Family Fun on the Tobaggon!
By By Evie Kirkwood
Snowflakes pelt your face as your race full throttle down a wide open hill on your toboggan! These wooden sleds go back hundreds of years when Algonquin Indians created them from bark to haul game or supplies over the snow. In fact, several sources say “toboggan” comes from the Algonquian word “odabaggan,” or the French derivation “tabagane.”
Eventually, the toboggan was crafted from planks of tamarack or spruce trees. The boards were soaked in hot water and bent to give the sled its classic upturned shape. Humans pulled the first utilitarian toboggans, but in time, dogs provided the muscle to move sleds over snow-covered fields, wooded trails and pack ice.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that toboggans became a great source of winter recreation. Toboggan clubs sprang up in places such as Montreal and LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
These days, many folks experience the thrill of tobogganing on created tracks, such as the one at Pokagon State Park in Angola, Indiana.
According to Park interpreter, Fred Wooley, the slide’s history goes back to 1935. Boys from the Civilian Conservation Corps Company 556 who were working on park construction projects decided to build the original wooden toboggan run for their own sledding fun.
Since then, the track has undergone multiple improvements. In pursuit of speed, the CCC crews straightened the track and constructed a taller tower. The fun caught on, and the park sought to enhance the operation for visitors. A winter tradition at Pokagon State Park was born.
To create the slippery surface, ice was cut and hauled in from Lake James then shaped and routinely groomed. When a winter thaw occurred, crews had to haul more ice to recreate the slide.
According to Fred, that changed drastically in 1971 when the slide was transformed into a refrigerated track. Those first chilled tracks still required extensive maintenance. “When the ice became too thick, it had to be shaved off with a hulking modified Rototiller-type piece of equipment. ‘Cut track!’ are two words that probably still strike fear in park employees who were here during those years,” says Fred.
In 1984, a two-year renovation revamped the dual tracks. A new rental and warming facility was added. Today, a visit to the Pokagon State Park’s toboggan run is a family tradition for thousands each season.
By the numbers
The top recorded speed at Pokagon State Park’s toboggan slide is 42 mph. The total vertical drop is 90 feet. It takes anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds to speed down the quarter-mile track. Around 70,000 visitors enjoy the slide each season, and Fred reminds everyone that evenings, or days when there is no snow on the ground, usually have shorter – or non-existent lines. The toboggan run closes at the end of February.
Toboggan sleds and their care
Classic recreational toboggans are still made of hickory, ash or maple wood slats, prized for their flexibility over rough snow. Modern recreational toboggans, especially those used on tracks, are sometimes made of aluminum or plastic. At Pokagon State Park, the toboggans are custom manufactured by park staff out of sheets of fiberglass with wear-resistant plastic runners.
If you are lucky enough to own a classic wood toboggan, a little care will make it go a long (and faster) way! Use beeswax or ski wax on the bottom to increase glide. Make sure the toboggan is clean and dry before applying your wax like a crayon. Burnish in the wax with a ski waxing cork to help it adhere and fill the wood pores. Let the wax dry, and cool the sled outdoors before using it.
For more information:
Pokagon State Park, Angola, IN 260.833.2012
In Michigan, Echo Valley operates a toboggan run in Kalamazoo.