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Speed racers

More like sledding than skiing, snow tubing is an easy winter activity

More like sledding than skiing, snow tubing is an easy winter activity

December 26, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Like sprinters perched precariously on starting blocks, the snow tuber teeters atop an 850-foot slope, awaiting the report of the starters' pistol.

Only here - with a wind whipping that ratchets down mid-40s temperatures a few degrees - the go signal is a verbal shout and shove from a spotter.

And then, a half-minute adrenaline rush/lesson in gravity.

A stiff breeze slaps across body and brightly-colored tube, spinning down a solid track of snow and ice. Bouncing from one side of the track to another - picture a slick, steep half-pipe - tiny bumps send tube and rider airborne for half-seconds at a time.

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Faster, faster still, a dizzying rush of speed and spin ends as swiftly as it begins, as often with a thud against a thick hay barrier as with heels kicking up snow in an effort to stop.

All you need to know about snow tubing at Coolfont Resort in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.:

Time needed to reach top of slope: 1:55.

Time required to tube down one of the five 850-foot tracks: 24 seconds.

"Just feeling the speed was exhilarating," says Bill Hall, mentioning the track is faster than the first time he snow tubed. "I prefer it this way."

At Coolfont with his wife and two grandsons, Hall lost his black baseball cap on one trip down the slick, bumpy slopes. Using his feet to slow down - lest he crash into a safety barrier of hay bales erected about 25 feet from tracks' end - he trudges back in line to careen down the slick surface again.

Therein lies the beauty of snow tubing, at Coolfont and other Tri-State facilities. Unlike skiing or skating, this winter activity requires no skill beyond settling into a snow tube and saying so long to self control for 30 seconds.

"If you were just to take a sled out to a hill, there's nothing extreme to that," says Coolfont snow tubing manager Angie Schmidt. "We're able to put little humps in it, whereas with sledding you take whatever hill you find and do it."

Sure enough, once the command to "Send 'em!" crackles across handheld radios, tubers are at the mercy of gravity. Tubes (and their cargo) go 'round and 'round at whim, ricocheting off the sides of the track, gaining speed until a short, steep incline begins to slow tubes at tracks' end.

Straightforward as snow tubing is, Schmidt and her crew are concocting ways to liven up (as if that's necessary) the proceedings when tubers aren't seeking warm refuge in an adjacent snack lodge.

In Mercersburg, Pa., the staff at Ski Whitetail have bowed to popular demand and are ramping up their own snow tubing course, scheduled to open Friday, Dec. 27, or Saturday, Dec. 28. Assuming, that is, that Mother Nature cooperates.

Snowed under by requests for the activity in each of the last two years - between January and mid-March alone, Whitetail General Manager Don MacAskill says the resort received more than 500 e-mail requests for tubing - introducing snow tubing was an easy decision.

"I think it's a real positive experience and it's an activity anyone can do," MacAskill says. "There really is not a learning curve, so to speak. Anyone can get in an inner tube and experience it."

As snowmaking continues at Coolfont, up to three more tracks will be added to the existing five. Races will pit tubers against one another, while flags or other objects will be placed on the course for racers to attempt grabbing while buzzing by.

Reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour - more depending on conditions - Coolfont employees roam the bottom of the hill urging tubers to "Drag your feet!" lest you whiz by in a blur and get up close and personal with a large, circular hay bale.

His face nicked by a head-long collision with said bale, Rockville resident Marty Schwartz is nonetheless en route to the hilltop for another dash down the slope.

"It was fun. It was different," Schwartz says. "You know, I've done a lot of different things in my life, but I haven't done this."

At Coolfont for the weekend, snow tubing gave Schwartz an activity he could do with his eight-year-old son. His first time on a snow tube, the rush of whizzing down the hill was exhilarating.

The five tracks, created by nine snow guns, are so swift on a recent Saturday afternoon that Schmidt and her crew spread hay at the bottom of the hill to slow tubes before they crash into bales with a jarring thud.

She thinks the tracks are faster because of the wind. In its sixth year at Coolfont, snow tubing provides a simple winter activity for most all ages to enjoy. If they dare.

"I don't think they realize how fast, what the rush is," Schmidt says. "I don't think they're anticipating as much fun as it is. I think a lot of adults think it's a lot like sledding until they do it."

Reunited with his cap, it's been a couple of years since Hall's first snow tubing experience.

Time hasn't changed the thrill, though.

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