CAMDEN, Maine — Thousands of spectators congregated this weekend at the Camden Snow Bowl to cheer on the participants of the 20th annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships as they whizzed down the icy chute.
It was cold at the finish line on frozen Hosmer Pond on Sunday afternoon with a wind that sneaked into warm coats and crazy costumes alike, but that didn’t seem to bother 7-year-old Joshua Henning of Rockport.
“Holy cow!” he exclaimed, watching as a four-person team skittered across the pond and their toboggan slowed from its swift downhill plummet.
Joshua’s dad, Kris Henning of Rockport, said that he has been coming out to the winter carnival-like championships for six years now.
“It’s probably one of the biggest events in the whole area,” he said. “I just enjoy it.”
Longtime organizers say that while the growth that has taken place over the last two decades has been “amazing,” according to event founder and race announcer Ken Bailey, the goal hasn’t changed much.
“There are a lot of people having fun despite the cold weather,” he said.
The championships are an important fundraiser for the town-owned recreation area, which took in more than $40,000 in 2009, and Bailey said this year’s event looked to be right on track.
“So far, I would say it’s been successful both socially and economically,” he said.
On Saturday, organizers estimate that 5,000 came to watch and participate in the races. There were so many that the ski area’s parking lots filled by 11 a.m. Camden police officers had to send cars back to town, where spectators could board free shuttle buses to the races.
“It’s been a great time,” said Lt. Randy Gagne of the Camden Police Department, who said he especially appreciated the use of a warm “mobile command center” that was provided by Camden First Aid.
The racers — more than 400 teams — came from all over. They included longtime participant Larry Thomas of Lincolnville, the team captain of the Slab City Sliders, which won the championship in the 1990s. Thomas has raced his toboggan for 19 winters and sounded like a seasoned sportsman when he talked about the championships.
“It’s just fun,” he said. “You get high hopes, and then you get let down.”
One ebullient group of racers, the Wellness Sliders of The First bank in Damariscotta, was clad in full-size fruit costumes. Heather Lewis of Boothbay was a banana, Dennis Dorr of Walpole was a bunch of grapes, Nicci Doray of Boothbay Harbor was a strawberry, and Peg Tynan of Waldoboro was a slice of watermelon. At work, the four make up the bank’s wellness team and decided to bring their goals to the ice.
“We’re promoting physical activity and healthy snacks,” Tynan said. “Fast food.”
“And we’re very appealing,” said Lewis, the banana, eliciting groans from her teammates.
One racer was new to the U.S. Nationals but not to the sport itself. Rob Vrolijak of Breda, Holland, said that he was a member of the national championship team in the Netherlands, where he promised that toboggan racing is just as silly as it is in Maine — though much more flat.
“There’s more fun here,” he said. “There’s more snow and more hill.”
Vrolijak, who wore red Pippi Longstocking braids, a high-peaked white lace cap and a traditional garment called a kiel, said that he hopes to entice the Belgian and German national teams to Maine next year. He learned about the races from a friend in Maine.
“They told us about the toboggan championships, and I said I can’t miss this. It’s too important,” he said.