Tobogganing at Chestnut Ridge was on our initial list of 100 Things. We couldn't get to it until now.
One reason was that it was tough to get the timing right. The chutes are open only on weekends. The hill must be groomed. You need a firm layer of snow.
The other reason was ... well, stand under the toboggan chute and look up. It's a daunting sight.
"Everybody ready?" you hear the attendant call. Then there's this 19th-century clank, as the toboggan is released. It could make you think of a gallows.
At the top of the chute, staffers were bundling squalling kids onto a toboggan.
"I want to go in front!"
"I'm scared. I don't want to go in the back."
The attendants reminded us of the guys who used to run the Crystal Beach Comet.
"Keep your hands inside, so you don't get hurt. Your feet go here. Hold on to her feet. Now you hold on to his feet. Put your arms up. Let's tuck this in."
Finally: "Everybody ready?"
"Yes!!!" the children bawled.
There it was, that jarring clank. The toboggan vanished, screams fading into the distance.
It is a ritual unchanged since the early 1930s, when these chutes went up. How lucky we are that they survive. In 2005, in need of repairs, they closed for five years. No one thought they would reopen. Heck, everyone else's toboggan chutes, across the country, had closed.
But lo, our chutes reopened in 2010.
Bring your own toboggan, and it's free. Or you can rent a toboggan at $40 a day, or $15 an hour. That's what I did, in mid-December, the first weekend this season that the chutes were open.
Toting the toboggan with trepidation toward the chutes, I got talking with the Kaltenboughs, a family who had just moved to Orchard Park from Erie, Pa.
They said the chutes were just about the first thing they saw here in Western New York.
"We saw them," said Christian Kaltenbough, the dad, "and then we bought a toboggan."
They seemed to know what they were doing. Would they join me on my rent-a-sled? They would.
I got to ride in the front. Obeying orders, I sat cross-legged, and took hold of the ropes.
"I won't go flying out?" I quavered. From the top, looking down, the chute is concave. There is a good section you can't see. What a moment this is, poised in your toboggan for takeoff, gazing into the snowy landscape, waiting for that clank.
I screamed when the thing took off. There is nothing like barreling into the unknown. But then I was surprised by how gentle it was. We glided between the toboggan tracks, swaying left and right, and then across the snow, jouncing gently. At length, we came to a courtly stop. I did manage to acquire a mouthful of snow. But as someone kindly put it, it was a graceful ride.
Charlotte Telis, a 10-year-old tobogganing for the first time, had the same experience.
"It's not as scary at the end as I thought it would be," she said. "I was smiling and then I got snow in my teeth."
The only challenge I found as the day went on was hauling that toboggan up the hill. There is no easy way to do it.
Charlotte said she had tried carrying the toboggan on her head. "But it gave me a headache."
At least if you're tired, it's not the kind of feeling you get from work or school.
"It's a we're-gonna-sleep-good-tonight tired." That was how Peter Telis, Charlotte's dad, put it.
Toboggan comes from an Indian word. It was a Native American form of transportation, handy for when the terrain was right. Just how efficient it could be, I didn't find out at first.
Then I hitched a ride on the Kaltenbough Express.
That was the toboggan these chutes had inspired the family to buy. They had waxed it to within an inch of its life. It also had no padding, the better to terrify you.
Clank! We rocketed down the chute. Then it was onward and downward. We went airborne, then thumped back down. We hit a bump. Ouch! Then we careened forward some more, all of us screaming. Such a ride could end only one way, in a chaotic burst of snow and glory.
What a ride!
That is why you see toboggans resting next to the Chestnut Ridge Casino. You need time to boast and recover. The casino is the crowning touch that makes this park perfect. A fire blazed in the giant fireplace. Mittens and scarves were drying on the hearth. The aroma of smoke was in the air.
Was this heaven? All I wanted to do was come back. Therein lies the danger of the Chestnut Ridge hill. You might buy a toboggan. Wax it up. Before you know it, you'll be here every weekend.
It's a slippery slope.
Story topics: Chestnut Ridge Park