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Hey, sledders, watch out for those bales at Thompson Park

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With about a foot of snow on the ground Thursday afternoon, Darren J. Boshane’s inner tube slammed into one of the hay bales at the bottom of the hill at Thompson Park, where young and old have gone sledding for generations.

The 13-year-old Carthage boy didn’t get hurt. He simply got up, brushed off the snow and headed for the top of the hill to do it again.

“It was fun,” he said with a smile.

For years, the city has placed a line of hay bales at the bottom of the hill to protect adventurous sledders from crashing into the stone fence along Thompson Boulevard and the Park Circle.

But the hay bales worry Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith, who said he believes they can be an accident waiting to happen, especially later in the sledding season after a thaw and subsequent freezing that turn the bales into rock-hard, dangerous walls.

“That’s just crazy,” he said, adding he wants the city to find something safer to place at the hill’s bottom.

In recent years, Mr. Smith has asked city staff to come up with options, and the Parks and Recreation Department is again looking at some alternatives.

Years ago, the city put up a sign warning people they are sledding at their own risk. But just after the first good snowfall of the season, the sledders keep coming back — some professing it’s a rite of passage to participate in the activity at historic Thompson Park.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Amy Hayes headed to the park as a child. She now brings her two sons, Noah J. Weiler, 11, and Tanner, 8, to the hill.

“My grandmother lived on Bronson Street when I was growing up,” she said. “We came here as soon as it snowed.”

While she watched from below Thursday, the boys headed to the top of the steep hill along a line of mature trees.

“I’m down here,” she said. “I can’t do anything. All I can do is watch. They’re boys.”

With school out for Christmas vacation, they were joined by about 50 other sledders Thursday. Many of them hopped on neon-colored plastic saucers that took them racing down the incline. Because it was winter’s first opportunity, the snow was still soft and fluffy, not yet hardened by repeated sledding, so Mrs. Hayes surmised the speeds will only increase in the weeks to come.

When she was younger, her cousin came barreling down the hill and smashed into a hay bale. He ended up with a bloody nose and lost a tooth, she recalled. Two years ago, Darren Boshane struck a hay bale and it took the wind right out of him.

“It’s not as safe as it can be,” said Bronson Street resident Caleb L. Smith, who spent about 90 minutes sledding with his wife, Samantha L. Smith, and two children, Shavanah S., 14, and Xander Rayne, 3.

As he sees it, it’s dangerous for bigger children to sled all the way down the hill and risk slamming into smaller children at the bottom. Something should be done to prevent that, he said.

Recently, Parks and Recreation Department staff members suggested installing some fencing about two-thirds of the way up to prevent sledders from going to the top, said Celia E. Cook, Parks and Recreation program manager.

But the idea was rejected by Mr. Smith, who contended it would ruin the aesthetics of that part of the park once the snow was gone.

Other ideas include some kind of netting similar to what the World Cup skiing circuit uses and inflatable tubing that could be installed temporarily at the hill’s bottom, although the feasibility of those ideas depends on their cost. City Manager Sharon A. Addison, Parks Department staff members and others will continue to explore the issue and find a solution, Ms. Cook said.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham also said he believes something needs to be done, noting it’s an insurance liability risk. He insisted sledding from the top of the hill should not continue — it’s not a rite of passage and the tradition should end before someone gets seriously injured.

“We should look at it as a safety perspective and that’s what we should be concerned in,” he said, adding he worries it will become a political issue.

But Mr. Smith said he just wants to improve the situation, contending that netting could be the answer.

“It catches skiers who come crashing down a mountain,” he said, adding it should do the same for the sledders at the park.

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