CAMDEN, Maine — “You going?” said John Clarke Russ, a Bangor Daily News photographer.
“I’m more of an observer. Maybe I’ll watch a few first,” I said back to him, at the bottom of a snowy hill next to Camden’s toboggan chute. It was a media day Jan. 28 and we had been invited to try the chute before the Feb. 11-13 U.S. National Toboggan Championships.
Russ headed up first; I hung back to talk to Jeff Kuller, the director of Camden Parks and Recreation. He said this year he expects up to 8,000 spectators to watch the hundreds of teams signed up to bolt down the 400-foot, wooden, above-ground trench.
All the vendor spaces are filled. This year the U.S. National Toboggan Championships will have a buffet and a cash bar. It will feature children’s activities. The town will host fireworks, dances, theater shows and pancake breakfasts. The Snow Bowl will have a bonfire, bands, and a chili cook-off, and the chute will be open for anyone to try, he told me.
It just keeps growing.
“The net revenue has been around $35,000, but I expect it will be more this year,” Kuller said.
More vendors and more sponsors might make the three-day event at the municipally-owned mountain even more lucrative.
After a quick chat, Kuller encouraged me to make the hike to the top of the chute. It was a beautiful day for a snowy walk in the woods. At the top, Russ and chute master Stewart Young were chatting.
“It’s the only toboggan chute of its kind in the U.S.,” Young told Russ.
This year’s championships, he said, “will be the Mardi Gras of Maine.”
Two Camden Snow Bowl employees demonstrated the chute for Russ, myself and a few others in the media gaggle. The sled dropped onto the track. “Quietly and bravely,” I scribbled in my notebook. Unlike me, I thought. I just know I’ll scream. I’m already all jitters. Young certainly wasn’t helping.
“Good racers can do it in about 8 seconds,” he says. That’s almost 50 mph.
“You want to go?” Young said.
Russ got on first, so he could put his camera at the bow. I got on next.
Young grabbed my legs and threw them around Russ. Then I felt someone’s legs come around my waist.
“Don’t worry, she’s my granddaughter,” Young said.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said back.
“Elbows in,” Young directed. Then he told me to turn my hands around, knuckles in. I did.
I don’t remember if there was a terrifying countdown or if someone said “Ready?” I do remember thinking that I wished I could take notes so I could remember better. No notebooks on the toboggan.
The way the chute works is that a sled is placed level on a sort of trap door. When Young wants to, he pulls some sort of lever which drops the floor to meet the toboggan chute — probably not unlike a gumball machine’s inner workings.
With the clunk of wood hitting wood, I screamed.
“Quit screaming, Steeves,” I told myself.
The rest is sort of blurry. I know it was fun. I know my mouth was in a wide open smile the whole way. I know we got shot out into the middle of a snow-covered pond on a beautiful sunny day. I know when Russ asked me, “How was it?” I said, “AWESOME” and meant it.
Russ and I ran back to the pond’s edge. He climbed the mountain again with the sled and I followed up. At some point I realized my hand was missing some skin, scraped off by the edges of the toboggan chute. When I reached the top, Young looked at it.
“You know what that is?” he said.
“Stupidity?” I guessed.
“A toboggan hickey,” he says.
Perfect. I thanked him and the other staffers before heading back down toward my car. At the bottom of the hill, I ran into Dan Bookham, the executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce. He saw my hand and said one year his coat nearly caught on fire after his toboggan chute ride — his coat melted. He admitted the accident was his own fault.
As for the business side of things, he said hotels fill up each year during the Toboggan Championships and “restaurants love it.”
“The Toboggan Nationals contributes greatly to the local economy — they are a sign of a year-round economy, which is rare on the coast of Maine,” he said.
The U.S. National Toboggan Championships are at the Camden Snow Bowl Feb. 11 to 13. For a full schedule, busing information, team rosters and more, visit camdensnowbowl.com.