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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Rating the hottest hills for sledders

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

How we rated them

**** Wear a helmet

*** Sweet ride

** Kid stuff

* Powder puff

Before we start talking about local sledding hot spots, let's get past one thing.

Northwest Ohio is flat. Really flat. A mind-numbing kind of flatness that stretches on and on.

That said, it could be worse. This could be Kansas, which geographers at Southwest Texas State University in 2003 actually proved is flatter than a pancake.

A similar analysis of this area hasn't been done yet, but Bob Vincent, a Bowling Green State University geology professor, aims to fix that. He's been inspired to take a look at area elevations and maybe even slope to determine the best sledding spots in town. Why?

"'Cus ... there are kids who want to do sledding," he said. "I've got seven children and 14 grandchildren and another on the way."

While we eagerly wait for his results - expected sometime within the next month - The Blade sent out reporter Ryan E. Smith for a less scientific investigation of the area's sledding slopes. Just a day removed from the first big snowfall of the season, he broke out his lucky, yellow, plastic torpedo-style sled. It was all down hill after that.

What follows are his thoughts on some of the Toledo area's more popular sledding destinations. All are free and were chosen based on recommendations from regional officials and sledders and represent just a few of the local options.

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MOST VARIETY: Ottawa Park, Toledo.

Whenever I question natives about where they like to go in the snow, this park is a consistent winner. Eager to find out for myself, I made this the first stop on my sledding tour of metro Toledo. I arrived at 9:03 a.m. and was surprised to find myself ... all alone.

There was plenty of other evidence of the park's popularity, however. I followed the legions of tracks left in the snow to a series of hills a little removed from the golf course parking lot. What I found after a bit of a hike was great variety, hills ranging from small to moderate in size and slope, all pretty smooth and not too fast but not too long either- perfect for younger kids.

From the crest of one of the hills, I could see smaller trails of footprints leading to the horizon, showing the promise of bigger prey for the more daring - like the hill at hole No. 3, a steeper run that takes sledders toward Bancroft Street.

Overall: ***

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BEST BUMPS: Northview High School, Sylvania.

Standing at the top of this wind-whipped hill adjacent to the high school, I was greeted by an 11-year-old named Kelly Farell.

"Am I gonna be in the paper?" she asked, toting her red saucer sled with her up the hill.

"If you can beat me to the bottom," I thought in response.

And so we raced. She wiped out the first time, making me the winner by default, but she edged me in the rematch. Neither of us made it even close to Ten Mile Creek, which seems more menacing than it is snaking past the foot of the hill.

"It hurts but it's fun," Kelly judged after our last run.

So true. Many of the sledders going down the hill choose to fly over a number of small dips and moguls - frequently ending in a tumble and snow spray - but more gentle rides are available.

Overall: ****

(Another hill that makes school cool can be found at Harvard Elementary in South Toledo.)

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MOST INTIMIDATING: Harroun Park, Sylvania.

Seems like every community has a hill called "Suicide." In this case, it lived up to its billing.

Approaching Suicide Hill from the parking lot, I noticed the wreckage of three sleds littering the bottom, shards of red and teal plastic all that remained. I gulped some air and hoped that they soon wouldn't be joined by my own.

My anxiety intensified as I took my position at the top of the hill, which was well worn with bits of grass showing, and realized the slope was so steep that I couldn't see the bottom. I pushed off anyway with a sensation akin to taking the plunge on a roller coaster. In the end it was just like that - scary as you peer over the edge, but ultimately exhilarating. The ride was surprisingly smooth, but not as long as I would have wished.

Hiking back up the hill, definitely for older kids, I commended my sled for its good work ... and then noticed it was bent out of shape.

Overall: ***

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MOST EXHILARATING: Nona France Recreational Area, Whitehouse.

This large, man-made sledding hill protrudes from the area's farmland like a local Everest. Built about eight years ago as a project for a program training heavy-equipment operators, it rises about 60-feet above the ground.

The idea was for people to enjoy a gentle ride down the south side. Many sledders, though, got a different idea and opted for the more precipitous drop down the north side. "It's very fast, and that's why I don't go down it anymore," said Randy Bukas, Whitehouse's village administrator.

The trip up the unlit hill, accessible from the park's Providence Street entrance, can be strenuous. I took a breather to chat with 9-year-old Nathan Dick, who told me as we watched a couple of wipeouts, "If you go down, heed my warning. You need to go to the very end of it if you want to survive." And, he added, a metal butt would help too.

It didn't disappoint. The gentle side was gentle and the steep side was steep. Looking back at my notes all I find among my scribbles are: "Awesome!", "Really steep! Really fast!", and "Bumpy - got some air!" It's all I ever wanted.

Overall: ****

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MOST HISTORIC: Fort Miamis Park, Maumee.

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Learning about history is one thing; sledding on it is quite another. But it's just as fun.

Overlooking the Maumee River on the site of the former British Fort Miamis is a network of ditches and embankments that make for surprisingly fun sledding. Surprising because none of the hills are that big, giving the site a reputation as best suited to youngsters.

This is true, but the series of hills also give the unique experience of going down one slope, up another, and then down another hill. There's even one run that seems carved into a hill, sort of like a bobsled track that shoots you down a path.

So it's not the trendy, scary Millenium Force of sledding hills, but for those who are happy with the classic Blue Streak, it's just fine. City officials permit sledding there, but ask that people not use ones with steel rails.

Overall: **

(Fort Meigs State Memorial Park in Perrysburg is another popular sledding spot that piggybacks on history, despite the signs peppered around the property forbidding sledding.)

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MOST USER-FRIENDLY: Pearson Metropark, Oregon.

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After a long day of sledding, I was happy to come across a hill that looked out for the comfort of its visitors. In this case, that meant benches at the top of this medium-sized hill. That's where I found Monica Shaffer, 7, taking a break and musing on the differences between long plastic sleds and round saucer ones. (The saucer ones - the kind her brother has and that she wants - are faster, she said.)

She liked how fast the hill is and the packed bumps of snow that some of the older kids make. I appreciated the convenient parking that nudges up to the hill and the artificial lighting that allows the hill to be open until 9 p.m. when sledding conditions are good. The hill, one of the area's busiest on this day, was sculpted for sledding with dirt from a dredged pond.

"This one's really nice for younger kids," said Scott Carpenter, Toledo Area Metroparks spokesman. "It's got a nice slope, and it's also kind of molded at the foot of the hill so you can't scoot across the road."

The snow was packed perfectly, providing a nice, smooth ride - not too steep, not too high, but solid.

Overall: **

(Other local man-made sledding hills include the ones at Perrysburg's Rivercrest Park and South Toledo's River Road Park.)

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BEST VIEW: Maumee Bay State Park, Oregon.

It's a tough climb up this 70-foot monster, which park officials claim is the highest elevation in Lucas County.

"It stands out. That's why we call it the big hill," said Jim Brower, park manager. "There are days that it looks like an anthill, there are just so many people on it."

Making the climb to the top would be worth it, even without a sled in hand. From the peak, serenaded by passing geese, I was frozen by a stunning view of Lake Erie and Michigan beyond.

The look down was impressive too - relatively steep with the promise of a long, sustained trip. The only problem was that the insistent wind had blown away much of the white stuff, exposing the grass and making it difficult to get started. Even so, I managed to pick up some speed and was impressed with the potential under better circumstances.

The other side of the hill is unmowed, steeper but full of prickly weeds, though that doesn't stop the more adventuresome from giving it a try. In my case, it also led to my car, which by this time (2:30 p.m.) was a welcome sight.

Overall: ***



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