Sleds have been moving heavy objects and people over snow for hundreds of years. That is all well in good, but I consider the best use of a sled, is for fun!
Three Generations of Sledding:
Let’s start with my Mom’s Generation:
My mother’s face would light up when she told the story of riding “The Ripper“ sled. She would describe it as a multi rider sled that the front person could kind of steer, and everyone would have to lean into the turns. That sort of sounds like a bobsled. It was the only sled she talked about.
It wasn’t until we were visiting Deerfield, MA and she spotted one on the porch of a shop. She was giddy with the memories and had to show us how you sat on it. Basically it was a wooden bench on runners with rudimentary steering in front. It looked like a deathtrap for sure!
She talked about how her brothers, and when they allowed her to tag along, would tromp up a snow covered dirt road that became their long winding sledding hill. They never minded the long walk. You have to remember, these were the kids of the Greatest Generation who walked everywhere. They walked to school, how ever far that was, or to the store, or to the local farm to pick up eggs and vegetables. They survived on little and were a very hardy bunch.
Once at the top, the oldest boy would take on the steering in the front, then everyone straddled the contraption, sandwiched in tight, holding onto the person in front of you. The trick was to lean in the direction the Steersman did. She told us the Ripper would speed down the hill taking your breath away and making everyone laugh with a combination of fear and excitement as they worked together and shared the risk. Once they reached the bottom, they all laughed again, this time from relief they survived the trip and ready to do it again!
Sledding when I was a kid was still considered an unsupervised winter activity, proof being my Dad was as crazy a photographer as me, yet never took one sledding picture. We usually went sledding during the day when they worked, on those short days of winter and holiday breaks. Our sleds were the Flexible Flyer types, toboggans, and the Flying Saucer.
I enjoyed the Flyer, except when the snow was real icy, then it went way too fast! It was the kind of well made sled that you could slide down on it laying down or sitting up, and you could fit more than one person if you wanted to. It had metal runners and a wooden base with a simple steering handle system in front, which may or may not work. It wasn’t very good in soft snow, tended to just sink down. These sleds you will find in attics because they rarely broke and will last a couple generations.
The proper way to use it is like this: You hold it against your chest, get a running start, then dive forward so you land with the sled under you. On a good day, and good packed snow, you can whiz down the hill with the wind and flying snow in your face. On a bad day, which happened to me more than once as a kid, my wrists or forearms could end up being run over by my own sled! Thankfully there wasn’t too much damage because of the layers. In theory you are suppose to be able to steer it by the handles. Many times the sled and you are out of control and you end up in prickly bushes at the bottom of the hill, or crashing into your friends who are on their way up the hill! Worse yet, the sled suddenly stops and you keep going, face planting into the snow. This may or may not cause a cut or two because the snow is crusty and sharp! Oh, the good old days!!
I understand what my Mom said about the Ripper, because the toboggan could be just as much of a fun group activity. Everyone crams on and weaves their legs and arms together in order to fit them on and not be hanging out the sides. That in itself took awhile and created many laughs. If you are lucky, you have someone give you a shove. If not, it becomes a comical rocking game until you are moving downhill. There are no shocks on a toboggan, at least not the one my family owned. Nor are they easy to steer, which basically means, everyone needs to lean in the same direction and hope for the best. If all went well, we all made it down the hill. If there were bumps or a homemade jump that caused the toboggan to bounce, we usually lost the back two thirds of passengers. They would have been ejected and strewn spread eagle down the hill! Hey, they had it easy, they had a shorter distance to walk up the hill for the next ride!
The other choice back then was the Flying Saucer! It was a silver metal concave shaped disc with handles. It was a space age wonder! The trick was to try and wax it down with what ever you could find handy. Sometimes that just meant snow rubbed on its underside. There was no control over this thing! You sat cross-legged on it, and scooted a bit until you started to slide. Sometimes you never slid! If you did, you more often than not, spun so you ended up sliding backwards down the hill! The skill involved here was to lean into the hill! What many of the kids did was to pack down snow into a path complete with a jump. Yes, lets slide down fast on a thin piece of metal we can’t control and go airborne!! Again, the bodies piled up in the snow and we loved it!
When I became a teen, a new gadget came onto the market call the Snurfer. It was the predecessor of the Snowboard. My brother owned a red one. From what I remember, no one really mastered it like in the advertisements. Lots of face plants were involved.
Our other sledding options might be a a cast off car or truck tire tube. Possibly the same one you might use when you go swimming. Of course any sort of surface could be turned into a sled. You could use a cardboard box, or the school cafeteria trays that my friends and I often used behind our high school.
My memories of sledding were of great fun, and hours of laughter followed by walking home shivering and wet. Also of snow crusted mittens where they would get so heavy they would droop off your hands and the stinging snow would sneak up your wrists, and of snow getting in your boots that are always too big because they were hand me downs form an older sibling. Oh, and the snow pants, if you were lucky to own some. They were waterproof-kind-of pants that went over your two layers of long johns and jeans, that stayed up by way of suspenders. Their slippery surface did help when you fell off your sled, allowing you to finish the ride on your fanny!
My Sons Generation:
It became a different world when my sons were younger. There were no hills they could walk to. Sledding became a destination. I would drive them, or a friend’s parent would. Sleds went from wooden to plastic, and vinyl tubes. Those tubes could really go fast. They are made with handles, but if you hit a good bump, that didn’t matter, off you went amid squeals of excitement.
Hmm, I see a pattern forming: Sledding equals Ejection into Snow! No matter what generation you are from, and no matter what type of sled you use, chances are very high you are going to be thrown from it. Accept it. Enjoy it. Go swimming in the snow!
Sledding is a timeless and fun winter activity. Though the sleds now vary in looks, the laughter and thrills are the same! And the best part, parents go sledding right alongside the kids, not something earlier generations did. Let’s admit it, we don’t ever want to grow up!
See you at the bottom of the hill!
Some earlier examples of sledding.
Update: March 2018:
I received a wonderful e-mail from A.F. who told me her cousins had a ripper sled during the 1930s. They use to sled on country roads. Her brave boy cousins would go on longer runs that were easily two miles long crossing busy roads, “twisting and turning all the way down…” Seems several children in that area had the sleds, just like my Mom and her brothers did. Seeing she and I have not found many sources on the sled, I can’t help but think it was a regional design. Thank you so much A.F. for sharing your information and memories with me! Atwood