With igloos to build and slopes to conquer, youths embrace winter’s frozen bounty

If everything has a season, then on Goat Hill in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, the blustery first day of snow had been a Time to Create. Two snowball forts had risen to face each other. A snow­person stood guard, a prim snowbun in its snowhair, and beside it, a snowdog with pointy ears and a wolfish snowsnout.

Now, on the glistening morning of the warm, sunny second day, it was a Time to Destroy.

“Boys against girls?” Wesley Anderson, 5, called out tentatively, remembering the previous day’s games.

But Henry Mead, 7, had a better idea. He pointed at the smaller fort. “What if we all try to crash down that one?”

“Yeah!” said Sam Exline, 7. “So we’re all on the same team!”

See how much snowfall has hit the region.

The posse of kids, ages 5 through 10, gleefully started kicking, snowball-bombing and body-slamming the fort, carrying off large chunks of it like booty back to the other fort, their base. Within minutes, the structure was flattened.

Then it was the snowperson’s turn. Bam! Wesley’s sister Gretta, 7, knocked its head off. The snowdog’s ears were smashed into slush, its snout sheared off in one stroke.

And, just as quickly, the cycle turned again to building.

“We can make an igloo!” Gretta declared, pointing at the amassed pieces of broken fort. “So no monsters can get in!”

Warily eyeing the headless snow creatures, Henry echoed, “Yeah, no monsters.”

“And no abominable snowmen,” Gretta sank to her knees and began rolling one of the decapitated heads into a foundation stone.

Goat Hill isn’t a place you’d notice if you aren’t from the neighborhood; in fact, many in the neighborhood don’t know about it. It rises behind several dozen attached townhouses, providing a woodsy shared expanse behind their back yards. Alexandria does occasional maintenance, but it is mostly inhabited by kids and families who slip down tiny paths to get to the large open slope in the middle.

As the seasons change, so do the activities on Goat Hill. A big Easter egg hunt is held in the spring; the Slip ‘n Slides come out in the summer, with hoses attached to a house at the top of the hill.

On Friday, day two of what had, through a rare combination of an act of nature and a national holiday, turned out to be a five-day weekend, this was the obvious destination. Several parents watched from the sidelines, but the kids hardly noticed them. The slope was perfect for sledding — and for trying to re-create the activities underway at the Sochi Games in Russia.

Sabine Mead, 9, Henry’s sister, had been a little sad that she couldn’t give out her Valentine’s Day cards at school Friday as planned — but not too sad to join Ella Bruinooge, 10, in a valiant attempt to surf down the hill on floppy apparatus that looked less like snowboards than yoga mats.

“Sometimes we do the skeleton, where you go on your belly,” Gretta said. “Last night on the Olympics, there was a girl who was going down on her belly.”

You can’t really know Goat Hill until you’ve walked the Secret Trail. It winds through the trees, from the bottom to the top of the hill (it is possible to go from top to bottom, but that’s not really done, the kids explained).

“There used to be dinosaurs here,” Gretta said as the group scrambled though the slippery snow, pushing aside overhanging branches. “Before they were extinct.”

There had also once been sheep, the kids said, when a farm was on the property, and goats that had given the hill its name. Along the trail they stopped beside an old wooden gate that was no longer attached to anything. They believe it once belonged to the farm. But “we don’t know,” Sabine said in a hushed voice. “When we found the secret passage, it was here.”

At the top of the trail they reemerged onto the sunny slope, where Sabine and Henry’s mother waited to take them home for lunch and piano lessons. Pointing at the unfinished igloo, Henry said to Sam, “You keep working on it, and when I come back in five hours —”

“Five hours?” Sam interjected.

“Maybe three hours, we’re going to play again.”

Sam was quickly diverted to where he was needed: Gretta had built a throne in the igloo, and she required a king.

“This is his treasure, back here,” she said, seating Sam on a block of snow. She shoved a long stick into the side of her coat and perched herself on top of the mauled snowperson, now reincarnated as a guard tower. “I keep my sword right here, just in case anyone comes.” Lest this worry anyone, she added, “There are really not any bad people — we’re pretending.”

Then, from between the trees at the bottom of the hill, someone real emerged. It was Gretta and Wesley’s mom, bearing a large glass jar full of steaming brown liquid, a ladle and some cups.

The king stepped down from his throne. The guard abandoned her post. It was, after a morning of adventure, a Time for Hot Chocolate.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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