When winters were fierce, and bonfires were burning tires

There is crunchy brown grass in my yard instead of white expanses of snow, and my new winter boots are still in the box. Winters weren’t always like this. My little village of Otter Creek had a sled run that was an icy half-mile long, or so I was told…


The Run

“We were whistling by the time we got to Ben’s Hill,” he says. He is describing a nonstop, ice-spitting, butt-bumping, half-mile sled run from the top of Music Hill in Otter Creek, Maine to the flat at the bottom of Grover Avenue, which used to be called Ben’s Hill.

The flat is at the mouth of our creek. At high tide the creek is a deep bay, and at one time schooners came in and loaded granite that went south to be used in banks and churches and other commercial buildings. Otter Creek granite is fine-grained and a soft pink.

At low tide the creek is a large expanse of mud, the kind that grabs your ankles and does not want to let go. But this view, granite coast with the ocean just beyond, appears to be endless sea and sky. For ten-and twelve-year olds, tumbling off their sleds after the dizzying run, the view had no interest. They were used to it and just wanted to hike back up and sled again.

“We had sleds with steels runners that were rounded. The flat runners you see today would never go that distance,” he says. Dennis Smith, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, once child, grandchild and great-grandchild, has spent most of his life in this little village. He skiis now, but sledding was his winter sport in the 1950’s.

“It was a long walk back up to the top,” he recalls. The roads weren’t sanded then, and it was hard going.” I ask how long it took to sled the half mile from start to finish, thinking fifteen minutes. “Five minutes tops,” he says. He sees my surprise and adds, “We were going like hell, dear.”

“We were always cold, we didn’t have all the winter gear people wear now,” he says. “Most of us wore jeans, which are not good for keeping warm. I remember my grandmother wrapping my legs in newspaper before I pulled my jeans up. It stopped the wind, and made a big difference.”

He still got chilblains, though. “What are chilblains?” I ask. He explained the painful itching that occurs when wet and cold skin is suddenly warmed.Boots_BDN-1

That never stopped him or his friends from spending hours in the cold. There was a shorter run right behind the house he grew up in, starting by the old barn on the hill which his great-great-grandfather had built. This sled run was wider, and did not have all the curves and turns of the longer one.

“We used the hood of a 1954 Oldsmobile 98 on that hill,” he says, absolutely clear about the year, make and model of this hood, sixty years later. “We could pile six kids in that thing,” he says. “Once it started going, we had no control, we just went.”

Dennis said not every winter had the hard, crusty snow that made the sled run so fast, but most did. He could walk right on top of it, and spent hours outside with what he calls “the whole gang.” This was his brother Stephen, Aunt Joyce (she was six months younger than him) his cousin Bobby, the McFarland kids, and Tom McKay. When it was cold but not snowy they would ice skate.

“We were always having skating parties,” Dennis says. The fire pond is still used as a skating pond, but today the bonfires are old pallets and shingles. “We used to burn an old tire,” Dennis says. “They really burned hot and bright.”

Bonfire-tires“But didn’t they smell?” I ask. He has no memory of the smell, just the intense heat and bright light. When asked who else skated with them, he said some kids from Seal Harbor, but not anyone from the Bar Harbor side of the Otter Creek. “It was really divided back then, we didn’t mix with each other, and our parent’s never socialized.”

There are still divisions in the Creek—summer people and year-round residents, the natives and the newcomers—but they don’t seem to serve much purpose. When the pond is frozen, which is now in Dennis’s family, the whole village is invited to use it. The kids we see come from across the street or the other end of town.

The hill behind Dennis’ old house is still using for sledding, although the run from Music Hill to Grover is now mostly plowed and sanded and hasn’t been sled-worthy for years. It seems short to me as an adult, but when the snow crusts over I find myself looking at it and thinking about spinning down it out of control.

Let me know if you have an old car hood I might have.



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Waiting for snow.

Waiting for snow.

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.