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Getting in the Groove of Snow Tubing at Sharp Park in Milton

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Sharp Park in Milton - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Sharp Park in Milton

The sliders were lined up on the launchpad at the top of the hill, adjusting their helmets and donning their goggles as they awaited their turn to race down the curvy white track. Most had never slid this chute before, which was lengthened and upgraded for the winter of 2022. Early scouting reports indicated that the track, sluggish all morning due to an overnight snowfall, was finally getting packed down and smooth, shaving seconds off the sliders' finish times.

OK, so maybe I was imagining the Winter Olympics as my kids and I trudged through the snow to the top of Son of Chute, the newly renovated snow-tubing hill at Sharp Park in Milton. But there was no race clock timing our descents, nor was anyone setting records, world-class or otherwise.

Still, Son of Chute, which more closely resembles an alpine slide than a conventional sledding hill, lends itself well to Olympic comparisons. At more than a quarter-mile long, it has five banked turns and an extended run-out at the bottom. While sliders don't approach luge-like speeds of 90 miles per hour, they occasionally catch air off the bumps, which can spin the tubes around and send sliders sailing down the mountain backward.

Snow tubing is essentially river tubing on much colder water. Riders plant their butts in an oversize inner tube, which has a fabric cover, handles, a smooth plastic bottom and a strap for dragging it around. The pastime is a fun, low-cost alternative to skiing, snowboarding and all manner of other downhill sports.

However, be prepared to spend time and calories hoofing it uphill. Sharp Park has no lift or rope tow, just the boot prints of previous sliders pointing the way to the top.

Surprisingly, the parking lot at Sharp Park was only half full when my daughter, Manya, 12, and son, Ezra, 9, and I reached the launchpad on a recent Saturday. After an epic powder dump 24 hours earlier, I had assumed that the snow-tubing hill would be jammed with visitors.

Instead, we often had Son of Chute to ourselves. From the top, the view was gorgeous, with the snow-covered ridges and the wind turbines on Georgia Mountain to the north gleaming in the sun.

The hike up isn't long, but it's steep in spots and exhausting, especially after multiple trips, so we rested at the top between runs. There, we met Megan Parker, from Cape Cod, Mass., who was preparing to slide down with her 8-year-old son, Thomas. Parker explained that she and her family were looking for a "lower-key day" that didn't involve schlepping ski equipment to a resort. I wasn't sure whether dragging snow tubes uphill qualified as "lower key," but they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"I love it," Parker said. "Climbing up the hill is definitely a workout, but ... we're drinking a lot of craft beer this weekend, so it's good to work it off."

We waited until Parker and her son reached the bottom and got out of the chute before heading down ourselves. Unlike most water parks and alpine slides, Sharp Park has no one stationed at the top telling riders when it's safe for them to go. Helmets are mandatory for everyone under 18, but otherwise all sliding is at your own risk. Riders must immediately clear the chute upon reaching the bottom lest they become, as the park rules indicate, "a bowling pin for the next snow tube coming down."

Sharp Park in Milton - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Sharp Park in Milton

Son of Chute is the brainchild of Rick Sharp and Ruth Masters, local entrepreneurs who for years have earned their living from various kinds of recreation. The husband-and-wife duo also owns and operates Burlington Segways, which offers electric bike rentals and Segway tours in Milton and on the Burlington waterfront.

Though locals have been sledding this hill for decades, the snow-tubing chute actually began as a bit of a lark. In 1984 Sharp purchased the property, an abandoned dairy farm, aiming to use it to offer hang gliding lessons. He scuttled that plan when he discovered that his proposed landing zone wasn't suitable for that purpose.

Fortuitously, the sport of paragliding was just taking off. Sharp began paragliding in 1985 and started teaching it in 1992, using a hillside he had cleared. He and Masters also planted Christmas trees as a cash crop and in 2009 built the barn, which now houses the snow-tubing business. In non-pandemic times, visitors can pop inside to warm up, grab a hot chocolate and snacks, and use the restrooms.

Sharp still teaches paragliding on the hill in the warmer months, though he no longer pilots them himself. In 1996 he was in Mexico when he crashed into a cliff and broke his leg and two vertebrae in his neck, which left him paralyzed from the chest down for several months. It took him more than a year to learn to walk again.

In 2009, Sharp carved the first snow-tube chute into the hillside and purchased 20 snow tubes for rentals. Though the track was action-packed, he recalled, "People would start going faster and faster, then go flying out of the chute. So that started to get dangerous."

Between 2009 and 2020, Sharp and Masters invested a little each year in upgrading the chute and buying more tubes. When COVID-19 hit and many people sought new outdoor activities, they flocked to Sharp Park, he said, and income from the snow-tube business tripled.

Rick Sharp - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Rick Sharp

In 2021, the couple invested another $12,000 to rebuild the embankments, extend the entire track and buy more tubes. (They now have 60.) That work was completed last summer.

Sharp Park also has a conventional sledding hill, albeit one that's as straight and steep at the top as a black diamond ski run. At the bottom of that hill I met Brandie Brooks of Essex Junction, who'd read about Sharp Park last year. Brooks described that hill as "lots of speed — and lots of snow in the face."

By our sixth slide down Son of Chute, my kids and I were enjoying the faster speeds. Manya was catching more air on each descent, and Ezra was riding farther up the embankments. Nevertheless, once they started complaining about hunger, exhaustion and cold toes, we called it a day.

According to Sharp, Son of Chute is still a work in process. Some of the embankments need to be raised more to prevent sliders from flying off the sides and sailing into the woods, which happens on occasion.

At 69, Sharp said he doesn't envision running the business for more than another four or five years. But he'd like the property to remain a recreational mecca for Milton, possibly as a nonprofit organization similar to Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond.

"We've got 101 acres," he said, "and I don't want to see it become another 10-lot subdivision."

He often hears the question, "Any plans to install a lift?"

"We may," Sharp said. When a cellphone tower was erected on top of the hill in 2015, Sharp insisted on buried power lines to avoid aerial hazards for paragliders. That enabled him to install electrical boxes at the bottom of the chute that could power two lifts.

"They'd be about $125,000 apiece, which we'd never recover," he added. "But I might do it anyway, because I think it's the thing to do."

Sharp Park, 204 Cobble Hill Road, Milton, is open on Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., in February, weather permitting. Parking is $10 per car, but the fee is waived with rental of one tube for $20. Learn more at sharppark.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Oh, Chute! | Getting in the groove of snow tubing at Sharp Park in Milton"