The darkest Depression times of the 1930s somehow became the decade when Americans really learned how to have fun sliding down snowy hills.
In Woodstock, Vt., someone figured out that if you wrapped a rope around the flywheel of a Ford tractor, you could tow skiers up Gilbert’s Hill. Dartmouth daredevils and their collegiate rivals first established racing on New England’s ultimate terrain — Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine. Those years also marked the beginnings of the college winter carnival ski race circuit.
Over on the coast of Maine in the post-card village of Camden, winter aficionados built a 400-foot wooden chute down through the woods of Ragged Mountain onto an ice-covered lake.
Whether Bill Watterson ever knew about it, the Camden toboggan chute, with its edge-of-mayhem, 40-mile-per-hour runs, was entirely in the spirit of his comic strip characters Calvin and Hobbes and their disastrous snowbound adventures tobogganing through the woods.
From modest beginnings eight decades ago — and two rebuilds of the chute — one of the biggest holidays in the Camden community is the annual US National Toboggan Championships, the 23d running to be held on the weekend of Feb. 8-10.
“It’s really a blast,” said Ed Mayo, who with buddies Joe Chrusz and Derek Foster will compete in the races for the second year.
“It feels like taking a high dive. At first you don’t want to do it, but then you’re flying down the chute and across the lake, and the only thing you want is to do it again.”
Mayo, who drives up from his Plymouth home, was introduced to the toboggan chute while visiting friends in the area when he was around 11 years old. But when he heard about the competition, he said, “I bought an old classic toboggan on craigslist, got her home and waxed her on up, and we headed to Maine.”
What they found was that, even three weeks before the competition, which involves more than a thousand tobogganers on 425 teams and in several divisions, is that there was just a little room left for them to sign up. “We were the third-from-the-last team to get in,” he said.
When race day arrives, some 8,000 riders and spectators pour into town, most of them setting up out on the ice. Revelers pitch tents and have a football tailgate-type party called Tobogganville, with barbecue smoke wafting over the snowscape — though this year vehicles will not be permitted on the ice for safety reasons.
“It just got a little scary because so many would drive out there,” said Beth Ward, acting general manager of Camden Snow Bowl, overlooking Penobscot Bay.
Of course, the title US National Toboggan Championships is only slightly tongue-in-cheek. The event does take on the trappings of a huge party in the winter woods, but it brings up to $35,000 into the local economy, including a financial boost for the Snow Bowl itself.
The event has grown from quite modest beginnings. In the ’30s, when much skiing and many winter activities were done through memberships in outing clubs, a local club constructed the first toboggan run.
It was used enthusiastically by the club, then fell to rot and ruin until about 30 years later, when Coast Guardsmen from the base nearby restored it, and for a time it provided the same fun for the locals. But the cycle repeated itself, and by the ’90s the chute had rotted out again.
This time the head of the Camden Parks and Recreation, Jack Williams, and another Camden native, Ken Bailey, got yet another rebuilding effort started, and by the winter of 1991 the wooden chute, painted newly white, was ready for action once more.
But it was still fairly local, and a kind of adjunct to skiing activities at the Snow Bowl. Then the group that restored the chute got word out that a championship event was going to take place, and that year the first US National Toboggan Championships were held.
No one really remembers who won, and that’s fairly standard, said Ward, since the event is more about having fun than winning. And yet to see teams waxing their sleds with glide wax, and officials carefully inspecting them for such banned substances as Teflon, one can detect some serious purpose. And each category winner gets a handsome handmade trophy featuring a miniature toboggan, and, said Ward, “bragging rights.”
Inebriation, of course, is not allowed, and the state does have an open container law. And yet one tobogganist who wished to remain anonymous explained a trick he’d learned from some old veterans of the Maine winter woods. “You learn to pour some whiskey into your beer to keep it from freezing,” he said.
According to Mayo, accidents do happen. “I’d say one out of 10 crash,” he said. “Mostly it happens at the end when they get to the ice.”
The fast sleds hit speeds of 40 miles per hour, and at that rate the average run takes about 10 seconds. With wooden sidewalls, the faster sleds avoid contact as much possible, and riders go into a tuck to reduce wind resistance.
And there’s another way to gauge speed. Said Mayo, “The first day we were near the back of the pack because there was some snow on the track. We only went about 100 yards out on the lake. But the second day we were much faster and when we hit the ice we went all the way across the lake, maybe half a mile. We were definitely the most improved team. Our speed difference was like 6 miles an hour.”
When a sled is loaded into the chute, it sits on a starting platform. On go, the starter releases a hold, the platform tips forward like a trap door opening, and the sled drops into the chute. It rumbles down past spectators crowded alongside, sounding like an old-fashioned roller coaster.
Though safety vehicles and personnel stand by, Ward said that aside from a few lumps and bumps, the safety record is good. The worst crash happened a couple of years ago when a sled was accidentally released at the start even though another sled was stuck below in the chute. The collision was loud and memorable, but again, Ward said, “nothing serious.”
So competitors are on their way to the big event soon, coming from as far as California, The Netherlands, and Australia, with team names such as Return of the Sledi, Bob Sled Dylan, and That’s What She Sled. And, of course, the team from Maine potato country, Spudrunner.
And yes, there is a prize for best costumes.
“It’s just a funny story we have here,” said Ward. “A funny story and a really funny event.”