North Fork Outdoors/Martin Garrell: Dealing with ATVs and small engines

Wherever you go in the outdoors, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or “four-wheelers” are part of the landscape. Whether used properly on trails meant for them or illegally on state lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills, ATVs are both popular (according to one upstate publication, some 127,000 are registered in New York State alone) and controversial. They do make lots of noise, tear up soft trails, and sometimes seem at odds with the “outdoor experience” which many of us seek.

Still, like all of our small-engine-driven devices, they are remarkably useful in the right settings. On hardened trails to deep-woods camps or drop-off points for deer stands, they get us from here to there. For people training and exercising sporting dogs, they’re valuable tools. You can “road” dogs in harness or teach young dogs to track ground patterns along field edges by riding alongside — in areas where you cannot use horses. In fact, where we often train in southeastern Pennsylvania, the club has a fleet of old Polaris four-wheelers, most in what seems to be the 15-to-20-horsepower class. What one realizes, too, is that small-engine know-how is universal, applying not only to ATVs, but also to power mowers, weed whackers (brush-cutters), and, of course, outboards.

Small engines can baffle some outdoor folks. The prospect of going to the shed, filling the gas tank, and firing up the contraption fills some of our acquaintances with trepidation. If ever the adage “Don’t be in a hurry. The machine knows that and will confound you every time!” were true, it’s here, in the world of the little “stink pots.”

The spectre of the impatient operator cranking forever on an electric starter or pulling a starter cord until he or she is exhausted goes way back for this writer, back to the days when the “Simplex” starter with its automatic winding feature was the latest thing. Back in what seemed to be the dawn of time, you wrapped a stout rope with a knot at one end around a flywheel, wound it, then pulled.

Right up to the era after World War II, some of the outboards in the “big” horsepower classes, 20 up to 50, still had cranks. The early spring-wound starters were somewhat delicate; it was easy to break a spring, in which case, you had to pull off the starter assembly and revert to the old rope. Using the ATVs at the bird training facility, we were amused (and somewhat horrified) to learn that a number of them had inoperative electric starters. Either the starter motors were worn, giving you the occasional start, but most commonly spinning helplessly, or the ignition switches failed; nothing could be done unless you resorted to the spring-wound starter on the engine itself. We had a modicum of success with this, but there were times when the starter just about yanked our arm off. Here one of the experienced hands supplied the necessary advice — you needed to roll the ATV into position where you avoided pulling during the compression phase of the cycle so the tension was manageable.

One old-time mechanic gave us the best counsel we’ve ever heard about small engines. “They’re actually simple!” he said. “If you fill them up and they won’t start, there are only three things that can be wrong. Either the air intake is cut off or the fuel isn’t getting through — or has flooded the engine — or there’s no spark!”

This is barring unforeseen circumstances like sudden, unexpected encounters with granite in the field which bend shafts of cutting equipment and render the equipment inoperable. (Unlike snowblowers and outboards, there are neither shear pins nor slip-clutches in most cutters.) We’ve experienced all of the above. We’ve had field mice build nests in air filters, resulting in loud guffaws from mechanics who “solved” the problem when mouse families exited the filters during inspection. We’ve had gas hoses constantly “lose prime” while running outboards back to the dock in the Peconics, and we’ve had spark wires get damp or spark plugs foul when water came up suddenly against the transom while positioning an anchor.

The smaller the engine, the trickier the beast is to start. Early experience with outboard fuel lines and chokes taught us the art of choking without overdoing it. If an engine floods and you can’t clear the darned thing by cutting the choke and starting in an unchoked condition, take a deep breath and walk away while the excess gas evaporates. Easy to say; hard to do! Did you find water in the gas? Get that carburetor bowl off and empty it before priming again!

No primer on small engines is complete without admitting they are noisy, stinky and notoriously cranky polluters, especially the older ones. Unfortunately for us outdoor persons, they’re out there everywhere, waiting to torment us. Maybe it’s best, after all, to be stoic and learn to deal with them!