Zipping down a chute of ice at 40 mph while clinging to a simple wooden sled sounds a bit crazy, but that’s precisely what hundreds of people do each February at the US National Toboggan Championships in Camden, Maine. And for several years now, I’ve been one of those people, screaming my heart out and holding my teammates tight as we’ve shot down the chute and out onto Hosmer Pond.
I hesitate to call myself a competitor, but I’ve certainly been an enthusiastic participant.
Sadly, I can’t attend the one-of-a-kind event this year. I have important travel plans. So I thought I’d ask you, readers, to enjoy the festivities for me. And in case you’re new to the Toboggan Championships, I have a few tips.
Saturday is the big day
While the event technically runs Friday through Sunday — this year, Feb. 8-10 — most participants race on Saturday. However, on Friday, the chute is open to the public, $5 per person, with a wide variety of loaner sleds available; and registered racers that have signed in and have bracelets can go down the chute for free. Sunday is generally a day for the fastest competitors to return to the chute and complete their second and final runs, followed by an award ceremony. The full event schedule is at https://www.camdensnowbowl.com/toboggan-championships/.
Parking can be tricky
The event takes place at the Camden Snow Bowl, where there is a big parking area. Nevertheless, that parking area fills up early in the day on Saturday, so you’ll want to plan to arrive early in the morning or take the bus shuttle from the Village Green in downtown Camden, which is $5 for a roundtrip two-day pass. If you do manage to snag a parking spot at the Camden Snow Bowl, it’s $10 a vehicle a day.
At the base of the toboggan chute is a cluster of food vendors, as well as a beer tent, souvenir shop and information booth. This is called “Tobogganville,” and it extends out onto the ice of Hosmer Pond, where racers and spectators erect makeshift camps that can be quite elaborate, complete with giant tents, campfires and walls of snow bricks. I suggest bringing some cash for food and a hot or adult beverage. In years past, I’ve enjoyed brick oven pizza, hot dogs and steaming hot cocoa in that miniature village. I’ve also purchased an event sweatshirt that I wear with pride.
Here’s a video that I took a few years ago of Tobogganville and racing down the chute!
Don’t miss the parade
At noon on Saturday is the costume contest and parade, which marches through Tobogganville. The majority of teams that compete in the event dress up, and some of the costumes are extremely elaborate. I’ve seen pandas, Vikings, lego people, mermaids, giant bananas and much, much more in this costume parade (and flying down the toboggan chute). I myself have dressed up as the Grim Reaper and a ninja for the event. If you do miss the parade, a lot of people wear their costumes for the entire day on Saturday, and their team names often reflect what they’re dressed up as. For example, when my team dressed up as creatures resembling the Grim Reaper, we were named “The Bangor Deadly Luge,” and when we dressed as ninjas, we were the “News Ninjas.”
Here’s a video of the time we dressed as “The Bangor Deadly Luge,” complete with the trip down the chute!
Check out the chili cook-off
Scheduled to run 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, the West Bay Rotary Chili Challenge is a great way to end your day at the races. This cook-off seems to move around every year, but this year, it’ll be on the lower level of 16 Bay View in Camden. Those who attend receive a tray filled with cups of chili made by local establishments. (Last year, there were eight varieties.) You then try all the chilis and vote on your favorite. Combined, the many cups of chili make for a full meal. I couldn’t even finish it all.
Keep comfort in mind
Since the event takes place in February on a frozen pond, it can be quite cold. Make sure you wear plenty of warm clothes, and consider packing a fold out chair, some blankets, a warm beverage, chemical heat packs — whatever will keep you comfortable throughout the day as you watch people fly down the toboggan chute. Even if you’re participating in the race, you’ll be waiting around quite a bit. Most people only go down the chute once or twice, and the run lasts all of 10 seconds.
You don’t need a sled
Teams that are serious about getting a fast time in the championships usually own a toboggan. In fact, many teams construct their own sled. They wax it, too. But I’d say about half the participants — if not more — are just racing for the fun experience and don’t plan on making it to the finals. These teams simply use the loaner sleds that are available at the bottom of the chute, marked with Camden Snow Bowl stickers. Therefore, it’s not necessary for you to own a sled to participate in the US National Toboggan Championships. Just make sure you register ahead of time. You may have to wait at the bottom of the chute for a loaner sled to become available, but once it is, just pick it up, carry it up the hill and get in line.
You don’t need special skills
Whether racing in a two-person, three-person or four-person team, you don’t need any special skills to participate in the toboggan championships. While veteran racers certainly have their methods of speeding up a sled down the chute, many people just lay back on the sled and hold on tight. At the top of the chute, race organizers will help you get situated on your sled by wrapping your legs around the person in front of you. Typically you lay back as far as possible, placing your legs over the shoulders of the person in front of you and crossing your legs over their chest. They then hold onto your legs. This keeps you together and prevents you from flailing your arms and legs as you fly down the chute, which can be dangerous. And if you’re nervous about how it all works, visit the chute on Friday to get some pointers and practice.
Wear a helmet
I suggest wearing a helmet and maybe even some padded clothing. People have been injured during the races, though it’s uncommon. When hurtling down the ice-filled chute, if you keep your arms and legs tucked in, there’s little opportunity to get hurt. However, once you cross the finish line at the bottom of the chute, your sled will continue across Hosmer Pond until your sled slows to a stop. The distance you travel on the pond will depend on snow and ice conditions that day. It also depends on whether or not your team wipes out — a common occurrence. By holding onto each other tightly and keeping your balance at the center of your sled, you may be able to prevent this. However, if you hit a chunk of snow or ice, your sled may tip over regardless. That’s why I wear a helmet.
Consider skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing
The championships are located at the Camden Snow Bowl, a town-run ski facility run on Ragged Mountain that has nearly 1,000 feet of vertical elevation and more than 20 recently expanded runs for downhill skiing and snowboarding. Tickets for the mountain’s three chair lifts vary from $6 to $43 a day, depending on your age and day of the week. Equipment rentals are also available. The mountain also features a number of trails intended for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and fat-tire biking. So if you get a bit antsy while watching the tobogganers, go expend some energy.