Staring over the top at Swallow Cliff used to make my stomach lurch in fear.
Seated on a toboggan, especially in the front position, meaning that you were looking out over nothing — but you were able to see the small dots of human figures one hundred feet down at the bottom of the hill. Much like a rollercoaster. Only there was nobody at the controls. You and a few of your friends would shove off and ride an oversized wooden plank down wooden chutes to the deep valley below. Then you would lug the toboggan up over a hundred flagstone steps and do it again. When I got older the thrill of speeding downhill on a board was enhanced by a little whiskey.
The “Cook’s” Toboggan Slides were installed on that steep hill in 1930 and were active until 2004, when the Cook County Forest Preserve District thought the repair and maintenance were too expensive.
People climb the 125 steps, up and the 168 steps down for exercise. This has been going on since at least the 1970s. Those who are obsessive mark the number of ascents and descents with a private pile of rocks. When I was younger I used to trot up the steps. Today I didn’t even get near them.
The other day I rode out and took a look. It had been a while, and I discovered that there was now a row of steps that climbers could use for going down. During the Chicago area’s near-record number of days of zero sun, there were few people climbing, despite rather warmish temperatures in the 30’s.
The real places to explore are to the east of the slides. Walk parallel to the ridge of the hill going east, then climb to the top. You will find yourself in a not-too-traveled section of the woods where man-made sites are replaced by the wonders of nature.