Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Mark Fleming
The scene at the Camden Snow Bowl for the U.S. National Toboggan Championships weekend is part county fair, part circus, part tailgate party, part frontier outpost. The first thing that hits you is the smell of wood smoke, which hangs heavy in the air. In the distance, you can hear the tinny echo of a voice over the loudspeaker, announcing team names — Greatful Sled, Throbbin’ Boggins, Big Test Icicles — and their times. The snow is so thoroughly trod, it looks fake, like movie snow. But the thing that is most remarkable is the number of people. The place is packed!
The Championship is a fund-raiser for the Camden Snow Bowl, the town’s municipal ski area, and there are numerous civic groups and local businesses represented. You can inspect pellet stoves, gorge on fried dough, or purchase freshly baked pies. Stopping by to sample and judge the fare at West Bay Rotary Club’s annual “Chili and Chowder Challenge” is almost de rigueur. There, eight bucks will buy you nearly a dozen shooter-sized cups of chili and chowder from local chefs.
Yes, it’s all very much like any winter carnival in Maine. Except here, there’s only one ride.
I can’t say precisely when on that sunny but brisk February day that my mild, fluttery nerves — at the prospect of hurtling at speeds between thirty and forty miles per hour down a narrow, four hundred-foot, ice-coated wooden chute — turned into abject, “Please God, I don’t want to die” — terror.
My team, the Down East Divas, had set our sights not on the fastest run but on the distinction of best dressed: We were Maine icons. With my peavey and axe at the ready, and my hiking boots, square-buckled black belt, red-plaid hunting jacket, and knit cap with jaunty pom-pom securely on, I — temporarily the spitting image of Paul Bunyan — set off to search through the throngs for my companion chuters. They were easily spotted, even though we’d never met. It’s hard to miss West Quoddy Head Light (Down East Associate Editor Kathleen Fleury), the “Welcome To Maine” sign (Linda Callahan), and a human-sized Maine license plate (Denise Moore) all huddled together at the top of the chute (pictured far left).
After introductions, compliments on everyone’s handiwork, and a little premature boasting about our pending prize, they cheerfully informed me that I’d been selected as the designated driver, meaning I had been given the front seat in absentia. (It never pays to show up last.) And it was at that moment — even before I had a chance to eye the chute — that it suddenly occurred to me that there just might be some peril involved.
Now, you have to understand, I am no babypants, especially when it comes to Down East assignments. I have gone out on a 4 a.m. moose safari, went muddin’ on an ATV, milked a cow, learned how to kayak in the dark, and spent three nights in a yurt — in February. Was I going to allow a sled and a little chute of ice to intimidate me? Yes, apparently I was.
“No, I don’t think I can do that,” I demurred (literally), begging off the front seat. Fortunately, Kathleen (the one who had the helmet, the mouth guard, and — most important — youth on her side) gamely volunteered. I didn’t expect to be this scared — after all, thousands of people, many of them children, had shot this chute before me.
The first championship was held in 1991 and has been going strong ever since, with four hundred teams and five thousand spectators attending in 2009. The chute itself dates back to 1936, built as an added attraction to the then-fledgling Camden Snow Bowl, one of the nation’s first ski areas. Like anything made of wood exposed to the state’s unforgiving winters, the chute fell into serious disrepair over the years but was always restored and brought back. The first time was in the 1950s; next,was in 1990 by a group of local volunteers, led by area outdoor enthusiast Jack Williams, for whom the chute was dedicated upon its completion a year later.
The tournament itself was the brainchild of then-Camden Parks and Recreation Director Ken Bailey, whose voice you can still hear calling the races (“Hoo-boy! They’re really moving!”), from the “Ken Bailey Timing Shed” at the base of the chute. Rounding out the cast of Toboggan Championship luminaries is “Chute Master” Stuart Young, who is responsible for maintaining the chute and creating the ice base (one inch for general use; two-to-three inches for tournament travel).
The top of the chute is four hundred feet up the side of Ragged Mountain, and, despite my increasing dismay, we began the ascent to secure a spot at the front of the line. Then the waiting game that is the Toboggan Championship began. Fortunately, there’s plenty to gawk at.
On frozen Hosmer Pond, where the chute empties out, a tent city — nicknamed the “Ghetto” by the locals — pops up each year. People crowded around fires in camp chairs or on bales of hay. Mini grills were packed with every type of processed meat imaginable. There was a pyramid of industrial-sized B&M Baked Bean cans (hate to be on that sled), as well as toboggans and trophies and secret waxing concoctions. And don’t bother asking for disclosure. No one will tell you what their secret lube is. Not to mention what’s in their hot toddies.
Nearer the chute, my teammates and I took in the costume competition. We dismissed four nuns who stomped past, sled in tow. A group of Civil War reenactors huddled over a smoldering fire. “Those aren’t costumes,” Denise said, sotto voce as we passed. “That’s just Tuesday for them.”
And then we spotted them, the Wonder Sleds: four people, impeccably dressed in what appeared to be white Hazmat suits festooned with large red, blue, and yellow dots on them, just like four svelte loaves of Wonder Bread. On their heads, they wore hats fashioned into plastic bunches and gathered with “twist ties.” When the team walked, they moved in synchronized rhythm. When they stopped, they all cocked their heads to the same choreographed side to show off their handiwork. Clearly these people had way too much time on their hands. (Yes, they won, and yes, I’m still bitter.)
With our moment in the chute approaching, I finally looked at my teammates and asked, “Do you suppose we should figure out how we’re all going to fit on this thing?” Thank God we did. As race neophytes, we clearly had no idea what we were doing. With the generous help of some fellow, more experienced, competitors, the four of us were piled, plied, folded, and tucked onto our sled. Kathleen was moved to the rear, and I was placed in the third berth (more like birth), with my head and shoulders nested between her legs. Her arms were flung over my shoulders, and I grasped her wrist as though trying to pull her over my head. My legs were over Linda’s shoulders in front of me. In this position, I could hear, see, or say nothing. I was the “Tommy” of the Toboggan races, and I did not care for it.
But there was no time to protest. Once you get to that moment of commitment, it is all chute and nothing but the chute. Before I knew what was happening, we were being hustled down onto the loading platform. There, things moved very quickly. An attendant checked our registration bracelets (no stowaways allowed) and guided us to the landing, where we threw down our sled. We climbed aboard. The crew swiftly helped intertwine and tuck in our limbs. We were inched to the front of the platform, and I braced myself.
Then, nothing happened. “Why aren’t we going?” I tried to yell, but my head was buried in my elbows, and no one could hear me above the din. But before I could get anyone to tell me why we weren’t moving, we were. And fast. By that point there was nothing to do but hold on and wait for the longest 9.35 seconds of my life to end. (Ooh, life to end. Bad choice of words.)
Because of my angle, my head was thrown back, and all I could see was the gray sky and tangle of branches overhead. All I could feel was the tha-tha-thump of the sled beneath me. And if I heard anything at all, it was white noise. I was straining every muscle so as to not move and upset the sled’s equilibrium and praying my sledmates were doing the same. Suddenly, we were shot out of the chute onto the ice, but we were still flying. And then, just when I thought it was over, we — to use sledding vernacular — wiped out. But this wasn’t a fun wipeout into fluffy snow. This was onto rock-hard ice. I took the bulk of the spill to my elbow and walked away from the sled, dazed. Earlier, other competitors had emerged smiling and laughing. Kids had done it with happy shouts and screams. What was the matter with these people? Were they crazy?
Later that night, as I lay sleeplessly staring at the ceiling pondering the prospect of our required second run the next morning, I thought, “I’m not going back. I don’t have to do that again. No one can make me.” Only after I had fully reassured myself of that fact could I fall asleep.
A dull, sleety rain was falling when I awoke. “Yippee,” I thought. “Maybe they’ll cancel the races, and I won’t have to quit.” But even as that idea crossed my mind, I knew I wasn’t going to chicken out. I am a Yankee. A Mainer. I was Paul Bunyan, for crying out loud. I was going to take that chute.
When I caught up with my teammates at the Snow Bowl, I found they not only had secured the first place in line (good, get it over with) but also a larger toboggan, one on which we could all actually fit. When our number was up, we all marched in military order onto the loading deck, piled onto our toboggan, and were nudged into place. There was that one moment — just like in a Roadrunner cartoon, where it felt like we were hanging in the air, and then dropped. This time, I could see around and ahead of me.
I heard the cheers and the cowbells and felt the breeze. At one point, my knee grazed the side of the chute, and it left a scorch mark on my pants like a hot iron. Yes, we were moving. (In fact, it would turn out that we bested our initial time by a hundredth of a second, although we still didn’t make the cut for the finals. The winning four-person team clocked in at a combined 18.01 seconds for two runs.) But it didn’t feel nearly as out-of-control as the first run. The next thing I knew, we were gliding out across Hosmer Pond and gradually, gracefully, and, without incident, coasting to a stop.
And as we did, I had but one thought: “I want to go again.”
If You Go: The twentieth U.S. National Toboggan Championships is Feb. 5 – Feb. 7 at the Camden Snow Bowl, Hosmer Pond Rd. 207-236-3438. www.camdensnowbowl.com