A Brief Flight Over the Pembina River

This was my entry for the Canada Writes Short Story Contest this year. I wasn’t able to publish it until after the contest long list was announced, because stories that had been previously published in any form are not permitted in the contest. Since my piece wasn’t selected when the submissions were narrowed down, I’m sharing it with you here on Blue Speckled Pup. This is one of the many vivid memories I have tucked away from my childhood. 

My childhood memories of Alberta winters omit the shivering, the sting of extremities exposed to unbelievable cold, and the deep dread of being forced outdoors. Winter from my childhood now seems like a confection, white frosting heaped in mounds over a crisp landscape, everything glittering in the painfully dazzling sun that paints the prairies every winter to strike some kind of near-balance for the cold and ice.

Many times –when the weather was good and the air outside was crisp rather than dangerous— we phoned an invitation over to the neighbours and set out on our snowmobiles for the Pembina River. After a twenty minute ride in the ditches alongside rural gravel roads, we crested the massive banks of the river and descended carefully to the ice. I remember being terrified the river would collapse under our weight, despite the ice frozen being metres deep with motionless swirls of muted bottle greens and browns, the odd stick or leaf or small, unlucky creature trapped until spring.

I hated snowmobiling, but I went along because the riverbank provided the best tobogganing opportunity in the area. The steep place in the bank we used for sledding gradually curved downward and leveled off gently at the bottom, allowing the rider to skim across the frozen surface of the Pembina for an incredible distance before finally exhausting her inertia. The descent was so smooth and fast we closed our eyes and imagined flight.

Beside our preferred route, a second drop began suddenly and threatened an almost vertical plummet halfway down the bank before abruptly jolting upward, like a check mark, due to a number of very ugly rocks buried in the snow. Beneath that jarring skyward jut the bank simply disappeared. It was impossible to climb back up on that part of the slope, and basic survival instinct kept us from trying to conquer it on our crazy carpets or orange plastic saucers. Even my brother, the nimble, fearless kid who climbed every available surface and whom at three years old my mom located (after an hour of frantically searching the house, yard, and outbuildings) perched on top of the cab of the combine, knew better than to attempt the second slope.

Along with our assortment of saucers, carpets, and other cheap snow toys, we always towed a wooden toboggan to the river. Our toboggan was beautiful and blonde, a classic design in maple, glossy with a marriage of the original varnish and the wax my dad applied to it every year. It had a twisted yellow tow rope that was fine for mittened hands but bit our skin if we gripped it with bare palms. We never used the toboggan for sledding at the river, despite its beauty and speed. A solid wood toboggan six feet long was too much for any child to drag up that incredible hill, and the teamwork that would have made doing so manageable inevitably led to fights about who got to sit in the front. Instead, we used it to keep our snowmobile helmets out of the snow while we played.

About the time my younger brother was finally big enough to tow his own hunk of sliding plastic up the hill and zing down on his own, my mom started feeling left out. After spending a little time with the other grownups around the fire out on the ice, she finally declared life as a spectator too boring. Cheered by the kids, she secured her pom-pom hat and selected the vehicle that would carry her down the hill and back into the winter fun.

Momma decided she was a sledding purist. No moulded plastic was going to cut it for her, since, as she explained, she didn’t feel secure on those things. Out of a deep-rooted sledding nostalgia or the need to pilot a craft she felt was sturdy enough to navigate the hill safely, Momma selected the toboggan.

The kids watched in astonishment as Mom wrapped the golden tow rope around her gloved hand and set out for the top of the hill. None of us went up with her, but instead waited on the river to observe her run. I bubbled inwardly with pride at my mother. In those days, she dressed in a snowsuit she owed before I was born, a black and lime and white Seventies beauty with long, pointed lapels and a broad, snug belt secured around her middle with a silver clasp. She looked like an ad from an old Sears Catalogue as she climbed, vibrant and determined, against the snow.

Momma stopped at the highest point of the slope, just below the wiry reddish branches of the bare shrubs bordering the top of the bank. She turned to her rapt audience, waved, and shouted something we were too far away to decipher. Then she swiveled the toboggan around to point its nose toward the river and climbed aboard. The polished snow, smoothed by our many passes over the afternoon, offered no friction to the maple. Before anyone, including Mom, realized it was happening, she was off.

Mom careened down the hill, screaming something panicked and mostly unintelligible. In her frenzy, she did not bail off her maple missile, but did manage to steer herself onto the dreaded second slope. We shouted frantic warnings. We flung our arms in the direction she desperately needed to lean, half a dozen kids gesturing as dramatically as we could with our movements stilted by the puffiness of our snowsuits. It was useless. She was travelling far too fast to alter course. The only change was in the pitch of her voice as she hit the abrupt lip of the bank and became a shrieking airborne projectile.

Mom was almost majestic in the moments after her launch, despite her operatic protestations. Her path through the air was smooth and fluid, like the swift slice of a lime and black and white polyester fish streaking through the water. We watched her sail far above our heads, only her flapping pectoral fins visible beyond the gleaming edges of the toboggan.

Remember the scene in Thelma and Louise where the Thunderbird arcs out into the air beyond the brink of the cliff? In that long instant, slow, slow motion as all the best dramatic things are, the heavy convertible seems to have stolen the secret of flight. It seems impossible that it could be forced to return to earth. In fact, the film ends before the audience is forced to face the messy end of that desperate voyage. My mother’s trajectory beyond the bank was like the path of that car, but we had no cinematic manipulations at our disposal to halt her descent. After what seemed a record flight for a featherless bird, she returned to earth.

Physics informs us that there is an equal and opposite reaction for every event. I assure you physics tells shameful lies. Rather than mirroring the arc of her ascent on the way back down, Mom simply fell out of the sky. Before the crash, Mom travelled farther than anyone could have anticipated. She was well out over the frozen river when she dropped. She was Wile E. Coyote, suddenly remembering gravity and plunging unceremoniously downward.

Had she actually taken a curved downward path, she might have experienced a successful, albeit rough, landing. Unfortunately, the actual finish of her toboggan run resembled a bowling ball released onto a tile floor from a height of twenty feet. There was no bounce, no cushion. The entire adventure finished in a resonating thud that should have knocked snow off nearby tree branches and cracked the thick river ice.

We ran to her landing spot far out on the river, afraid she might be dead from the tremendous jolt or the panic. To our relief, Momma was splayed out on the toboggan but whimpering and swearing simultaneously. Somehow, she survived the impact. So did the toboggan. I think her flashy snowsuit must have been magical, since she had no dislocated or broken bones. She did, however, have spectacular bruising on her butt, back, and thighs for the better part of two months, a swirling pattern of blues, yellows, greens, and achingly deep purples reminiscent of van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

My mother still jokes about the day she almost committed suicide by toboggan, and her spine hasn’t been quite right since the incident. The toboggan is stored in an outbuilding at my parents’ place, leaning neglected against the wall with the maple a little dull and the yellow rope faded and frayed. It is officially retired.

copyright 2012: http://bluespeckledpup.com

2 Comments Add yours

  1. lexy3587 says:

    Great story! sorry to hear you didnt’ make it to the finals, but well done nonetheless!

    1. Thanks! The toboggan story is a family legend that just won’t die. My poor mother was worried I’d embarrass her writing about the incident, but I think she’s more of a star than a laughing stock in this one.

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