CAMDEN, Maine — While hundreds of laughing, shouting skiers congregated on the slopes of the Camden Snow Bowl, Stuart Young toiled alone on a quiet hillside nearby.
His task? To ready the chute for the 19th annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships, to be held next weekend at the ski mountain.
For Young, who wears a winter hat emblazoned with the title of Chute Master, part of his preparation is to use the low-tech, hose-and-bucket system jokingly called the event’s “official Zamboni” by the toboggan crew to ice up the 400-foot-long wooden run.
But he’s also preoccupied with safety precautions for the event after a toboggan collision last year led to six injuries, including one racer who had to be taken by LifeFlight helicopter to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“We sat down and mulled it over all spring and summer,” Young said.
After the accident, shaken officials suspended the rest of that day’s races. But they decided that the snow will go on for the one-of-a-kind championships — with a greater emphasis on communication and safety, important in an event that has grown to include as many as 400 teams of racers and thousands of spectators crowding around the chute.
“The bottom line is we’ve been running the event for 19 years and this is the only serious incident that we’ve had,” said Jeff Kuller, director of Camden Parks and Recreation and general manager of the Snow Bowl ski area. “Last year a lot of small things went wrong at the same time and added up to a big problem. The primary issue was one of communication, and we’ve solved that.”
Last year, the Haraka, Haraka toboggan team had difficulties just after launching during the Saturday races, according to the official incident report. The toboggan swerved through the chute and came to rest on its side before reaching the finish line. Another sled loaded with racers from Unity College launched before the chute had been cleared, the report said, and collided with the first toboggan as the team members were untangling themselves.
Ski patrol toboggans, four ambulances and the helicopter were used to get the injured racers to hospitals. All were treated and released by the following Monday, according to the report.
Kuller said that before the accident there had been “kind of a chaotic scene” at the toboggan launching area at the top of the chute. Officials had even asked some volunteers from the crowd to help, which may have contributed to the confusion at the top.
Now, only trained officials will be allowed to send toboggans down the chute, Kuller said.
More safety precautions include the addition of a mechanical arm that will physically block sleds from moving forward to the launching platform until the all-clear has been signaled. Organizers also have incorporated a red- and green-light system to signal when the chute is ready for another toboggan.
Participants held a drill last weekend to practice the additions to the event.
“The event has grown so much,” Young said. “Teams line up, they’re yelling and screaming — it’s like a ball game.”
Organizers expect the new precautions will diminish the chaos and allow the crowd to get back to the business of having fun — and breaking world toboggan-racing records.
“It should be great,” Kuller said. “It’s a lot of work and it’s very hectic, but it’s a great community event and lots of fun.”
The championships are an important fundraiser for the recreation area, which last year took in almost $40,000, according to Young.
Teams come from all over the country and even from overseas, Young said. People still can enter to race, and it’s free for spectators, although parking at the Snow Bowl will cost $5, and the organizers warn that the lots fill up quickly. People are encouraged to park in Camden and ride the free shuttles to the races.
“We can’t wait,” said Rob Franco of Belfast, who ventured over to the toboggan chute Saturday afternoon. “We’re going to make a day of it. Maybe two. There’s nothing to do up here in the winter. We’re dying to get out of the house.”
For more information, go to www.camdensnowbowl.com.