scoot, winter transportation among the islands was limited to horses, dog teams and snowshoes. They were not only time-consuming modes of travel but also much more dangerous on the ice — especially in the early winter and late spring when the ice was less predictable. The hybrid craft was the best way to move about on ice or in mixed conditions when you couldn’t trust the ice, or when floating ice made regular boat travel too hazardous.

The “Arctic Goose,” built in 1929 by the Adams Boat Works of Alexandria Bay. (Photo courtesy Thousand Islands Museum)
Expand Image

With a punt-shaped flat-bottomed boat hull on steel runners and a motorized air-drive propeller mounted on the stern, the scoot was designed to overcome the limitations of travelling on Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe in mixed conditions. Winters have long been notably warmer in past years in the region thanks to climate change but, historically, the ice that settled in and remained throughout the winter was reliable enough for the full-timers to travel on relatively safely. The need to travel during the spring melt, amidst the lingering mixed conditions was the mother of invention for the scoot. By the early 1900’s, shore communities along the eastern coast of Georgian Bay were still developing. More and more families were homesteading in places only accessible by water.

The eastern coastline of the Bay is geographically remote. Stretching from the protected harbour of Penetanguishene in the south up to the mouth of the French River in the north, the area spans across two hundred kilometres and is riddled with islands, shoals and channels, skirting along the expansive freshwater sea to the west.

Inspired by the Ugly Duckling — an aerial propeller mounted on the back of a raft engineered by Alexander Graham Bell in 1906 — the precursor to the scoot was an air sled designed by French River resident Reg McIntosh (1903–1985). He used a toboggan-shaped sled with a motorcycle engine to drive a homemade aircraft–style propeller. McIntosh celebrated when his dream toy scooted across the ice, but nearly died when he unintentionally hit open water and sank his weighty sled.

Sans Souci locals out for a cruise. (Photo courtesy of the Trudeau Family Archives)
Expand Image

Other designs followed in kind. Numerous early prototypes were complete failures either because the motor wouldn’t have the power to propel the contraption or had failed to work at all. Some designs were made to push passengers and other models were designed to pull them. Designs that succeeded at locomotion still did not satisfy the desired solution: a single vessel that could travel over ice, snow and open water conditions. To find the solution, early shore folk would turn towards a method of transportation that can’t normally be used in winter — the flat-bottomed boat, also known as a punt.

Determined, McIntosh ordered an aeroplane motor to be shipped in from Lorain Air Services, Ohio, along with metal and wood supplies from Parry Sound, Ont. In two weeks, he constructed the first crude snow plane without a windshield. Eyewitnesses to McIntosh’s initial test run were Bud West and Lymon Everyingham. They were sure McIntosh would kill himself piloting his quirky contraption. Other witnesses, however, saw what McIntosh had achieved. The early days of scoot-building had officially begun. Shoddy handmade prototypes began appearing out on the ice all along the archipelago. Each corner of the region imprinted its own character in the designs. For example, a scoot built with foot-controlled steering became known as the Pickerel River way.

Similar types of ice boats have been used in other areas of the Great Lakes, as well as in Alexandria Bay — along the Saint-Lawrence River and Long Island harbour in New York State. One famous iceboat on the St. Lawrence was the Arctic Goose.

The Arctic Goose was crafted in 1929 by The Adams Boat Works of Alexandria Bay for Julius M. Breitenbach of New York and Alexandria Bay. Designed and built by commercial and military aviators Edwin White and Fred V. Barker, it was six metres long with a two-metre beam and had a ski attachment for travelling in deep snow. This impressive iceboat clocked a speed of 210 kilometres per hour with 8 passengers on board during ice speed trials.

Scoot races held at the Winterama Festival in Penetanguishene 1959. (Photo: Archives of Ontario)
Expand Image

Compared with similar offshoots of ice and air boats found in other parts of the world, the Georgian Bay scoot is distinguished by its design characteristics. No two scoots were built the same. Shore people living up the lakes were industrious, self-reliant inventors. They were hand-crafted by people with no professional background who were motivated by necessity. The one who built it was usually the one who piloted it. Scoot builders would often use their own back shop supply of lumber, old angle iron, castaway bed frames, and assorted piping for engine mounts. If things went wrong, there was no local service station to provide new parts.

Prior to the days of protective cages, there were accidents caused by the invisibility of the propellers when moving at high speed — sometimes with tragic results. The freedom to travel regardless of the conditions could also spell misfortune and strand pilots and passengers out on the ice in remote locations when the vehicles broke down.

Scoots were full-timer community transportation workhorses, depended on for hauling materials and supplies out to the islands all through the year. They hauled everything from lumber to grain, hay, and heating oil. Caretakers and lighthouse keepers and their families depended on scoots for work, groceries, errands, and for shuttling kids to school.

Métis Veteran Andrew Trudeau (1924–2013) taking to the air in one of his own handmade scoots upon completing the annual scoot race in Penetanguishene Harbour in 1949.
Expand Image

Celebrations of the scoot spread to the winter carnivals at races held in Penetanguishene and Parry Sound in the late 1940s to ‘60s. For a time, scoot builders publicly demonstrated their crafts and pilotage before it became increasingly difficult for sponsors to obtain liability insurance for the event. The last official scoot race, known as Scooterama, was held in Parry Sound in 1987.

Through the 1970s the popularity of home scoot building declined with the rising costs of a critical component to the design: the engine. In the early days of the scoot era, there was a surplus of aeroplane engines following World War One. As these engines became less available, they became increasingly more expensive. Then came the invention of the snowmobile — more accessible to obtain and just as reliable for getting around on solid ice conditions.

Scoots are, above all, a means of transportation and are still relied on by full-timers when the ice break up hits. Beausoleil First Nation continues to use a small fleet of scoots to shuttle supplies and community members between Chimnissing (Christian Island) and the mainland today. BFN member and scoot operator Marcel Monague explains “Right now we have three scoots on the island, our big one holds up to nine people plus gear. We also have a hovercraft that carries more passengers.” Passengers can include any community members. Some who have business at the Band Office or even students going to school on the mainland. “We generally use the scoots to get to the mainland during the break up when the ice is too unreliable for ski-doos,” says Monague.

Shaped by the ingenuity and determination of the full-timers — the scoot exhibits the wildly inventive and self-reliant nature of the communities living among the Thirty Thousand Islands. So long as there are full-timers, there will be scoots buzzing and blazing across the icy waters of Georgian Bay.

Advertisement

Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

Two woman wearing ribbon skirts wade in the shallows, splashing water into a golden spray around them

People & Culture

Biinaagami: A call to revitalize our waters

Announcing a new initiative to connect to and protect the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed

  • 774 words
  • 4 minutes

Places

The heartbreaking decline of Great Lakes ice cover

The story of two intrepid explorers crossing the Georgian Bay on foot during a freeze-up that may never return

  • 2078 words
  • 9 minutes
Diver Tyler Boelens glides beneath the ice of Georgian Bay

Exploration

Freediving under the ice of Georgian Bay

“It’s kind of what I imagine outer space to be like”

  • 437 words
  • 2 minutes

Travel

Exploring the Great Lakes with Viking Cruises

Named after the south star, Octantis is Viking’s first expedition ship, which incorporates visits to Indigenous communities, supports environmental protection and more

  • 2384 words
  • 10 minutes