The sled - a child’s invention

Wilma Hayes perfecting the art of sledding.

Wilma Hayes perfecting the art of sledding. - Credit: Archant

Herefordshire-based writer Wilma Hayes reminisces about her childhood sledding down the snowy streets of her Canadian hometown

Canadian winters have only one advantage as far as I can determine. They are long enough to perfect the art of creative sledding.

It has to be appreciated that this was a craft undertaken only by children, adults being too interested in personal safety and warmth to participate for any duration. It also required the use of a lot of materials that adults would rather not be seen sitting on.

In the 1950’s we were not in possession of too much sophistication and the universal use of plastic was confined to bread wrappers. This precluded the use of factory made sleds and so our sport was limited only by our imagination. Fortunately for us, this imagination had not yet been restricted by health and safety.

I lived in north eastern Saskatchewan in Canada, which is known in summer months for the quantity and ferocity of its mosquitoes and in winter for the length and ferocity of the cold weather. Our little village was built in a valley and the main street, all 150 yards of it, runs down the hill on one side. In those days, it led over a cross road to the railway track another 100 yards beyond. Our objective from the first snowfall to the last was to be able to slide on something of our own devising down the hill, over the crossing and all the way to the railway.

Hazards in the form of crossing traffic - puffing and stumbling automobiles with tiny frost covered windows or horse drawn sleighs - was not considered anything to be too concerned about. Trains came only once a day and arrived according to no known timetable, but the valley was wide and long, so the sound travelled well and we could almost always hear them coming.

The street down which we conducted all of this activity was the steepest one in town and satisfactorily hard packed from passing traffic. And after weeks of our use, it shone like glass. Because we were a determined lot and the days short at this latitude, our activity continued by street light well into the dark. This was when the danger from snow banks became critical. Snow ploughing was limited in those days, but occasionally after a very bad snowfall, arrangements would be made for the road grader to cleave one or two tracks more or less down the street. The edges were the repository for the scraped snow that soon hardened into rock-like chunks. Slamming into these at speed in the daytime was bad enough, but in the dark, well, one could end up anywhere and bruised as well, with one’s sled lost in somebody’s garden until morning.

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We all dressed in one-piece snowsuits or ski pants and jackets, with hoods and knitted hat or toque underneath. A long scarf centred over our forehead bound us in. The two ends of the scarf crossed at the back of the head, wrapped over mouth and nose and tied at the back of the neck. These tails were useful in the event that someone got buried in the snow – arms and feet were too well padded to get a good grip on, but scarf tails were handy. Our mitts were leather or wool and consisted of several layers that got progressively wetter, then froze in the shape of a fist clenching the string on our sled. Our boots were big, leather and filled with numerous wool socks that gradually became packed with snow at the top and froze into a hard cuff around the lower leg. We knew each other by the colour of our scarves. Between October and April we saw each other’s faces only at school.

Some of us were well enough off to have a small one or two-child sized sled. If they came from the catalogue, they consisted of small slats on a pair of runners with another slat secured across the front. This slat was a bit wider than the sled and had a string tied onto each end. It was supposed that by pulling on one or the other, the sled could be steered. We discovered early on that this was a stupid idea and found out that since we were going straight down the hill at the highest possible speed, steering and brakes were more or less redundant anyway. In an emergency, one dug one’s heels into the hard packed snow or just rolled off and left the missile to its own devices. We were so well padded that we came to no harm. The string was only good for pulling the thing back up the hill.

Toboggans were more successful for several reasons. These were thinner slats of wood, polished on the bottom where they rode on the snow, with a front end that curved up and over the feet of the child at the front. This allowed much smoother contact with the hard snow surface and so overcame any retardation by ruts in the street; therefore greater speed could be achieved. In addition, they were long enough for five or more of us to sit in a row, with our boots around and into the lap of the one in front. We learned early on, not to kneel because any large bump would fling us into the air and if we landed on one of the cross pieces, the pain in our knees lasted forever and the bruise for at least a week or more. However, with added weight, the momentum was colossal and it was an easy feat to make the toboggan across the cross road and into the railway yard if not all the way to the tracks.

For those of us without the luxury of sled or toboggan, a piece of cardboard box made an admirable substitute. We just sat on it and pulled one of the box flaps over our feet and pushed off. It could gain some admirable speed when it was new, but over time, it gradually lost its shine and usually its bottom layer of paper. Also, because the contact between child’s bottom and bumps or gravel embedded in the ice was quite a direct one, the rider felt a distinct affinity with the surface over which one slid. But it was a cheap option, easily replaced when worn out and required little effort to get back up the hill. It could also accommodate any number of bodies, piled one on top of the other and with the direction of travel being impossible to determine, put considerable mystery and excitement into the trip. We ended up in piles of rubbish, on doorsteps and under the feet of most of the population at one time or another.

We were a healthy lot in those days. There was no shortage of fresh air and we got a lot of exercise walking back up the hill several hundred times a day. We were also agile since there was plenty of opportunity to leap out of the way of all of those pilots on their simple sleds. Adults were kind enough to let us continue so long as no one got killed and to this day we are easy to recognize. Every one of us has a keen ability to assess risk and an instinctive agility to get out of the way of rapidly moving objects.

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For more from writer Wilma Hayes, visit: www.wilmahayes.co.uk

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