Hayford Park on Union Street in Bangor is home to a gentle sloping hill. Free of trees and just the right gradient, the former site of the Westside Pool is a favorite of residents young and old looking for the perfect place to go sledding come winter.
City Councilor Sean Faircloth found himself at the hill earlier this season with his 10-year-old son, Declan Faircloth-Walshe. The pair have been frequent patrons of the hills since soon after Declan learned to walk.
“I think it’s easily one of the best activities in the Maine winter, and he always seems to enjoy it,” Faircloth said.
While sledding can indeed be a healthy alternative to spending winter indoors, it isn’t without it risks, many of which can be avoided, however, with a bit of common sense, parents and recreational experts say.
Good exercise and fresh air
With short days and inclement weather, it can be easy to hole up inside all winter long. However, Faircloth and others say it’s best to spend the cold months finding ways to get a bit of fresh air.
“So many times we have the tendency to be indoors or doing something with screens,” Faircloth said. “This is a chance for us to spend time outside.”
According to fitness website and phone app MyFitnessPal, sledding burns about 475 calories per hour. That’s about enough to indulge in an extra creamy cup of hot chocolate and a cookie when you come inside.
However, Tracy Willette, executive director of the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, said as with many winter activities, “downhill sliding,” as he calls it, doesn’t come without some risk.
“Certainly it’s a fun activity, and overall we encourage families to do it, but to do so safely and keep certain things in mind,” he said.
By the numbers
According to a 2007 report by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are an estimated 43,000 annual sledding-related injuries in the United States, most of which involved head and extremity injuries. Boys make up the majority of the cases, and fractures are the most common type of injury, accounting for 26 percent of the reported total.
However, a study done by the Center for Injury Research and Policy and published in Pediatrics showed that sledding injuries to children are overshadowed by injuries caused by other activities, such as bicycling (about 275,000 a year) and skateboarding (about 61,000).
That being said, safety still is very much a factor.
Faircloth said he makes sure Declan sticks to hills that are not extremely steep. He stays away from the hill on Essex Street near the dog park, particularly after his older son came upon a sharp piece of metal at the bottom once while sledding there.
“I’ve gone down [Essex Street hill] a couple times, but it’s too steep, in my opinion,” Faircloth said. “I like to stick to hills like the one on Union Street, where it’s just steep enough to get some real speed without being dangerous.”
Of course there is always the chance of a freak accident. Faircloth said the one time he was injured sledding was a force of nature.
“I was at Hayford park, and there was this great gust of strong wind that just took the sled like a sail and whacked me in the face, leaving me with a pretty nasty cut,” he said.
But with proper preparation and common sense, Willette said there’s no reason to stay off the gradual slopes this year.
Maintenance of Bangor’s many sledding hills often falls to the parks and recreation department because many are located at public parks. However, Willette said that doesn’t mean they close them when the hills are too risky for sledding
Tim Cotton, a spokesman with the Bangor Police Department also said they don’t close hills for dangerous conditions unless people are sledding on a public road.
However, conditions at hills can change quickly, and Willette said it’s important for children and parents to stay vigilant to conditions and stay away from mini mountains, such as the Essex Street hill, unless they’re prepared.
“Although Essex Street Hill does get used, it presents its own set of risks and challenges that people should be aware of and know that they are sliding at their own risk,” he said.
Several trees line the steep hill, and there is an icy marsh full of additional tree and large bushes at the bottom.
The department occasionally will post signs at parks letting people know they are sliding at their own risk and to monitor conditions before heading down, but they don’t do any regular winter maintenance besides that.
Things to keep in mind if you’re heading out this winter
Find the right sled. Willette recommends finding a sled you’re comfortable with and able to handle. “There’s not necessarily a difference in safety; it’s just a personal preference,” he said.
Watch the conditions. Ice sometimes can build up a slippery crust on the top of a hill, making it extra fast, which can make a good time go downhill quickly. “Often kids, especially, will think they’re ready for a big adventure and get into a little more than they can handle. Conditions do change, and they’re certainly the most most important thing,” Willette said.
Sledding manners. Faircloth said he reminds Declan and his friends to keep the unspoken rules of sledding in mind. “Don’t point your sled right at somebody when you’re heading down the hill, (and) get out of the way when you get to the bottom,” he said. “It’s all pretty common sense things, but these things are almost out of courtesy.”