When I was 8 my family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I started playing hockey that fall. I loved hockey for its speed and action. But for sheer danger and human drama, hockey paled to the blood-rush I felt when I discovered tobogganing.
My brothers and I scoured the city to find the best toboggan runs. The definition of “best” was “most dangerous”. And the most dangerous toboggan run in town was Dead Man’s Curve.
Dead Man’s Curve wasn’t the steepest hill in town- some hills in Edmonton looked like cliffs. Museum Hill was one of them, tucked behind the Provincial Museum of Alberta. “Tubers” loved Museum Hill because there was so much room. Tubers ride big inner tubes. The bigger the better. Some tubers would show up with giant airplane tire tubes three or four stories tall. Seventy people would jump on, their toques flying in the wind. Their giant tubes ate everything in their path- kids on saucers and sleds disappeared underneath, never to be seen again.
Of all the cool places to toboggan, Dead Man’s Curve was the piece d’resistance. It was a trail that cut down the side of a steep ravine. As it neared the bottom, the trail curved to the left along a big bank. Then it cut sharp to the right against a smaller bank and then flattened out to the North Saskatchewan River.
One day my brothers John, Chris, Mike and I piled on the toboggan. John was in front because he was the best driver. He was also fearless. You need to be fearless when you are riding a toboggan at 180 miles an hour. I got on next and then Mike and Chris. We locked our legs around the guy in front of us. We then curled our fingers under the ropes that ran along the edge of the toboggan. Chris got on last- he was the push off man.
Slowly we picked up speed. A toboggan is steered by leaning. Leaning is a learned skill, honed by hours on the hill together. We leaned left and right, the toboggan responding with sharp scraping sounds. The wind began to whistle in my ears. Faster. Faster. A low rumble formed in my throat and grew to a curdling yell as we shot down the hill.
“WooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” I cried out, Chris and Mike joining in. John was silent in the captain’s chair, his legs locked tight around the chains that held toboggan front down. Faster and faster we went. I couldn’t look anymore. I looked straight down, the cold wind making my eyes tear up. The tears froze into icicles on my cheeks. The knitted ball on the end of John’s toque whipped in the wind, stinging my face. AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
We approached the first curve. This is crucial- if we don’t lean enough to the left, we will fly over the curve and into the trees! “Lean”, John yelled as he threw his body weight to the left. It was too late. We shot up over the curve. Up, up into the clear, biting winter air. Higher and higher we shot. Birds flew by. Airplanes came into view and disappeared behind us. The earth was beautiful below, blue and white and still.
As quickly as we went up, we came down. Down, down, reentering the atmosphere. Our screams were audible now. Mike grabbed the back of my jacket, pulling the zipper into my neck. Chris seemed to be flapping in the air behind us, holding on. John steeled himself for impact. We crashed into the trees, branches whipping our faces. BOOM! We hit a pine tree dead on.
Our bodies flew all over the place. Except John. He took the full impact. The toboggan twisted upside down, his feet caught in the chains. Chris was thrown the farthest, dangling from a tree branch. Mike had rolled up against a stump. I tumbled into a little ditch, disappearing in a snow drift.
It was quiet. Chris slid from the branch and limped over to the crash site. “You guys all right?”, he asked.
“Check,” I muttered from under the snow.
“Yeah”, John moaned, his feet bent behind his head.
“Present and accounted for”, Mike said between deep breaths.
“Good,” Chris said, “It’s getting dark. We have time for one more run.”