Monday, 9 November 2015
On a Tobogan
On a Tobogan.
by Agnes Macdonald
From Murray's Magazine VOL. III.—NO. XIII. 1888.
I came across this author by accident and had to wonder why some of her stories were not more prominent on the web. She was the wife of our first Prime-Minister Sir John A. MacDonald./drf
Of the many sports and pastimes that make life cheery during the long winters of Canada none is more popular or more fashionable at present than toboganing in those parts of the Dominion where cold is steady, and a hard frost pretty sure to hold its own after an abundant snowfall for weeks together under a clear sky.
The tobogan—corruption of the Indian word odabagan a sled, adopted by the white man as a light and graceful vehicle whereon to slide down icy slopes for pastime or exercise—has always been, and still is, in constant use among Indians, wild and semi-civilized, to transport for the former his dead game or fire-wood, for the latter his hunting supplies or scanty belongings, as well as anything else either may desire to carry from camp to camp. As the luggage van to a "pale face" so is the tobogan to a savage, with the difference that a tobogan is only available in winter and on snow.
A sledge, which is indeed only a short tobogan on runners, is ill adapted for travelling on any kind of snow track, or where there is no track at all, for the runners sink when the sledge is loaded, whereas the same weight being equally distributed on a tobogan's flat surface is more easily and safely hauled.
In the North-West Territories of Canada, among the semi-civilized or "treaty Indians"—those who have entered into negotiations with the Government and receive yearly supplies of food, farming implements, and seed, &c.—the lord of the teepi or wigwam, has the best of it when the family travel, for harnessed by a "tump line," or thong of raw deer hide passing round her forehead and attached to the tobogan, the squaw toils on hour after hour, hooded in her long draped blanket, while he steps out in his fringed leggings and shorter blanket carrying, if anything, only a light gun.
But except in style and shape those shabby patched-up conveyances bear small resemblance to their smart descendant the tobogan of a higher civilization in use to-day for sliding (or toboganing as it is incorrectly called) down artificial or carefully prepared slopes, when a gay company assemble to take spiced wine or tea in the intervals of exercise, as they stand or sit about fancy "log cabins" lined with chintz sofas, or in stove-warmed marquees carpeted with furs.
Still made by Indians only, but "to order" now, and handsomely fashioned, the correct tobogan of to-day is formed of two smooth strips of birch or maple wood, each from nine to ten feet long, ten inches wide, and about an eighth of an inch thick, laid close together. Of these strips about two feet at one end is turned or curled over (by a steaming process and with raw-hide thong compresses) to within six inches of their floor, and connected at each edge by slight supports of stiffly twisted deer hide with the first cross rod. Of these cross rods there are five or six down the whole length of the strips, and lashed thereto with "babeesh," or thongs of raw deer hide, in this way uniting the strips (which we must now call the tobogan) firmly together. These cross rods, about an inch in diameter, are flattened on the lower side, and the thongs which lash them to the tobogan floor are placed about four inches apart and counter-sunk sufficiently deep to prevent them from interfering with the smooth surface of the tobogan underneath, which can never be too smooth for easy sliding, as any hitch or check is almost sure to send the occupant head-over-heels down the steep. Side rods, also about one-inch in diameter, and passing down each edge of the structure, rest on the cross rods an inch or so from the outside edge, and form a sort of hand-rail sufficiently high from the tobogan floor to allow the fingers to pass under and grip. These hand-rails are necessary in "Society" tobogans to hold on to while flying down hill, and in domestic or Indian ones as a means of securing those lashings necessary to keep pack or carcase in its place during a journey. The hand-rails must extend well up under the curled end or bow, which bow is strengthened on the front edge by a cross-bar fastened there by thongs to keep the curled boards from separating.
Neatly finished and polished, the tobogan is then made comfortable with a cunning little crimson rep mattrass about two inches thick, a trifle narrower than the tobogan, and fastened to it with red braid ties passed round the hand-rail at each junction with the cross rods. A thick gaily-coloured worsted cord attached to each side of the bow, forming a long loop, is used for dragging the tobogan by hand to the place of rendezvous or the solitary hill to which a grumpy slider goes for some "good exercise" all alone in his glory. If the rendezvous be distant, and the slider proceeds thither in his sleigh, the tobogan is fastened immediately behind it, and on these occasions it is not uncommon to see a pedestrian, tired of dragging his tobogan so far, wait till a passing sleigh gives him the opportunity to throw his cord to a friend inside, jump on the tobogan and, thus towed, complete his journey quite comfortably!
In the more primitive days of Canada, when the fun was called "coasting," and carried on in less exalted circles than is the case now, roughly made "hand sleds" of common painted wood, with low steel or iron-shod runners underneath, and projecting a few inches in front, the whole about four feet long and nine inches wide, were in constant use on natural slopes or hill sides, and formed the pet diversion of small boys and school-girls and rather fast "grown-ups," as little Dorrit would say, who liked strong exercise and feared not Mrs. Grundy.
A pleasant flavour of mischief was added to the sliding attractions of that day, for Mamma often said "No," and then came the excitement of being caught some bright moonlit night a mile or so from home, packed with one's bosom friend on a "coaster," as the sled is called, tearing down a steep forest roadway, and then scudding away—away, breathless, dishevelled, and nearly shaken to death, over the frozen surface of some lonely pine-fringed lake!
Such unprepared, rarely-used slides were very often both rough and dangerous. Many a "cropper," as the boys said, had we the truant sliders of those good old days—many a roll in the deep snow, sometimes even a sprained ancle or twisted shoulder, which stopped the fun for that evening and obliged us to sit on a fallen tree or log fence and take counsel what it was best to do, which generally resulted in a long cold wait until a low "bob" sleigh, packed with firewood cut in lengths, would come jogging out of the forest, when we would step out into the moonlight and beg a lift home.
Artificial slides—or a sort of narrow sloping causeway mounted on stout posts, joists, beams, and planks used to lengthen a natural declivity, or to supply a steep descent on level ground—were very uncommon if invented at all at that time in Canada, and "coasting" was classed with "romps," which classing was indeed libellous, and, as we children declared, a "horrid shame" but even then, and for years previous, the sport had been enjoyed in great perfection at what is known as the Upper Cone at Montmorenci Falls, eight miles below Quebec. Here, where the Montmorenci River pours over a sixty-feet wide ledge of rock and plunges, a boiling cataract, 240 feet into the St Lawrence below, the spray and vapour driven from those torn and foaming waters—circling rainbow-tinted for ever and ever round the rocky base—freeze in winter with constantly increasing height. By February this frozen spray, so thickening and growing, has formed a sugar-loaf shaped cone from eighty to a hundred feet high, with another rounder cone near it of much smaller dimensions. The upper cone, reared close in front of the Fall, at an angle of sixty degrees, its crown in a mist of spray and its foot on the frozen river, is awful enough to climb on shallow uneven steps hewn up one icy slide; but who can convey the terrors of the moment when first the uninitiated gaze down that fair and gleaming precipice, and realize there is absolutely no other way of getting down again but on sled or tobogan, piloted by a "Habitant" or French-Canadian boy, who, crouched in front of the one or perched at the square end of the other, informs you by signs (for the roaring waters make speech inaudible) that it is time to start!
Very distinctly can I recall my own emotions under just such circumstances twenty years ago, and how my teeth chattered and knees smote together, between fear and cold, as I crouched on a sled behind my small conductor, with nothing to keep me there but the mortal dread of getting off, and felt the first—gentle—slip! Away we went, "swift as an arrow from the Tartar's bow," with a downward madness that almost took breath, sense, and sight clean away, until, what seemed to me several hours after, I found myself half-a-mile across the frozen St Lawrence still sticking to the sled as it "slowed up," and observed, somewhat with astonishment, I was still on my accustomed planet safe and sound, a trifle unstrung and giddy, but much exhilarated, and quite ready to try it all over again!
Toboganing and Coasting first became fashionable in Canada when adopted by those agreeable warriors who, as officers of Guards, Rifles, and Line, with their regiments were sent to Canada at the time England was—as Punch's cartoon of the day put it—"waiting for an answer" from America about the Trent affair. Suspense over, bluster backed down, and the Southern travellers safe in London, nothing remained for those eminently social heroes but to amuse themselves for the winter. This they did to their hearts' content. Never men made better use of a good opportunity. There were rinks crowded with struggling skaters, ball-rooms red with uniforms, snow roads lined with tandems, "drill" tramped on snowshoes, ice floors skimmed by anxiously watched curling stones, and many a snowy hillside darted over by the hand sleigh or tobogan, guided by some stalwart amateur absorbed in the effort to keep straight, so that the "finish" should find him something in line with the "start," and not thirty yards off, prostrate and bruised, his cropped head in the snow, his heels in the air, and his eyes dimmed with those horrible stars of shock and pain which blot out the noonday, and force the sufferer to the conclusion that he has had a bad fall!
"Upon my life," said Brown of the Rifles to Jones of the Line, one cold winter's day about that time, "I don't see how the thing sticks on!"
"Jove!" Brown responded, shaking his wise head; "neither do I."
Guests at a Canadian winter pic-nic to Montmorenci Falls and Cone, these two, lately "joined" in Canada, stood near the foot of the upper cone, and spoke as a small sled, guided by its daring owner, pitched over the first "drop" at the summit and dashed past them like a horizontal rocket.
About fifty strong, military and civilians, with a sprinkling of fair ladies, the clearest of heavens bent over the gay party as just unpacked from a line of smoking tandems, piled with fur robes and foot muffs, we—for I was one of them—stood waiting for orders what to do next. Before us lay a stretching landscape in contrasts of white and blue. Virgin snow glittered under a deep blue dome. Opposite our halting-place a darkly falling mass of furrowed water—silver on the far up sky-line, wreathed in shining vapour, and generally flashing all over with a dazzling mist of sparkle—poured down into a shallow of the frozen river we stood on. A hundred feet against its face, at an angle of some fifty degrees, rose the great sugar-loaf, sharply defined yet flecked with blowing spray; and towards our party a dozen or more dark-eyed "Habitant " boys, each with his gaudy sled, hurried to get the first chance of what an English cabby would call a "fare."
Most of the party "stuck," as Mr. Jones remarked, to the smaller cone, and had great fun there, but some bold spirits adventured the higher one, scrambled painfully up the rough, broken slippery cut-out stairway to stand for a few moments on the narrow summit, deafened with roaring water and blinded with spray, till their turn came to start, carefully tucked up lest a stray fold might catch the tobogan and "slew" both unfortunates to the bottom of the slide.
What a dizzy rush it was to be sure, on that keenly cold after-noon, when, after a headlong pitch down the angle and a leap across the slight concave below it, one touched again farther down and raced on until brought up slowly on the plain from sheer loss of impetus!
But how proud the after moment when once again in a group of gazing friends one felt sufficiently collected to assume that air of indifference and nonchalance which people are so fond of affecting when half dead with fright!
"Tell me," said Jones, earnestly to his friend Brown, who had twice made the rush and each time had returned looking white and unhappy, "tell me, did you like it?" But Brown was not caught so easily.
"Oh, bother," he answered irritably; "it is the thing to do, and I have done it!"
Before sunset we were called to dinner in a cave hollowed out at the base of the upper cone, and entered near the Fall. Rather a giddy portal for weak nerves was the great green archway draped with glittering icicles and a network of beautiful frost shapes facing that cliff of water, with the booming of ages close at hand. Once entered we found ourselves in a wondrous fairy cavern—roof and walls of loveliest tints in green, supported by ice-hewn pillars. There, on ice-carved sofas, were stretched dark rugs of fur; and on an icy buffet no end of good things were spread with jugs of steaming coffee and hot, mixed wine. How we enjoyed that repast—what a capital drive home we had by tandem and starlight—what a merry dance in the Music Hall by way of a wind up, are all written in the delightful letter Jones mailed next day to the only girl he ever loved—of course I mean in England—he was quite desperate about at least six in Canada! The brilliant Irishman who was sent to Canada as Governor-General fifteen years ago, threw himself heartily into Canadian amusements, and, ably assisted by his family, staff, and party, paid special attention to the tobogan. His example has been imitated by each successor, and of course society has followed suit. Slides of every height, width, length, and angle are to be seen now in private grounds and even in back yards, down which "coasts" youth of all ages, from the big school-boy (who, however, prefers a steep street, with a chance "bobby" at the end of it) to the rosy toddler of four, who struggles with his tiny tobogan up the twenty-feet "chute," or slide—with its moderate eight-feet angle—and with woollen-gartered legs wide-stretched, slides gently down to the snow heap collected by nurse's orders to keep his excursion within limits.
Slides such as these are easily constructed, and give children capital exercise where a limited space and a great depth of snow make exercise hard to get. Six stout uprights of descending lengths, firmly planted in the ground, six feet apart, strengthened with cross beams, and floored as a bridge is floored with smooth boards, laid closely, and nailed on the frame, makes healthy winter's fun for very young people, and occupies many a holiday afternoon, not only by "coasting," but with the work of flattening and smoothing the fallen snow as it lies on the "chute," so as to make the surface hard packed and even, ready for the small conveyance which, though well fitted for its modest proportions, is yet long enough to carry two or three bundled-up, fur-capped mittened children, who are all the better pleased if there is a "spill" half-way down and a general roll to the bottom! Many a cold day these busy little architects may be seen patting down and smoothing the loose snow into proper shape, transporting more from below to fill up "holes" with their little wooden shovels, and even watering the smoothed surface to make it more slippery.
I saw one of these juvenile slides a few days ago fifty feet long at a safe angle, with rough wooden steps on one side leading to the snow-covered slope on the other. Four or five children in an ecstasy of enjoyment were scrambling up the stairway half-hauling, half-carrying their tobogans, to race down one after another. Literally covered with snow, for the time of hard dry snow is not yet, they were really pictures of health and happiness.
Of course natural hill sides are better and more picturesque than artificial ones, but they are not easily found adapted for toboganing. Good sliding depends very much on weather and the state of the snow. Damp sticky snow, or a thaw which has left the ice rough, as well as many other accidents, prevent much fun. The tobogan "won't go," and the slider gets wet. Neither is it easy to slide in tight-fitting or long garments. The costume worn by men here generally consists of thick knicker-bockers with heavy woollen stockings, mocassins of course, and a short double-breasted overcoat made of red, blue, or striped blankets, with a deep hood or "capuchon." This coat, girt loosely round the waist with a bright coloured fringed woollen sash, and a red or blue woollen "tuque " (an etherealized night-cap) its tassel hanging to the shoulder, finishes his equipment, with a pair of woollen or leathern mittens.
A woman's "get up" admits of greater variety in colour, and is often very dainty, albeit hooded blanket coats are de rigueur for them also, just reaching to the top of the mocassin, or short, so as to display a bright woollen skirt. Their tuques are smaller and closer, and generally almost concealed by the fleecy folds of a "cloud"—that peculiarly Canadian wrap which, consisting of a fringed strip of loosely knitted or woven thick soft wool nine feet long and eighteen inches wide, is both comfortable and becoming. To arrange one properly the cloud must be passed over the forehead, leaving one end half as long again as the other; both ends are then crossed behind the neck and drawn forward. The longest end passed once or twice about the neck—letting it lie snugly about ears, throat, cheeks, and chin—is next brought to meet the shorter one, when both are looped together, and the fringed ends fall over the left shoulder. A pretty sight it is to see a dark-eyed, bright-faced Canadian girl, wearing her blanket suit, shod with cariboo or moose hide mocassins daintily embroidered in stained porcupine quill, and muffled in her red or white cloud, seated ready for a start down hill, while her tall cavalier takes his place close behind her on the tobogan which is to flash them both through a thousand yards of bracing air.
Steering a tobogan well is an art not very easy to acquire, and on steep irregular hills, where obstructions are often close to the track, delicate management is required. Better not steer at all than steer too much—is the caution given to a novice. The lightest touch of foot or hand has a wonderful effect on a tobogan or coaster in full career, and all the accidents not due to positive carelessness may be set down to hasty, flurried steering. An experienced toboganer generally arranges himself as follows: Seated facing sideways on the square end of the tobogan—but always looking forward—he leans on the left hip, with the left leg loosely doubled on the tobogan, and supported by the left arm, of which the hand grasps the hand-rail or rod. The right leg doubled uppermost of course is rapidly extended when a "steer" is absolutely necessary, which is effected by the slightest possible touch of the toe on whatever side of the tobogan it is required. But it is seldom necessary except when nearing the end of a chute, to round a curve, to avoid some unexpected obstruction, or to set the bow straight occasionally. Any ill-judged attempt is pretty sure to end in a fall. Bad accidents are, however, rare, and a fatal one fortunately is more uncommon still. Mishaps occur more frequently when the steerer, as is the case sometimes, sits facing the tobogan bow, his legs extended on its cushioned floor, when steering is managed with touches of the mittened hand instead of the mocassined foot; but in this attitude it is almost impossible to keep any command over the structure at all.
The ladies sit in front, Turkish fashion and well tucked in on the tobogan. A long one will accommodate two or even three besides the steerer, when they sit one behind the other, the first close to the tobogan's curled bow. But the party looks best when only one pretty girl sits rather back, her neat little mocassin against the bow, and her smiling face not very far from her companion's, who from over her shoulder keeps his eyes fixed on the track.
I saw a chute last winter, partially artificial but heightening very steep ground, where the tobogan ran nearly eighteen hundred feet before it began to "slow;" and another, two hundred feet shorter, where the slide ran through a wood on a slight curve, which, if less safe, was more picturesque. The boarded sides about a foot high, which are necessary on artificial slides to prevent tobogans going over, give the effect of a sluiceway, and the Slide or Chute at Government House, Ottawa, is indeed a king among sluiceways, so long and wide is it, so smooth and carefully prepared. Here as near other well-built slides a long rough wooden stairway is constructed, which mounts the ascent parallel with the "chute," and on a lofty framework too, a border on one side just wide enough to fit a tobogan. This stairway and border meet a wide landing at the top of the Great Slide, so that, their rapid descent accomplished, each toboganer (with his companions) mounts the stairway, the tobogan drawn by its loop after him and close at his heels on the smooth border, until he reaches the landing so high in the air, and preparations are immediately made for a fresh start. Thus crowds move regularly on, some toiling up, some rushing down.
Especially is this scene made attractive on bright winter afternoons when their Excellencies are "At Home," and the announcement "Toboganing and Skating" is inscribed on a corner of the invitation card. On these festive occasions, besides the gay crowd of toboganers, two large, open-air rinks are crowded with costumed skaters, who perform all sorts of evolutions, dance quadrilles and lancers, waltz, cut graceful figures, and, above all, execute a march in perfect time, and drill with manoeuvres very similar to those performed in a "musical ride." Loud and gay music goes on all the time. Sometimes a maypole is fixed in the centre of the larger rink, from which hang brightly coloured ribbons some fifteen feet long. Assembling about this, sixteen of the best skaters, forming a set of eight, partners facing, and about four feet apart, start off altogether at a given sign, and on the so-called "Dutch roll" skate step, by a dexterous inter-weaving, plait the ribbons until drawn within a short distance of the pole by the ever-lessening ends, when, at another signal, all stop, and reversing, unplait the ribbons, which, falling loosely once more, are by another figure twisted neatly round the pole.
An annual midnight fête at Government House about Christmas time is particularly attractive, if the weather be fine and the cold not extreme. Then the little valley and the dark, sleeping woods around flush crimson in the glare of two enormous bon-fires, near which the "music" sits with circled stands on the snow. Engine headlights, placed at intervals, pour their white shafts of dazzle far and wide. Thousands of Chinese lanthorns glow in the air, and suspended on wires in double rows encircle each crowded rink, outline also both slide and stairway, and dance in vistas under the purple night sky. Great is the fun and merriment, for all the world is there. Those who themselves take no active part in the sports sit in a much-windowed building overlooking the grounds, and watch the swift gleam of many shining skates, or the flight of descending tobogans as they dart—a flash of light and colour—across the snowy landscape, for sometimes the foremost sitter holds aloft a blazing torch which throws a line of fire over her red and blue companions. Presently rockets, Roman candles, and lights orange, green, and blue, dazzle through the air, and as they fade out, a belt of dark wood is seen spanned with a contrivance in gas jets wishing all there present, as I now wish my readers in distant England, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.