A toboggan tale: He said

It all probably sounded good to the decision-makers: Let’s ask (make) the BDN Outdoors staff crash (race) in the (yikes) U.S. National Toboggan Championships.

That meant me, a man who hates roller coasters and is a bit of a wimp. And that meant my colleague, Aislinn Sarnacki, who climbs mountains before breakfast and is essentially fearless.

And that’s why, on Sunday, after a measly winter storm failed (darn it) to completely wipe out the weekend’s events (as I was secretly hoping), Aislinn and I were standing in the center of the toboggan-racing universe, debating our choice of loaner sleds.

“What’s your favorite color?” Aislinn asked me. I didn’t have one. So we chose one with a blood-red cushion … for obvious reasons, I thought.

The big problem: At the top of the chute, there was no line of eager competitors. We were nearly alone. At the front of the line. And I ended up with none of the preparation (chicken-out) time I thought I’d have to convince myself that this was, in fact, a good idea.

Put your feet here, organizers said. Put your legs there. Put your elbows over there. And for heaven’s sake, don’t let anything dangle outside the sled, or it might end up getting lopped off. (OK … they didn’t really say the last part).

Then, after reciting my prerace mantra (“I don’t like this. I don’t like this”) we were off. And down. And over a spine-jarring hump. And out on the snowy surface of Hosmer Pond, where everything became quiet.

Except for Aislinn. She was squealing and celebrating and (honest) smiling. Later, I learned that she hadn’t kept her limbs inside the sled, and had banged one leg against the side of the chute on the way down.

But we were (to my surprise) alive.

Slow (9.44 seconds), but alive.

Later, we talked to other sledders, and learned that my fears had been well-founded. We heard about toboggans breaking apart in the chute in previous years. We heard from a guy who had broken three ribs a year ago.

I chose to ignore those comments, and focus on this: We did it. Once.

And it wasn’t nearly half-as-bad as I thought as it was going to be. At least, it wasn’t until I watched the video I filmed on a helmet camera.

I expect the nightmares to start any day now.

— John Holyoke

A toboggan tale: She said

“How do you feel about heights — and speed?”

My first thought was, “John wants me to go skydiving.”

Turns out, someone (I still don’t know who) decided the BDN Outdoors should compete in the U.S. National Toboggan Championships in Camden.

The only time I’d ridden a toboggan was in Quebec City. Instead of slowing down at the end, the wooden sled shot out of the chute and hurtled past the Château Frontenac. Rather than relate my shaky track record to John, I said, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

Thus we became the “Paper-Backed Riders.”

Over the next two weeks, I came to the realization that the prospect of sledding down a hill at 40 miles per hour didn’t actually appeal to John.

My compassionate advice, sent via email: “Bring extra layers and a diaper.”

We arrived at the championships early to figure out the logistics (and the secret to not crashing).

A recent storm had filled Camden Snow Bowl with powdery snow and a bitter wind. Dressed in white, papery coveralls decorated with our team name, John and I slogged through the snow to Tobogganville, Maine, a tiny town that had sprung up overnight on the edge of Hosmer Pond. It smelled like sausages and campfire smoke.

I went through five frozen pens before filling out my registration form with a marker, then picked out a loaner sled with what looked like the softest cushion. And up the hill we went.

I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. I believe a person has a right to be nervous if wearing a helmet to do something she has never done before.

Race organizers rushed us along. I sat in front, holding on to John’s Muck boots. “Keep your arms and legs in,” I heard. “Do I lean back?” I asked. Someone yanked my braid and said, “You don’t want this to hit him.” Then the gate was up, and our sled dropped onto the chute.

For the next 10 seconds, I couldn’t breathe. I remember the high-pitched grind of the sled and the sting as my thigh ricocheted off the side of the narrow chute. And then, we were free, hurtling across Hosmer Pond.

“Did you hear our time?” John shouted over the howling wind. I shook my head.

Later, we read “Paper-Backed Riders — 9.44” on a display board.

John’s comment: “Slow.”

Well, John, we can always go skydiving.

— Aislinn Sarnacki

John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...