It was the first snow of 2019. Two inches or so covered the lawns and sidewalks throughout Wheeling with a bit more on the outlying hills. Like most kids, my 7-year-old son sprang out of bed that frosty morning ready to take his new snow tube — courtesy of Santa Claus — to Oglebay Park, our favorite place to go sled riding.
Although there are many places in the park to sled, we return to two specific spots year after year: the long hill on the way to the ski slopes and the smaller hill next to the Pine Room. The long hill is more thrilling, but the walk back up is exhausting. The smaller hill offers a shorter ride, but the hill is small enough to allow for many more trips down and up.
On this January morning, we chose the long hill. When we pulled in at around 10 a.m., we were the only ones there. We hauled our sled out of the back of our SUV, secured our scarves and pulled our gloves as far up our forearms as they would. The three of us settled in on the tube, took a deep breath, and launched ourselves down what felt like a mountain from our lofty perch. I sat in the front, my son in the middle, and my husband in the back, his boot-clad feet acting as rudders to slow and turn the tube as we wooshed down to the bottom.
Although we all laughed our way through the blowing snow, the walk back up the long hill is not a joke. Between dragging the tube and dodging other sledders, the steep trudge always seems like a chore. But once back at the top again — panting and out of breath — we were eager to zoom back down again.
While waiting for the hill to clear of riders, we overhead the family next to us trying to determine the best way to sled down the hill. We soon learned that they were from southern Georgia. Not only had they never seen snow before, they had never gone sled riding either.
It was clear that the four of them were both nervous and excited as they pulled their small red saucer sled from the back of their truck. We watched as the mom turned the saucer round and round trying to figure out how she was going to sit. At one point she shouted that she was going to “jump on it and do a belly whopper like Frosty the Snowman,” but when the crowd of locals screamed, “No!” she reconsidered. Someone explained that if she tried that method, she would likely end up with a busted lip and missing teeth from the saucer hitting her in the mouth.
She considered the shiny circle again and flopped down on it on her knees. Off she went down the hill that was now revealing the green grass beneath the snow as each rider took a little more off the top. Her sledding position made it hard for her to steer or even stay on her ride. As she continued to attempt to right herself, she screamed with delight until about halfway down when she crashed into a small ditch and fell face first in the snow. The crowd of sled riders watched quietly as she pulled herself up, dusted off her fur-fringed coat, and shouted, “I want to do that again!”
We all laughed, of course, because we had known for most of our lives the joy of sitting on a slick surface and roaring down a snowy hillside. Most of us began sled riding as toddlers being pulled around our yards by siblings or parents. As we grew older, we searched for our own thrills.
For me, my brother and our friends, the higher the hill, the better. Growing up in Moundsville, we had many favorite places to whoosh down snowbanks, including near Meighn Avenue behind Four Seasons Pool. It had been a choice spot through the generations: first my grandmother, then my dad, and then me and my brother.
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When we couldn’t get Dad to give us a lift to Meighn, we would head across the street and behind our school, McNinch Elementary, and slide belly-down on our Flexible Flyers, steel runners coated in a layer of slickening (and somewhat ironic) Coast soap. Sometimes three or four or more of us would pile on each others’ backs and take one heavily-weighted sled over the edge, down the mound and over the ditch at the bottom. Other times, my brother and his friends would do stunts, sailing their magic wooden carpets into the air by pushing off on a fast run.
Of course, it really was all fun and games until my brother ran into a tree and fractured his arm. My mom forbade sledding after that, but she enforced the rule only until the end of that winter for she too had spent good times in her youth devising ways to pass the time on snowy days. She and her brothers still tell stories about sliding through the hills of Cameron above cow pastures on lightning-fast car hoods and cardboard boxes, which left sensitive body parts more vulnerable than expected.
After I moved to Wheeling and had a little person of my own, his father and I sought places to pass on our loved childhood tradition and eventually got into the action on our own. My husband grew up in Wheeling, so his regular snow dive was the hills of Wheeling Jesuit University (Wheeling College then). Fellow Weelunker, Laura Roberts, likes to take her family sledding there, too, but, she warns “as long as you mind the sewer cover that sticks up.”
As much fun as sled riding can be, it can also be dangerous, which is why most places like Oglebay and Wheeling Jesuit do not permit sled riding on their premises but tend to look the other way. Before sledding at a spot we’ve never been before, we try to look it over before the snow falls to get a good sense of potential pitfalls that might be hidden beneath the white stuff.
Since driving can be treacherous after a big snow, most people sled ride in their own neighborhoods or nearby to keep travel to a minimum. Stacy Nixon and her family like to sled ride at the Mt. Olivet Ballfields. Like the bigger hill at Oglebay, the walk back up is a killer, but the ride down makes it worth it.
Where did you sled ride in the Ohio Valley growing up? Where do you take your family today? Weelunk would love to hear from you. Please comment below or on Facebook!
• Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative non-fiction and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including her most recent memoir, “The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.” She has been a Weelunk contributing writer since 2015. Christina is a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She lives in Wheeling with her family.