By MIKE NORTON
Some winter sports require skill. A lot of skill.
Others require impressive reservoirs of strength and endurance.
But let’s face it: there are times when you want to go outside in the middle of winter and have some fun without having to be particularly strong or skillful.
When we were kids, the obvious thing to do at such times was to grab a sled, a toboggan, a cafeteria tray or a sheet of cardboard and head for the nearest hill. But that was before some brilliant soul invented snow tubing.
What a great idea. Tubing has all the thrilling speed of a toboggan run or a sledding hill – but instead of a rigid machine that can flip and hurt you, totally ruin your back if you hit a good-sized bump, or deliver you into the path of oncoming traffic if you happen to overshoot the slope, you get to sit in the middle of a big soft inner tube and ride down a groomed hill where there are people keeping an eye on you. And when you get to the bottom, there’s a life waiting to take you back to the top so you can do it all over again.
Small wonder, then that snow tubing is one of the nation’s fastest-growing winter pastimes. What other “sport” requires little more of you than the ability to sit down, hang on tight and do a little high-pitched screaming as you hurtle downhill on a large inflated rubber donut? (I try to moderate the pitch of my screaming, but it doesn’t always work.)
One of the best snow tubing spots in the Traverse City area – in fact, it’s rumored to be the largest tubing hill in Michigan -- is at TimberLee Hills, a former ski resort in the hills just northwest of town. On clear days, it has breathtaking views of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Leelanau. (Unfortunately, the last time I was up there the snow was falling so thickly that you couldn’t always see the lodge.) Since they bought the place more than a decade ago, owners Mike and Yvonne Groves have worked to make it a safe, fun family-friendly destination.
“When we were kids tubing was kind of dangerous, but we’ve put together a very controlled environment here,” says Mike. “Our hill is designed that way – there’s a little dip at the bottom, but nothing that’s going to throw you out of the tube -- and we’ve got our eyes on it all the time. Besides, people have gradually gotten educated about safe tubing over the years.”
Tubing is pretty much the whole enchilada up at TimberLee – except for parties, weddings and other events in the lodge – but lots of local ski resorts also have tubing hills. Over in Bellaire, for instance, Shanty Creek Resorts has a pretty sophisticated tubing park just above their Cedar River lodge, with eight lanes that have been sculpted into a series of gradually descending ups and downs. I remember taking a group of travel writers tubing at Shanty several winters back, and I couldn’t believe how much fun they had. It does bring out the kid in you.
Much closer to town, Traverse City’s own Mt. Holiday Ski Area also has a dedicated tubing park. The slope is not as long as the 700-foot slope at TimberLee – but it’s a good deal steeper, which appeals to a lot of tubers. And like the other two facilities, it has a mechanical lift – which helps you make the most of your allotted time. (These things are popular , especially on weekends and school snow days, so they can get busy!)
Tubing feels safer than sledding or tobogganing, to be sure. You’ve got all that soft air-padded cushion under you, after all. On the other hand, while you can aim and steer a sled (sort of) a slippery rubber tube is almost intentionally designed to spin around; as often as not, you end up going downhill backwards or sideways. Which does keep the snow out of your face. Lots of people like to lock hands and legs and go down in linked groups, which adds to the shrieking but seems to make the whole thing go a lot slower than individual tubers can travel on their own.
Tubers? Isn’t that a kind of vegetable?
Hmmm. Well, it’s still better than being a couch potato!