Inside the Brown Bag: The Winter

By Peg Brown

“Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, the snow globe world.”

— Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen

Well, maybe in hindsight!

They weren’t really endless—they just seemed that way. Winter in the North Country was always a challenge—and fickle. There could be 10-foot snow drifts, often reaching the roof of your front porch, or you could be helping Dad rake leaves in late December. Stories of earlier years reported ice on the St. Lawrence so thick you could drive your car across to Canada—and, according to legend there were one or two vehicles that tried that feat, only to become beasts of the deep. Snow removal was less sophisticated in those days—snow blowers, for example, were just an answer to a silent prayer as you shoveled the driveway for the fourth time after the plows went through. Young entrepreneurs roamed the streets, shovels slung over their shoulders, offering to clear your sidewalk for just $1.00. (I think those days are over!)

Hats and mittens were mostly homemade. As children we always had a piece of yarn threaded through the sleeves of our jackets connecting both mittens so we wouldn’t lose one. It was also very convenient to have your mitten dangling just in reach, ready to be pulled back on with your teeth after you picked up the elusive rope to your sled.

And sled, we did. Using the traditional PF Flexible Flyers with their distinctive red runners that you could hand steer (now for sale on EBay as vintage), and nearly immobilized by snow pants, jackets, scarves, hats and heavy boots, we searched out the best hills for sledding—almost always in the immediate neighborhood. When a hill was not available, I am ashamed to say we used the street. I happened to live on a corner which hosted one of the better roads for sledding. That is, until my sister ruined it for everyone. One night, as dusk rolled in, Mother called us in to dinner—probably about 5 o’clock or so. My 5-year- old sister yelled, “Just one more run!” Within minutes, she was flying head first down the center of the road when a car drove directly over her, snagged her jacket on the undercarriage and dragged her for the rest of the block. A small article in The Journal reported that she escaped miraculously with a small scar near her eye—but that was the end of street sledding for the neighborhood.

It was not the end of using the streets for winter recreational activities, however. One of the favorite pastimes of the boys in our neighborhood was to “hitch a ride.” This involved running after a passing car, grabbing the bumper, and using your boots as skis, spraying slush in all directions, be pulled down the street until the driver either stopped or—more likely—hit the accelerator.

A safer (almost always) winter pastime was ice skating. While there were many places in town that provided a skating surface, including the edges of the St. Lawrence and some backyards where industrious parents cleared a space and flooded a patch, the most popular skating rink was outdoors at the local high school. Located in the track oval was the town rink, lighted and open for skating well into the evening. I never knew if it was the school department that provided this facility each winter, but I do know that the school must have been involved as the main attraction of the rink was the equipment barn, located at the far back corner of the rink. With skates on, (white figure skates for girls, black hockey skates for boys), we could trudge up the wooden ramp and spend time recovering on long rows of scarred wooden benches. For those who didn’t receive skates under the tree for Christmas, there were many used pairs available for rental. Someone also provided a skate-sharpening service (25 cents), to put the edge back on your blade periodically. Warmed by a wood stove, we were often reluctant to venture back into the cold—especially after we had a cup or two of hot chocolate and a Milky Way or two for energy. There were more than one or two romances sparked at the rink, learning to skate backwards was a real accomplishment, being at the end of the occasional impromptu whip was a thrill, and hockey play was relegated to one corner.

Skiing was less popular when I was growing up, not only because of the expense involved, but because the closest big ski area was a hike (as is everything in the North Country!) Few students had cars (and certainly most of our parents were not able to take a day to sit in a ski lodge). The “ski area”—and I use the term loosely—where most of us were introduced to the sport was a hill that ran beside a restaurant in Black Lake. I don’t remember any lessons being offered, but I do remember that the only way back up the hill was a rope tow—a convenience I never seemed to quite master. I usually managed to get up the hill a few feet at a time, falling off the tow frequently. One of the stories that circulated about the tow is that you had to be really careful or your long hair or scarf would become entangled in the rope and you might be scalped or strangled before anyone noticed. My first pair of skis, now hanging on my office wall, was natural wood, with no edges, and cable bindings (Google cable bindings!). The only ski boots we had were our regular snow boots, clamped tightly by the metal cable—no quick release mechanisms in sight! Even though I spent the rest of my life in New England, I never did become a good skier—oh, I had better equipment and bigger mountains—but I never got over the fear that unfortunately plagued those of us who began the sport after age 5.

Warning—hockey moms and dads, read no further. There was no hockey—except at colleges and across the river in Canada. There was no enclosed rinks in town. There were no interscholastic hockey teams, and parents actually got to sleep past 4:30 am on the weekends. However, if my great-nephews are any indication, Ogdensburg might just be considered a “hockey town” today. And that’s not all that’s changed. I’ve abandoned the misty recollection of a snow globe winter and replaced it with Carl Reiner’s view: “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water!”

Author’s notes: Snowboarding today is considered the number one most popular outdoor winter sport—nonexistent in the 1960s. The other top winter sports are curling (no doubt an indication of an aging population), cross country skiing, ice skating and sledding. For those interested in the fitness value—ice skating burns up 310 calories in 45 minutes—allowing an extra donut on the drive to hockey practice!