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Cold can't keep kids in
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The temperature is on the frostbite side of zero, the snow is calf-deep, and nine-year-old Casey Rankin is preparing to kick a soccer ball.
The white-and-black ball bounds across the snow, propelled by the right foot of Rankin's friend, Eugene Maahs, who's also nine.
Encrusted with frost, the ball tumbles along with all the finesse of an anvil.
It looks hard.
It does not look like an object you would want to kick with a foot that also resembles a miniature glacier.
But Rankin boots the ball right back.
The collision between his toes and the ball sounds like a chunk of oak dropped from a freeway overpass.
But Rankin does not wince.
He grins, and his breath puffs out over his head like a cartoon balloon.
The kick was a good one, his aim true.
And the game of subzero soccer continues on the playground at North Baker Elementary.
On this Monday morning, the first day of school in 2004, the temperature in Baker City has plummeted to 21 degrees below zero, a depth last plumbed in December 1990.
The snow squeaks underfoot in that way it does only when temperatures turn arctic.
And yet Rankin and Maahs and a few dozen of their classmates are frolicking around the frozen playground as though it were a shortsleeves day in May.
Their cheeks are as red as ripe apples.
Surely their feet must be cold.
"A little," Rankin admits between kicks.
Not cold enough to cancel the game, though.
Rankin and Maahs vow that the cold will not deter them from wringing the maximum share of fun from recess.
Maahs says he went sledding at Virtue Flat just a couple days ago.
Rankin, too, said he played outside during Christmas vacation despite the chilly weather that dominated the latter half of the break.
The only problem with snow, he says, is that it melts.
"You can get your pants wet," he said.
This is a bad thing.
Chances are this will be the coldest day of the year.
But even if it's not, North Baker Principal Mark Bogart expects some of his students will brave the polar conditions for a few minutes of soccer or a brief snowball fight.
"A lot of kids like to come out, and they're having a good time as you can see," Bogart said Monday.
Kids have been having a good time since snow started falling on Christmas.
King's department store, where the shelves had been crammed with about 60 toboggans and other snow-sliding toys, had fewer than a dozen in stock Monday, said Lacey Holman, a clerk who runs the toy department.
The crush of customers coincided with the arrival of accumulating snow.
"As soon as they were able to go sledding they came out and cleaned us out," Holman said.
This trend is as predictable as the tides, said Jean O'Brien, who works at Thatcher's Ace Hardware, another sled supplier.
"If the snow comes then you've got sleds selling," O'Brien said.
The store's stock is diminished, but not yet sold out, she said.
The most popular sledding hill in Baker City is at the golf course, off Indiana Avenue.
If you sled there, stay on the established runs and heed the fences erected to protected greens and other sensitive areas.
Although snow-packed streets seem ideal for sledding, they're not.
When a car and a sled tangle, the car inevitably wins.
Although the word "toboggan" originated centuries ago with the Algonquian family of Native American languages, and refers to a specific type of flat-bottomed sled with curved runners, today the term serves as a catch-all for a variety of devices designed to slide down snow-covered slopes.
Most are made of thin plastic that's every bit as sturdy as a toddler's wading pool.
The simplest type, consisting of a single sheet, is about as complicated to operate as a ball-point pen you just sit down and go.
Pick your path with care, though, because you probably won't be able to steer around any obstacles.
These plastic sheets also seem determined to roll up like a tugged-on window shade at any speed above a casual stroll, a trait that improves their ability to change directions not a whit.
To prevent this tendency, attach a sheet of plywood or particle board to the plastic.
Another fast-but-worthwhile modification is drilling a couple of holes at the front of the sheet and threading a length of rope through it. The rope serves as a handle, and if you tug on it with sufficient force, the rope will function as a crude steering tiller.
A few bucks higher on the scale sits the family of toboggans that you sit in rather than on.
These, too, involve a flat plastic sheet, but with walls a few inches high all around. Those walls, though modest in stature, give riders something to grab and if you twist the plastic just right you might actually alter your course by a few degrees.
Some plastic toboggans are long enough to accommodate two or three riders, although you would do well to remember that more weight means more speed, and more speeds means more chaos when the inevitable crash comes to pass.
Think of a plastic garbage can lid, and you've got the basic concept.
Saucers are a tad more maneuverable than flat-bottomed toboggans, but don't expect to nimbly steer around a big bump (or your friend who's in the way).
Like plastic toboggans and saucers, these big rubber doughnuts (some are made of plastic) tend to follow the contours of the hill rather than the rider's intended path.
But what they lack in control, innertubes make up for in comfort.
Toboggans and saucers cushion riders about as well as a slab of plywood.
A soft innertube, by contrast, is as cushy as a leather recliner.
The difference is negligible in soft, deep snow. But slide down a slope that's packed into ice, or stray off course and launch off the jump that some enterprising kids built, and you and in particular your posterior will appreciate the shock-absorbing ability of an air-filled tube.
These toys, with their metal runners, a hardwood deck and a steering yoke, are the classic winter conveyance.
But in untrammeled snow a wood-and-steel sled will sink faster than a Cadillac in a lake.
Launch a sled on hard-packed snow or ice, though, and the thing will attain hair-tousling speeds quick enough to churn your gastric juices.