Down The Chute: Camden toboggan race is a chiller thriller

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I got a lot of good advice before I blasted down The Chute.

“Keep your arms and legs tucked in tight,” said Rose Dearborn Beckwith of Richmond, “and make sure you center yourself, as well.”

Why is that?

“The friction from the chute, if you are not careful, can melt your clothing,” she said. “One of our teammates burned a hole in her jacket where the elbow area rubbed all the way down. Tuck tight!”

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Advice taken. What else?

“Hold on,” said veteran toboggan racer Ben Hazen. “Really, just hold on.”

“It’s fast,” said Holly Edwards, chairwoman of the U.S. National Toboggan Committee. “If you’ve ever gone sledding as a kid, this is 10 times better.”

Good enough. I’m at the top of the chute, sitting at the front of a 12-foot toboggan, with a championship racer behind me. Below me, The Chute slashes down toward a frozen pond. It’s daunting. And a little hairy because I can’t see what’s directly beneath me.

“When they release the lever,” Edwards advises, “gravity will bring the front of the sled down.”

Good. It’s just a matter of seconds now. I console myself with the fact that some people don’t even make it this far.

“They get up to the top,” says Bob Annis, who has been riding the chute for nearly 80 years, “and they look down at The Chute. They can’t go through with it. They just can’t make themselves go down.”

Annis gives me a little wink.

“When you look down The Chute,” he says, “you’ll know why.”

At the mercy of The Chute

Enough advice, already. I’ve heard great things about The Chute over the past week or so. A sledder can reach speeds of up to 40 mph before the chute spits him out onto Hosmer Pond – some sledders have been known to slide all the way to the other side, adding another 1,000-feet-plus to the ride. Trying to cut that end of the jaunt short is ill advised.

“They try to slow it down because they don’t want to walk all the way back,” Annis says. “They stick they’re legs out. That’s when you end up with bumps and bruises.”

I’ll won’t stick my legs out. I’ll keep my elbows tucked in. I might scream, but I’m hoping that I won’t cry.

Why is the virgin ride down The Chute so daunting, anyway?

“You have no control,” Annis says. “You’re at the mercy of The Chute and the sled.”

Annis ought to know. He first rode The Chute right after it was built in 1936. He was 2 years old at the time, riding with his father. It’s anybody’s guess how many times Annis, now 80, has blasted down Ragged Mountain since.

“I’ve been going down The Chute for a long, long time,” he said. “I survived.”

I’m encouraged by that. I’m ready to go.

The chutemaster lifts the gate. The front of the toboggan tilts down and the 400-foot-long Chute stretches out before me. The ride has begun.

But first a word about the event itself.

Our venue is the Camden Snow Bowl ski area, a few miles away from downtown Camden on the side of Ragged Mountain. The Chute provides toboggan rides all winter long at the Snow Bowl, but it takes on special significance at this time of the winter because the U.S. National Toboggan Championships take place next weekend, Feb. 8, 9 and 10.

Entering its 24th year, the event often attracts more than 6,000. Some toboggan team members will wear goofy uniforms — racers have been known to dress as crash test dummies, SpongeBob SquarePants or other cartoon characters.

“The first year we dressed as characters from Dr. Seuss for Read Across America,” says Beckwith, whose teammate had the burning jacket. That first-year team consisted of a first-grade teacher and three special education technicians. “We were The Cat in The Back. The second time we made domino costumes and named ourselves Domino Effect. Very festive atmosphere. We went for the fun and realized lots of folks were VERY competitive. Special top-secret wax jobs, techniques. . . . Our goal was not to come in last.”

Competitive, indeed. Jim Jefferson of Searsmont is a four-time champion. Ask him for his secret and he’ll laugh in your face.

“Like I’m going to say anything about that,” he says, “in front of the cameras.”

It’s all in good fun . . . wink, wink

Most racers will tell you they’re in it for the fun and most are lying. They want to win, and that’s why every toboggan — many of them homemade — are carefully inspected before each race. One year, a team tried to get onto The Chute with a sled made of ironwood. It weighed in at 100 pounds and would’ve provided the team an advantage.

Sled length cannot exceed 12 feet. Annis recalls one team that tried to enter a toboggan that was 12 1/2 feet long. They made them cut it down before taking their ride.

“Oh, yes,” says Edwards, “it’s competitive.”

People who want to enter toboggans made out of exotic materials or that come in at odd lengths are entered into an experimental class. The rest are competing for the best time, sometimes winning or losing by tenths of seconds. Last year, a team called the Fat Bloated Idiots made a run in 8.83 seconds. The second-place team did it in 8.91.

More than 400 teams – roughly 1,300 sledders – will compete. They come from all over the world – places like China, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Andy Hazen of Andrew’s Brewing Company in Lincolnville said he was inspired to enter the competition 18 years ago when a rival company got into it.

“I said, ‘Look. We can’t have this happen. I’m not going to let them piss on my fence,'” Hazen said. “We started building toboggans and then better toboggans.”

Now they race every year. It’s a good way to promote the business, Hazen said, but mostly it’s the thrill of speed and of cold February air whipping across the cheeks.

“It’s just a great time,” says Hazen. “What else are you going to be doing in February? I’d be cutting firewood. This is much more fun.”

I only screamed for the drama

So now it’s my turn. I’m sitting at the front of a toboggan with Jefferson, the lanky and taciturn former champion, behind me. The gate is lifted, the sled angles sharply down and like that, we’re heading blazingly fast toward Hosmer Pond.

The Chute is coated with ice that clings obediently to a material that’s a lot like AstroTurf. When the ride begins, you have an immediate sense of that ice beneath you. There is no feeling of friction, nothing but thin slats of wood carrying you down the hill at a speed that just keeps increasing.

The woods are a blur, as are the faces of people standing alongside The Chute. Two seconds into the ride, you become aware of how fast those thin slats of wood are carrying you to the bottom. Two seconds after that, you’re going faster still, halfway down now and still trying to get a scream to emerge from your throat.

It’s not scary, The Chute. It’s thrilling and a little awe-inspiring – are people really supposed to go this fast without the aid of machinery – but not the kind that make you regret your decision to take a seat on the sled.

“Ninety-nine percent of people can’t wait to do it again,” says Edwards.

I didn’t count the seconds on my way down The Chute. For a fleeting moment – the mind does funny things when you marry winter cold and high velocities – I wondered if it anyone had ever gone over the side. But there’s no time to give it much thought. Before you know it, the end of The Chute is before you and the expanse of Hosmer Pond awaits.

We blazed onto it, snow flying up around us. There was no loss of speed right away; the toboggan seemed hellbent on heading all the way across the pond. I remembered how I was advised to remain still during this phase or, as Beckwith put it, “the exit from the chute at the bottom can easily turn into a rolling tumble crash and burn.”

And that’s what happened. The toboggan jolted right, then left, then right again. A second later, I was tumbling free in the snow, arms flying and a “doh!” trying to fly off my lips. I suspect Jefferson intentionally caused the spill for added fun. Jefferson denied it.

“We must have hit a ridge,” he said.

Hey, either way. The cold blast down Ragged Mountain is one of those things you have to experience to understand it. It’s not skiing, it’s not snowboarding and it isn’t sliding down the dinky hill you haunted as a kid.

“That,” said WABI TV5 reporter Caitlin Burchill, after shooting out onto Hosmer Pond, “is the most awesome thing ever.”

In the interest of fairness, I’d like to point out that Burchill screamed way louder than I did on the way down the mountain.

Camden Snow Bowl

20 Barnestown Road, Camden, Maine

Phone: 236-3438

FMI: http://winter.camdensnowbowl.com/24th-annual-us-national-toboggan-championships

The scoop on The Chute

First built: 1936

Material: wood

Most recent update: 1990

Material: pressure-treated wood

Length: 400 feet

Elevation: 70-foot drop

Top speed: about 40 mph

Chute surface: layers of ice, laid down by volunteers during the nights before race weekend.

Run: Chute empties out on Hosmer Pond. If ice on the pond is clear, tobogganeers are known to go another 1,000-feet-plus to the other side of the pond.

Schedule

Friday, Feb. 7

10 a.m. to 7 p.m.: Team registration and inspection in Tobogganville

10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Toboggan chute open to teams and public; $5/person (conditions permitting)

3 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Down the Chute Beer & Wine Challenge, West Bay Rotary Tent

4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.: 2- and 3-person division first runs (optional)

10 a.m. to 8 p.m.: Bonfire, food vendors, souvenir sales, music, skiing and snowboarding

Saturday, Feb. 8

7 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Team registration and toboggan inspection in Tobogganville

7 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Bus shuttle service from downtown Camden; $2 round-trip/shuttle pickup at Village Green ($8 limited on-site parking)

8 a.m.: First runs for remainder of 2- and 3-person division

(Second runs will be immediately after first runs)

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Snow Bowl open for skiing, snowboarding and tubing

8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Mechanical bull rides in Tobogganville

10 a.m. Second runs for 2- and 3-person division (second run is optional for fast times)

11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Chili Challenge in West Bay Rotary Tent

11:30 a.m.: Experimental Division first runs

Noon to 1 p.m.: Costume Contest Parade (judges will determine 1st, 2nd and 3rd place)

1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: First runs for 4-person teams

Sunday, Feb. 9

8 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Bus shuttle service from downtown Camden; $2 round-trip/shuttle pickup at Village Green ($8 limited on-site parking)

9 a.m.: Second qualifying runs for 4-person teams

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Snow Bowl open for skiing, snowboarding and tubing

11 a.m.: Experimental Division second runs

Noon: Final runs: begin with 2-person, then 3-person, 4-person and experimental

Top 25: 2-person division

Top 25: 3-person division

Top 50: 4-person division

Top 25 percent: Experimental

3 p.m. Award ceremonies and drawings at Tobogganville

* All times are approximate. Announcer will update the schedule.

The schedule is at: http://winter.camdensnowbowl.com/24th-annual-us-national-toboggan-championships

Award categories

Divisions:

2-person

3-person

4-person

Experimental

(Awards made for first, second and third places in each division.)

Special Awards:

Best costumes

Oldest team

Fastest team

Fastest women’s team

Fastest children’s team

Fastest high school team

Fastest college team

Best crafted toboggan

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