The ice-coated trees and bushes lining the road sparkled in the early morning sunlight on Feb. 8, on our drive to the Camden Snow Bowl. It was our fifth time participating in the U.S. National Toboggan Championships, an exciting event that attracts hundreds of people to midcoast Maine each year.
My husband, Derek Runnells, and I had signed up as a two-person team. As many teams do, we thought up a silly name — Crapchutes — which would be announced over the intercom later that morning. With the pull of a lever, race organizers would drop our sled onto the 400-foot ice-filled chute. Clinging together for dear life, we rattled down the giant slide, our speed topping off at just under 40 mph.
What can I say? It’s a blast.
Joining us for the day was my colleague Sam Schipani along with her boyfriend, Alex Cole, who formed a two-person team: The Toboggan 2 Electric Boogaloo. Together, we set up a few camp chairs in Tobogganville, where everyone eats, drinks and waits for their turns to race.
Tobogganville is unlike any other place I’ve seen. At the base of the toboggan chute, it starts out with a “main road” lined by vendors, food trucks and booths with toboggan champions showing off their trophies and prize toboggans. Then it spills out onto Hosmer Pond, where the “village” grows throughout the day as participants erect shelters and drag grills and firepits out onto the ice.
The weather was frigid that day, with temperatures in the teens and a biting wind. But no one seemed to mind. All were bundled in warm clothes, and many were fortified with liquor.
It was Sam’s and Alex’s first time at the races, so Derek and I showed them the ropes. After getting through registration and picking up our bibs, we got into the long line leading up to the top of the chute. Half of the experience is waiting and conversing with fellow tobogganers. In front of us, a couple from Virginia showed us their custom sled, its bottom slick with wax.
Participants of the event can be broken into two categories: people who are there to win, and people who are there for the experience but have no hope of winning. We have always fallen in the second category. Each year, we simply use rental toboggans that are provided by the Camden Snow Bowl. Left at the bottom of the chute, these old sleds are marred with scratches, and they aren’t waxed. They do the trick, but they aren’t fast enough to beat some of the amazing sleds that more competitive racers ride.
In addition, many of the people who participate dress in costumes. It’s like Halloween in February. This year I saw racers dressed as Lego men, panda bears, flamingos and unicorns. The Virginia couple was dressed as Rick and Morty.
The finish line is at the bottom of the chute, and it only takes about 8 to 11 seconds to reach it. Then the race is over — but not really. Your toboggan still needs to come to a stop, somehow.
The chute launches you out onto Hosmer Pond, where you continue to slide for some distance, depending on the snow and ice conditions. During this tail end of the ride, some people tip their sleds and wipe out. Others glide to a smooth stop. That was our goal, and we were in luck. Both of our teams had smooth rides, twice (each team gets two runs).
We didn’t win any medals, but boy did we fly. And after the races, we headed into town to eat our way through the traditional chili cook-off. All that fun works up an appetite.
In my opinion, the Toboggan Championships is an event that showcases the best of Maine during the winter. It’s full of excitement and humor. It’s a demonstration of traditional craftsmanship and camaraderie. And while it’s certainly a fierce competition for many, it’s also a celebration. The annual event shows that even on the coldest days here in Maine, we can have a whole lot of fun.