At seven years of age I, like most of my friends along Rose and Webster streets in Lisbon, North Dakota, already knew that successful winter sledding over uneven terrain with natural hazards requires skills only obtained by experience and an occasional disaster. Not to brag, but I was, by second grade standards, a professional in operating a toboggan, runner sled and flattened card-board box on any hill in the neighborhood.
On many an occasion we accomplished downhill sled navigators observed older, including parents, participants in this cold weather sport fail because of overlooking several “must do’s”! Firstly…dressing for this adventure is critical. Secondly inspecting the snow condition on your predetermined slope is a must. And thirdly, thoroughly checking the terrain for obvious and hidden obstacles may mean walking the hill several times and also observing less diligent sliders plow into hazards they should have been able to avoid by knowing the terrain.
On many occasions alligator tears and deafening crying would be heard coming from less skilled sled navigators. Again, there were a few parents amongst this group…a few who managed to see how far they could split their legs apart by “making a wish” around an elm tree.
It was the winter of 1950. I heard my parents remark it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters they could remember. The elements were of no concern to me and my buddies. On a January Friday night after supper (I don’t have to explain the breakfast, dinner and supper thing again do I?) it would have taken a full fledged blizzard to keep us from sliding Straub’s Hill. We had talked about the hill in school that day. We went over previous descents from its peak between lilac bushes to the bull rushes in the marsh at the end of the run. We made plans.
1. Dressing! We had never heard of snowmobile suits in 1950. I had only seen a snowmobile in Popular Science magazine. So, me and my cadre entered phase one of the three step plan I outlined earlier for a successful sledding adventure.Even today cold weather experts talk about dressing in layers when going out in winter weather. In 1950, you had no choice. I’m talking long underwear, two pair of jeans, three pair of socks, t-shirt and two sweat shirts, mittens over gloves, parka with two stocking caps under the hood. Standing up under this was a challenge, but after walking around the dining room a few times all the clothes kind of shifted into positions that allowed some comfortable movement.
2. Snow conditions. Fresh snow meant plowing through drifts and usually ending up with a face full of powder snow. That might be fun once or twice, but when your nose freezes shut and your ears under your stocking cap have icicles hanging from them, the fun quickly vanishes. Packed snow means “speed”. Oh ya…we’re talking dream conditions…eye lids peeled back…screams of joy ripping through the black night and out-of-breath laughter at the end of the run. I’m shaking just thinking about these types of conditions.
3. Inspecting the slope. After meeting up with the gang at the top of Straub’s Hill, we secured our sledding machines to some of the lilac branches and descended on foot. We examined the tracks of previous sledders.
We took special care to note pieces of sleds scattered near the base of trees, picking up scraps, looking into each others eyes and nodding an unspoken understanding of what apparently went wrong. At the base of Straub’s Hill was a small marsh. It wasn’t deep but it held water all year. This water obviously froze in the winter cold and, in some spots, froze cattails straight up in the ice. We noted these locations and with a hockey stick we would knock down any still standing cattails to ice level. This clearing process allowed our sleds to actually accelerate near the end of the run so we could plow into the huge snowbanks on the far side.
1, 2, 3 done! It’s time for action.
The Hill wasn’t crowded on this January night. There were probably five or six other sledders competing for position on the single start spot. Most of them were girls so….”no problem”. My guys and I lined up on the starting line and one by one screamed down the packed trail, dodging trees and sledders who were walking back up the hill pulling their machines. From time to time we would veer slightly off the packed speed lanes to puff through some powder that would spray into the face of the trailing sledder. Hitting the icy marsh was like having a turbo charger on your sled. It took your breath away and…you had to hold your breath because seconds after hitting the ice you were burying you and your sled into a mountain of snow.
All four of us dig our way out of the snow bank, fall onto our backs, look up into the starry sky and laugh until the tears of joy began to freeze on our cheeks.
Pulling our sleds side-by-side back up the hill elicited talk of individual acts of bravery by each of us on the descent. There were descriptions of unheard of speed, death-defying maneuvers and suggestions for getting even more speed on the next run.
Four or five runs on the hill that night pretty much took us up to our curfew time. As we walked down a darkened Rose Street to 4th Avenue, we vowed to plan our next assault on Straub’s Hill. Then we separated and trudged on through the snow to our homes.
As I stepped inside our house Dad was sitting at the supper table reading the paper. I pounded my overshoes on the rug just inside the door, spraying snow all over the linoleum, as Dad asked…”did you have fun”.
I lit up like a Christmas tree. Even though my face was still a bit frozen, I know my smile went ear to ear and I related our nights’ adventure. I detailed everything to Dad as I pealed off layers of clothes and dropped them to the floor. Mom was there picking up my discards as quickly as I could take them off. When I was down to my “long-johns” and sat down to the table with Dad, a cup of hot chocolate magically appeared in front of me. As I warmed my hands around the cup, Mom sprinkled some cinnamon and a few mini marshmallows on the warm treat.
I sipped my delicacy.
When I finished my chocolate I didn’t argue the suggestion by Mom that it was time for bed.
I was beat!
I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I KNOW I smiled through my dreams that night knowing we would do this again…soon.