Sledding and tobogganing through the generations
By Dave Foley
Ask me about favorite winter sports and I’ll talk about cross country skiing, snowshoeing and fatbiking. When winter lays out a layer of the white stuff, I’m out somewhere making tracks. As a kid and young adult, the only winter gear in the garage was a toboggan and a metal runner American Flyer sled. That’s all we needed.
In the 1950s if the snow was good my brother Steve and I would beg our parents to take us out to Johnson Park. It seemed like everyone in Grand Rapids would be out there sliding down the hill. All that sled traffic iced the slope. Coming off the top we picked up amazing speed, hurtling down the hill while trying not to collide with other sledders. When our momentum died at the bottom, we’d jump up, grab our sled and hustle to get off the runway before an out-of-control sledder knocked our feet out from under us. These near death encounters on the sledding hill didn’t phase us. We were kids. We were invincible.
When my grandparents bought a farm, that became our new favorite sledding site. The main hill was steep and if the snow wasn’t too deep, the toboggan rides down were fast and fun. Two-thirds of the way down the slope was a barbwire fence. That meant we had to dump off the toboggan before we slammed into the wire. But the hazards didn’t begin with the barbwire. Getting to the fence required steering around the several evergreens on the hillside and missing the blackberry patch.
On one ride we lost control. Catching a glimpse of the thorn bushes dead ahead. I covered my face just as we tore through the prickers and slammed into a tree. We lay silent and stunned for a moment, I was sure I had done serious damage to my body. Other than some tears in our cloth jackets from the blackberry thorns and a little soreness from hitting the tree, the resilience of youth had saved from us more serious consequences.
After that mishap with the tree, we adopted the gravel road that went over the hill as our sledding venue. It seemed ideal – a packed surface, a straight shot downhill and nothing to hit as long there were no cars coming up the hill. We considered the possibility of encountering an automobile coming at us, but decided if one appeared we’d be able to drive our toboggan into the ditch.
As we grew out of our teens, we became more aware of the risks. We chose hills with fewer trees, and that had more reasonable inclines. In college, our fascination with sledding continued. Since there wasn’t room for a sled or toboggan in a dorm room, we used trays from the cafeteria for our sliders.
When my wife Cyndy and I moved to northern Michigan in our 20s, the toboggan stayed in the garage as we became fans of cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Then we had children. When they were babies, we put them on plastic sleds and pulled them around the yard. As our kids grew older, the toboggan got its second life. Once again, it became the snow vehicle of choice when our family checked out forest slopes in the Manistee National Forest and visited the local sledding hill.
Then our kids grew up and moved away and the toboggan went back into the garage for another quarter century. I came close to putting it into a garage sale a couple times, but couldn’t bring myself to get rid of something that had provided so many good memories.
And then grandchildren came into our lives. The toboggan came out of the garage, got a fresh layer of wax and was strapped to the car’s roof rack. The grandkids, Ruben, age 4, and his 2-year-old sister Josie had plastic sleds. But after a ride with on our wooden downhill cruiser, they became instant fans of the toboggan.
Walking up the hill, a toboggan rope in one hand and a grandchild’s mittened fist in the other, the kid in me still feels the happy anticipation of the coming snowy downhill run. As we push off the hilltop, the sled picks up speed. A cloud of snow hits me in the face, and I hear giddy laughter from a delighted child. I am filled with joy as, once again, I savor the moment of riding a toboggan that has become the touchstone between generations.