Paul Mischel and his 8-year-old son Joseph were flying down a hill on saucers on a recent Saturday afternoon, turning round and around in circles as they screamed with delight. Nearby, Ivy Galvin raced downhill on a toboggan and other sleds with her children, Romeo Ramirez, 8, Santana Ramirez, 6, and Alexis Ramirez, 12, while their puppy Kujo tried to keep up. Victoria Fauque and her nieces, Savannah Geiszler, 8, and Makayla Geiszler, 6, were trying out yet a different variety of molded plastic sled, while other children just slid down on their snow pants.
Montana is blessed with a variety of sledding opportunities, from mountains to hillsides, and the stores are full of sleds for just about every type of condition.
For Paul Mischel, saucers are the only way to go.
"They're the best, because in my opinion, you glide better and go faster," he said.
"Yeah, they're fun and fast," Joseph Mischel added with a grin.
Technically, saucers aren't sleds, according to sled experts. But people looking for a fast, out-of-control, crazy ride will love them, especially since they're typically lightweight and easy to drag back up a hill.
"They're cheap and simple, and pretty hot sellers this year," said Shayne Thompson, a clerk at Bob Wards in Helena. He added that a popular off-shoot of the saucers are the round, inflated snow tubes.
"These bigger ones can be used for towing behind watercraft in the summer, and on the snow," he said. "They're a little more spendy, but people can use them year round and they have a five-year warranty. And they just take minutes to blow up."
Another downhill sliding device that many local stores carry this year are known as a "Zippy," which are small and round like the saucers but have a plastic column in the front to hold onto for a little more stability.
"You sit on it, cross your legs and off you go," Thompson said.
Toboggans basically are sleds without runners, and are available in a variety of forms. Some are plastic, some are foam, some are wooden and some double as big-game or fishing tackle carriers. The more expensive toboggans have steering mechanisms or even brakes.
Some stores carry a mix between saucers and toboggans, in the form of plastic circles that attach to one another, allowing people to either go single or in a long train.
"The snow trains are really fun with kids; it's kind of what you used to do when you'd wrap your legs around each other," Thompson said.
The benefit of sleds without runners is that they do well in uncompacted snow. Those with runners are better for hard-packed surfaces.
While wooden sleds are a bit more expensive and heavier to haul uphill than the foam or plastic versions, local sled maker Lamon Turner wryly notes that you'll often finds chunks of those versions littering the popular sledding hills. Wooden sleds also are known to be easier to control.
His company, Montana Original Sleds, creates sleds that are all-wood, except for runners crafted out of the same materials as snow boards.
"Our sleds are made for longevity," Turner said. "These are the ones that you can use and pass down to your children, then your grandchildren, plus they're the fastest on the hill.
"They'll get you all the way to the stadium parking lot at Carroll."
As with any sport, sledding can be dangerous. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, about 74,000 people have been treated since 2004 for injuries related to sledding, snow tubing and toboggan-related. They recommend that children younger than 12 wear helmets, that adults supervise them and that the hill doesn't end near a street, pond or other hazard.
Sledding's dangerous side caught up with little Santana Ramirez at Carroll, when he went head over heels off his saucer and scratched his chin, drawing a little blood. But after a few tears and some encouragement from his family, he walked back up the hill, got back on his sled and raced downward once again, laughing, as his puppy tried to hang on for a ride.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com