I visited a local hardware store the other day in search of something that I consider to be an important part of my culture, a traditional wooden toboggan with five or six wooden slats laid in a row, strapped together with cross braces and two short chains to tie down the curved front end of the sled.
The old toboggans I remember were well-built sleds capable of hauling heavy loads, but also light enough to pick up and carry. They were made to last for years. What I found in the hardware stores on my toboggan search was a little disappointing. They were built with thin wood, strapped together with tiny braces and secured with staples or finishing nails. It did not take much for me to imagine that after a few hard rides down a large hill these new store-bought toboggans would be kindling.
Children rarely treat these wooden sleds with great care and the hills are usually very rough. I recall many years ago that I and my friends put our toboggans through every test imaginable. We picked the biggest and roughest hills to slide on and we piled people on for the flight down the ice and snow. We were airborne over ramps of snow and inevitably the rush down the slope would end in a crash into a tree or ice drifts. Our toboggans held up very well considering the pounding they took.
When I talk to some of my older non-Native friends, they describe the toboggan as a childhood play thing. I think many of these southern kids were pretty easy on their toboggans compared to the way we used ours. We used toboggans for work and play and often ours would be hand made or at the very least reinforced for extended use. They lasted for years and only succumbed through rough accidents that involved machines or heavy loads. The wood was strong and thick enough to allow for repairs to be made and everything was screwed together.
Along the James Bay coast, the toboggan was also a highly valued tool. When a family purchased or built a toboggan, it was done so to use it for work and to help them survive on the land. Most of the time people did not use the toboggan as a recreational toy. Serious, well-made toboggans were earmarked for hauling goods.
In the 1980s there were many Elders in Attawapiskat who still used wooden toboggans on a regular basis. I can remember my great aunt Barbara (Pappy) walking in the winter with her short four-foot toboggan. I smile now when I think of her trudging through the snow in a dress that she wore over her thick warm pants as she pulled her toboggan behind her. Her feet were bound with moccasins and her head protected by a colourful floral scarf. Her light parka kept most of the cold at bay but it was the energy from her work in hauling that little toboggan that kept her warm.
Even when she was in her 60s and 70s she took her sled out once or twice a week to a nearby lake two kilometres away. At the lake she collected two bags of crystalline snow in blue coloured Canada Post mail bags. This she used as her precious drinking water and to make tea.
Elders all employed the toboggan as it had been for thousands of years to transport things around town. It was frowned upon for us children to take one of these valued objects and play with it. Taking a toboggan from an Elder for mere play would have been the same as stealing any vehicle. Much of the tobogganing I did as a child was done on cheaper store-bought sleds. We thought twice about ever taking an Elder’s personal toboggan out for fun.
In my own recent search for a toboggan I visited many flea markets and antique dealers in southern Ontario. I found a few that were scarred with years of providing fun for children. It seems that the old time toboggan is a thing of the past. Happily, I purchased one that was not too beat up and I plan on bringing it back to life. I can hardly wait for my first rush down a snow-covered hill surrounded by pine trees and curious ravens. I have found my toboggan.