Tiki torches in the snow — it sounds like a Hawaiian love song about climate change, but this was the sight we drove up to on New Year’s Eve: Kerosene torches dotting the hillside outside the home of friends, the lights flickering on not one, not two but three superbly groomed sliding trails. Each trail started at a different point outside the house near a blazing bonfire. Two of those trails intersected halfway to the bottom of the steep hill, and all three ended in the same collection area. It was a breathtaking combination of planning and risk, like teenagers using the rhythm method.
Snowsuited children emerged from cars and threw themselves onto sliding devices with names like Thunder Sno and FasterIcerator and Death Slide 2000. They hurtled down the paths without even knowing what was at the bottom. Were there jumps? Hairpin curves? Aligator pits? Sports lawyers? No matter. They were young and, more important, flexible and, even more important, insured.
The adults, meanwhile, hovered at the exit gates. They looked like they were at the beach gathering the fortitude to enter the water, mentally calculating temperature and jellyfish count, only here, on this crisp snow-covered night, there was no tiptoeing in, no slow immersion. Once on their sleds and heading down that ramp, they were at the mercy of gravity and bladder-control. Standing there, adults of a certain age seemed to realize they were just one glass of milk away from a broken hip.
But we slid, yes we did, all of the adults, on tubes and suspect pieces of plastic, the women screaming boisterously all the way down, the men making noises like “Oof,” “Oh,” “Augh.” Spouses slid down together, because there are few better ways to bond than wedging yourself with another person on a TurboSlide-A-Tron and careening down the hillside, wondering when was the last time you told your children you loved them.
But why? Why did we slide? Why did I, a grown man in his 48th year (as my obituary would read), why did I launch myself down a hillside on a small circular disk? Sober, I might add. Why did I do it over and over, even when my head was filled with visions of being fatally flung into a fir tree and my neck made that snappy sound, like a warning shot, every time I wiped out, which was most times?
Because sliding is awesomely Canadian. I’m convinced that, more than skiing or hockey or definitely snowmobiling, sliding is the ultimate embrace of winter. No, not embrace. It’s throwing ourselves at winter, saying, “Snow, I respect you. Do your magic, and please, in your frigid complexity, cushion the landing.”
How Canadian is sliding? It’s democratic, unassuming and cheap. It combines trust and ignorance and doesn’t play favourites. It speaks of do-it-yourself yet vaguely unreliable industrialness. It functions best when everyone works together. And it provides something inoffensive to talk about with strangers.
“It’s all about lowering your centre of gravity,” I said to a 10-year-old boy as we rushed back up the hill. Well, he rushed. I trudged and wheezed.
“You should try the tube,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
“I tried it but I went faster on this FreezeYerFaceOff 3000!” I replied.
As far as I’m concerned, your millionaire hockey players can stay locked out. Sliding is Canada’s game. Tumbling down that torch-lit hillside, the snow clogging up my glasses as I flipped end over end, I was truly thankful for being in Canada, sliding in the snow on New Year’s Eve. And for universal health care.
Originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway” on Thursday, January 3, 2013.