The sport of snowmobiling has lost of its legendary personalities with the passing of Colman “Coley” Findlay. The Boulder Junction, Wisconsin-based rider and his wife, Katy, were most known for their incredible mileage counts — they had more than 460,000 documented miles, combined, on snowmobiles when they were inducted together into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 2006. They were also inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1999, not just for their high-mile accomplishments but also for their dedications to snowmobile clubs and the grassroots network behind the sport.
Coley Findlay was 88 at the time of his death, on June 11.
Coley’s reputation as a high-mile rider began early in his snowmobiling career. In fact, he appeared in advertisements in the early 1970s for companies like LeMans Corp (parent company to Parts Unlimited) and Polaris. He was often portrayed as a sort of swashbuckling high-mile hero who could handle any situation and who had a rear end made of steel. Some of his long rides and high-mile seasons may seem quite do-able today, with modern sleds featuring modern suspensions. It’s important to remember that many of Coley’s miles came on snowmobiles with very little suspension travel, on trails and in ditches that weren’t as smooth as snowmobilers expect today.
The Findlays also collected quite a collection of sleds and collectibles from the snowmobile market.
Below is a story that first appeared in the August 1996 issue of Snow Goer magazine. In it, author Vince Castellanos captures some of the true spirit, drive and personality of these unique riders. Enjoy.
Coley Findlay: Long Distance Runaround
By Vince Castellanos
It’s 7:35a.m. and Coley Findlay is staring at his watch.
“Sorry I’m behind schedule,” I hurriedly begin.”The alarm the motel gave me didn’t work right.”
Coley, still looking at his time piece, is having none of it. Removing the Dutch Master stogie he had jammed between his lips, he fixes his steely gaze on me. “‘Bout time you got here,” he growls. “We’ve wasted half the morning already. Another minute and I was gonna come over there and wake you up myself!”
I’m five minutes late.
A step behind Coley as he leads me into his Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, home, I can hear him talking to his wife, Katy. “Yeah, he finally made it. He said something about his alarm not going off.”
Coley Findlay hates to wait. The man claims to have ridden 243,783 meticulously recorded snowmobile miles in his life. You don’t get that kind of mileage sitting around waiting for others. You get it by doing. And Coley Findlay has been doing all his life.
The Birth Of A Legend
Since taking his first ride on a Bolens Diablo Rouge back in 1967, Coley has been hooked. Getting his wife, Katy, involved soon after, the two have been riding and documenting miles religiously ever since. Their combined age is 140 and their combined mileage is 367,930.
Anyone involved in the sport for that long and at that level of commitment is a valuable resource. Coley is a historian, tour guide, ambassador, salesman, collector, story teller and legend all rolled into one. He has been the subject of countless interviews and has been described on different occasions as the Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Iron Man, etc. of snowmobiling. He and Katy log more miles in a winter than most people put on their car all year, and his total miles are approached only by factory test pilots.
Snow Goer recently spent a couple of days with Coley and Katy at their Boulder Junction home, and that time barely allowed us to scratch the surface of their accomplishments.
At least the snow had melted; otherwise they never would have slowed down long enough to talk to us.
An early riser, Coley had already been awake for hours by the time we met. His normal routine is to get up around 4:00 to 4:30 a.m. and pedal his red bicycle (which also comes complete with odometer) down to Boulder Junction’s local coffee klatch, held at the Granery Restaurant.
The town is so intimate that the regulars at the Granery often arrive before the employees, so one of the attendees now has a key.
“I go every day I’m in town,” Coley says. “You’ve got to go or the others will talk about you. You’ve got to go protect yourself.” And what do the participants talk about besides each other? It’s a safe bet Coley talks about snowmobiling.
After all, he’s got almost 30 years of riding to draw upon. If you want to stump him, though, just ask him about his best trip.
“There have been so many good trips it’s hard to relate just one …” Coley begins.
“One specific one, anyway,” Katy adds.
“They’re all good,” Coley continues. “We’ve never had a bad trip. There’s no bad trip. Some are better than others.”
This past year the two combined to put on almost 22,000 miles. Coley alone tallied 14,583 of those. That’s over 120 miles a day from December through March. How do they do it?
They get an early start.
“We’ve ridden in November for years,” Coley says. “This past year we started at the very beginning of November.”
“We could’ve ridden many more miles this year,” Katy chips in.
“What else is there to do?” Katy asks, smiling.
Talking to Coley and Katy about their experiences is almost like communicating with two people that share one mind. The pair has been married 48 years, and one always knows what the other is thinking. They finish each other’s sentences and bicker good-naturedly like, well, an old married couple.
“She’s my best friend,” Coley states. “We’ve been partners; we’ve had a lot of fun.”
“I met him in grade school,” Katy says. ”We started dating when he came back from the service [after World War II].”
And did she know he was the one? “Well I had designs on him as soon as he came back home,” she admits with a twinkle in her eye. “But I don’t know if he did.”
Evidently he did, because they got hitched soon after, and the year following their marriage Coley started a truck leasing business. What began with one truck in 1949 turned into 169 pieces of equipment in nine states by 1969. By this time, Coley had already been bit by the sledding bug, and working was interfering with riding.
“The job got in the way of my playing,” he says. For most of us, that’s the way it goes. Coley had other options. “I was lucky,” he admits modestly. “I had a business somebody else wanted.” Translation: He sold the business for a bundle.
“I did some contract driving after that,” he continues. “I worked whenever it didn’t interfere with anything else. It fit well with my lifestyle and the pay was excellent. I’ve always said that I’ve never worked a day in my life. If you like what you do then it’s not work, and if you don’t then you should find something else to do.”
Although he bought other brands in the beginning, Coley has been Polaris-loyal since 1976. He could even be considered part of their marketing team, because he’s quite a spokesman. Unlike most brand-loyalists, however, you’ll never catch him running down another manufacturer, and he’s hard pressed to pick a favorite sled.
“For the last two or three years I’ve said that whatever sled I’m on is the best,” he explains. “They’re all good. Every new sled you get is the best one because of the advances in technology. The sleds have become so reliable that now I change the plugs and the belt every 5,000 miles just because I feel like I have to. Plus we take really good care of them.”
The Findlays’ reputation as long distance runners who happen to take excellent care of their equipment has even turned them into product testers of sorts. A few years ago Coley began testing equipment like aftermarket skis from Ultimate Sports, Inc.
“He’s one of my long distance test pilots,” USI President Kevin Metheny explains. “He takes good care of his stuff but he rides and rides and rides. I use him as a barometer, so to speak, to see how far they’ll go. I use him for distance, and he gives me feedback. He’s given me some really good stuff.
“I started talking to him at shows and races and asked him to do it. He wasn’t too cracked about the idea at first, he was happy just using Polaris stuff,” Kevin says. “Finally he said, ‘Well, put a pair on them if you want.’ He liked them so much he sold ’em to all his friends.”
That’s how persuasive Coley is, and also how much people value his opinion. “Everybody knows Coley,” R.L. Ryerson (Polaris’ Wisconsin distributor) Vice President Hank Wozniel begins. “Basically, Coley promotes snowmobiling. He encourages people to go. In effect, he is an ambassador, and we help him promote the sport.
“He is a wealth of information. Places to go, restaurants to eat at, motels, anything that you need to know people have asked him for years,” Wozniel continues. “People even ask questions about the machines. He can answer all of them, and he’s always willing to share anything he knows, and Katy’s a big part of that, too.”
Being Involved Is More Than Just Riding
Their involvement in the sledding community doesn’t end with simply giving out advice, either. They have been contributing both money and time to a variety of causes over the years as well.
“He volunteers a lot of time,” says Wozniel. “He was one of the first people to help organize the MS Charity Ride.” (The Multiple Sclerosis fundraiser Ryerson has helped sponsor for years.)
“For a number of years he helped lead the MS ride,” Polaris Marketing Communications Director Marlys Knutson adds. “I understand he was kind of hard to keep up with.”
Coley shrugs off his importance in the early days of the ride. “Jack Eimerman [President of R.L. Ryerson] called and said he needed a trail master for MS,” he explains. “So we were trail masters for eight years. It was a worthwhile charity and it fit my lifestyle as a ·snowmobiler.”
For her part, Katy was a key member of the “Flying Femmes,” a group dedicated to promoting women in snowmobiling.
“The Flying Femmes was a group of women that thought their husbands were having so much fun we should do it, too,” Katy describes.
Among their long distance trips was a seven-day jaunt to Brainerd, Minnesota, and back – 1,148 miles – in 1984. They, along with Women On Snow, were also instrumental in getting other women involved and excited about the sport.
The Findlays also are active in state associations and on the local club level.
“We belong to clubs, we belong to four state associations, we pay our dues every year and we’re glad to do it. We help them every way we can,” Coley states. “The clubs are the backbone of the sport. Absolutely. Without them things would be really tough. And we support clubs in every area we ride in through donations.”
Coley is also a big believer in user fees. “The clubs and volunteers are what makes our riding possible, and it takes money now,” he continues. “Just in our small town alone we’ve got $500,000 tied up in equipment.”
And user fees help make growth. “I’ve seen snowmobiling grow from almost nothing to a system as sophisticated as the interstate highway,” he says. “We used to groom trails with an old sled and a bedspring – anything to help even the trails out- and now we’ve got multimillion dollar pieces of equipment.
“In the early days of snowmobiling a lot of people dropped out of the sport because of bad trails or bad sleds and moved to Florida,” Coley explains. “Then they moved back because they realized the only thing to do there is to go to funerals and play shuffleboard. I would recommend that all those people get back into sledding, because the trails and sleds are so much better.”
Miles And Miles And Miles
Coley and Katy are so willing to share they’ve even opened their own snowmobile museum. It contains, among other things, the Findlays’ rapidly expanding antique sled collection. In less than three years of collecting they’ve amassed more than 20 sleds.
“I had no intention of collecting at first,” Coley says. “I just wanted the first sled I rode [the Bolens] and it went from there.”
Their museum is also filled with rare die-cast sleds and various memorabilia, much of it centering around their mileage quest. And despite all their other accomplishments, their combined mileage is their legacy and what they are truly known for.
The hunt for more and more miles has led them on several great journeys. The first one may have been back in 1978, when Coley, on a Polaris TXL 340, turned a 375 mile day. It took him 15 hours, but he did it. The following year, he was part of the trip of a lifetime.
Four men, one each riding a Polaris, Scorpion, Arctic Cat and Kawasaki, embarked on a factory-sponsored marathon trip from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to West Yellowstone, Montana.
And how long did the 2,167 mile trip take?
“People ask how long the trip lasted and I’m embarrassed to tell them,” Coley admits sheepishly. “It took 21 days to do it. There was a day we didn’t ride at all and others we barely rode. We spent two days in Crosby [Minnesota] visiting the Scorpion factory, three days in Thief River Falls and two days in Roseau.
“People felt so sorry for us,” he continues, almost incredulous at the thought. “’How are you gonna do it?’ they’d ask. Are you kidding? I gained 11 pounds!”
“Art Sherren [another member of the trip] gained 18!” Coley exclaims in good-natured self-defense. “Art’s wife picked him up in West Yellowstone and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re pregnant.’”
“I guess I did gain 18 pounds,” Sherren recalls, laughing. “You might think a run like that would cause you to lose weight, but we sure didn’t. We had a real good time.”
“We all had expense accounts,” explains Coley. “I guess we were trying to see who could eat and drink the most.”
The trip wasn’t all partying. There were some scary moments as well. The foursome found themselves in some tough terrain, the kind of steep and deep stuff their machines (which were all 440s or smaller in displacement) found hard to take.
“As we were getting close to Yellowstone, we were in some strong switchbacks,” describes Sherren. “We were just having a dickens of a time. The snow was so deep that Don Smith [the Cat rider] stepped off the trail and fell in up to his armpits.
“The sleds were having trouble with the altitude and the snow, and we were all stuck but Coley [and his 340 TX Free-Air],” Sherren continues. “He came back and towed us all out of there. We always said Coley looked like Jesus Christ when he came back to get us. That was kind of hairy.”
It was on that trip Coley achieved his 50,000th mile, celebrating it at Old Faithful. Many more accomplishments were to come.
The next year brought another major endeavor. “After the trip to West Yellowstone, I wanted to ride 500 miles in 15 hours,” he begins. “Ralph Garland [who now leads the MS ride] and I picked a day and scouted things out. Everyone said it couldn’t be done, so we accepted the challenge.”
The trip would be from Boulder Junction to Copper Harbor, Michigan, and back. The pair left at 4:00 a.m. and returned, satisfied but extremely tired, 550 miles later at 6:30 p.m.
“It was really fun,” he states. “I wouldn’t do it again, though. There was too much traffic and we had to drive really fast to make it.”
Despite their fatigue, Coley and Garland got up early the next day and put on another 245 miles, and they followed that up with a 406-mile day on a ride that took them from Boulder Junction to Marquette, Michigan, and back again. Those two marathon rides took place during a nine-day span which saw Coley amass 2,431 miles – an excellent season for almost any sledder.
Other milestones followed, including the day Coley topped 100,000 in Hurley, Wisconsin, and when be achieved 200,000 with a lap around the famous Eagle River track during Derby Days celebrations.
You don’t get as many miles as the Findlays have without hearing allegations of fraud, but the pair carefully counts every mile they travel.
“I believe every mile he claims he has ridden he has actually done,” Polaris’ Knutson states firmly.
“He started documenting miles even before speedometers,” says Sherren. “He used to keep track of the amount of gas and oil he used.”
Coley and Katy even go so far as to get their trips and miles notarized in case anyone should happen to question what they’ve done. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what any one else thinks.
“We know we did it,” Coley proudly states. “We don’t have to prove it to anybody. It just so happens we can, but as long as we know, that’s all that matters.”
In fact, Coley says it’s been easy. “It’s just not that hard [to roll up miles],” he insists. “I know where to go and I don’t stop much.”
Well, maybe it takes a little more than that to get close to 400,000 miles.“Really,” he says. “If the engines started you might as well go someplace.
“I don’t like waiting. I don’t like riding in big groups,” he continues. “I don’t like the waiting. I don’t like riding in big groups,” he continues. “Somebody always wants a cigarette; somebody is always hungry; somebody has to go potty. The group got smaller and smaller. I enjoy riding alone and with Katy and with a few other friends.”
The secret is to simply ride consistently.
“We don’t ride fast or crazy, you don’t have to,” he explains. “You don’t sit in taverns; you don’t take smoke breaks; you just do it. We’ll take lunch along, we’ll have picnics, we just enjoy nature.”
And don’t they ever get tired of riding? Aren’t there days when they don’t want to go but feel like they have to? In a word, no.
“A lot of people think we’re crazy. We know we’re not,” Coley says. “We know we don’t need to do it, we want to do it. Sure there are days when we don’t want to go, like if the weather’s bad or something, and we don’t. We never feel like we have to.”
“The love of the sport and good health keep us going,” Katy adds.
“If the weather’s good we’ll go,” Coley explains. “If the snow conditions are good we’ll go. Ask me where we’re going and I say, ‘I have no idea.’ Wherever the snow is good, wherever it takes us, we’ll go.”
I asked if they are slowing down at all. I was taught there are no stupid questions. If that’s the case, this one came damn close.
“What?” Coley, who loves to talk, finally pauses, fixing me with the same stare he gave me when I was five minutes late. “Not with 22,000 miles just last year! Does that sound like slowing down to you? People ask me how I keep busy since I retired and I say, ‘I’m so busy I need to hire help.’”
Okay, then. Next question: How do you keep it fun? This one’s almost as dumb.
“I can tell you this,” he starts. “Katy and I have been married for 48 years and it’s still fun, does that answer your question?”
“We see something new every time,” Katy adds. “We’ve seen sun dogs around the sun, trees full of snow … even blizzards can be fun.”
“We’ve even seen thunder and lightning in the middle of a snowstorm,” Coley says. “There’s always something to do.”
And what’s the next goal for the Findlays? To hit 400,000 combined miles, of course. With 32,000 to go, the pair wants to celebrate the last mile on April19, 1998 – their 50th wedding anniversary. What’s the only potential snag with the plan? If they don’t slow down over the next two years they’ll hit the milestone well before the big date.