Chasing Down the Cold with Northern Michigan Sledding

February brings with it its own sense of urgency, the need to feel alive in a big way. Here Jaime Delp contemplates her dad and his “Ultimate Sledding” obsession in Traverse City, originally published in the February 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


In winter, Northern Michigan is a place of silhouettes, the world distilled to white and shadow. Roads blend with fields, shorelines disappear into vast silvery mirages, and entire towns turn to crystal and powder, even the car in the driveway is difficult to locate. The landscape becomes a sheet of snow, one pure white page to write yourself against. In winter, Northern Michigan shows you who you are. Do you curl up and wait months for the temperatures to rise, or do you go to Backcountry Outfitters, purchase their most elaborate, high-tech sled—the Hammerhead—and make a solid determination to revive the spirit of your childhood self, which is fed by a mixture of joy and belief and adrenaline, and knows no cold?

The scene is Traverse City, behind Rogers Observatory, dead cold. A camera strapped to a man’s head reveals a hill outlined by pines, boughs bent nearly to the ground. The handlebar and yellow runners of a sled edge into the frame.

“Alright, we’re going sled cam,” he says. “Here we go, a little sled cam action!”

He pushes off, the sounds of snow being packed and sprayed, the lens now the glass of a spun globe.

“Slow down just a hair to make the turn … Whoa!” He nearly catches a tree, then straightens out. “Here we go, now we’re getting some speed! Sled cam! Haa!”

More snow packs against the lens, leaving only a whirring blur. He’s going faster now, splitting the icy ground. The rush lasts 30 seconds before a nose-dive, the collision into more white.

Stillness. The sound of heavy breathing, panting.

A hand wipes slush from the lens, and a man in his 60s, wearing ski goggles, his face covered in snow as if he’d just emerged from an Arctic drift, looks into the camera.

“There it is, folks.” He licks snow from his lower lip, grins. “Sled cam.”

If this man weren’t my dad—if I, too, didn’t know the draw to the immense gratification of meeting winter’s madness with sleds that go really, really fast—I might think he was a little mad himself.

Hammerhead sledding began, for us, in December of 2009, and has evolved into what we now call Ultimate Sledding. When the slope behind the observatory began to seem slow, more of a bunny hill, we built new trails to resemble bobsled runs on the complex terrain of our property along the mainstream of the Boardman River. Soon January arrived, and having mastered those runs, the only thing to do was to take on night sledding, so we bought helmets and LED sled lights. This became the preferred form of sledding until ‘Pursuit Night Cam’ was invented—a natural progression for such lunacy, or spirit, depending on your stance—a game in which one sledder chases another down the hill with a camera. And because one madness leads to another, and because February brings its own sense of urgency, the need to feel alive in a big way, Pursuit Night Cam quickly turned into Pursuit Night Cam with Lit Emergency Flares Strapped to Backs of Sleds.

This could have been a sane place to stop, an honorable grand finale to measure ourselves against, but there’s more to this story. One particularly cold night towards the end of our first February as Ultimate Sledders, when summer seemed only a myth, something dreamt or read about in childhood storybooks, I watched as my dad and our friend Jack Driscoll pursued each other down the hill through an arch made of deadfall lit on fire.

“What we’re after,” Jack says in the video we watch together later, “is a ring of fire. We want to turn the sky blue and pink.”

They start to sing, first my dad, then Jack. “I fell in to a burning ring of fire … I went down, down, down, on my Hammerhead sled…”

“Okay,” he says. “We’re going.”

Next we see the burning arch rising up from each side of the trail. My dad leads the descent, Jack close behind. They pass through the flames, then turn sharply to make the second leg of the course, the steeper hill that leads down to the river.

They both catch spray on the curve, and seconds later they’re at the bottom, sprawled in the fresh drifts, howling like crazed polar bears. I’m reminded of a sled a few days prior, when the purpose, my dad declared, channeling Shakespeare—why not—was “to move wild laughter in the throat of death.”

What you don’t see, what happens next, is their climb back up, several more runs, the arch fallen to ash, how finally what matters is the way they just keep sledding. And the electric blue of their sled lights, casting a wild glow across all that white, their shadows luminous against all that’s accumulated.


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