The U.S. National Toboggan Championships are held in Camden, Maine at the Camden Snow Bowl. (This year, they will be held from February 11-13, 2022). This is the only organized wooden toboggan race in the country (and possibly the world). The toboggan chute has a long history at the town-owned recreation area – as well as a great tradition: all race revenue goes to offsetting the Snow Bowl budget.
SDM sat down with co-chairman Holly Anderson to discuss the championships and what they mean to the area.
Sports Destination Management: How long have the U.S. National Toboggan Championships been held?
Holly Anderson: This will be our 31st year. The event actually started in 1991 but the toboggan chute itself, the one we use for this competition, dates back to 1936 – a couple of the pilings under the chute from then remain in use. It has been rebuilt at least twice, once in the 1960s and again in the 1990s. When they finished rebuilding the chute in January 1991, Jack Williams, an active volunteer at the Snow Bowl, and Ken Bailey, the Parks & Recreation director at the time, had spearheaded the rebuild and they wanted to celebrate that, so they came up with the idea of holding the championships.
SDM: How does a toboggan race work? Do people get a running start the way they do in bobsled?
Anderson: No, not at all. At the top of the toboggan chute, in the launch area, we have a chutemaster. His name is Stuart Young and his father helped build the toboggan chute in the 1930s. The toboggan, loaded with people, is put on what looks underneath like a teeter-totter. Stuart positions the toboggan at the very edge of the deck railing on top of the teeter-totter and then releases the lever that allows gravity to tip the toboggan into the chute and away it goes. There’s nothing mechanical – it’s all done by hand and the laws of physics. The only thing mechanical at the chute is the timing we use during race weekend.
SDM: How fast does a toboggan go?
Anderson: The speeds average out to just below 30 miles per hour, but some teams get up over 40 mph. Camden police loan us their speed radar board that displays every teams' speed as they whiz by; that's how everyone knows how fast the toboggans go. Of course, that’s if the conditions are right, meaning it's cold, there’s no snow on top of the ice in the chute and people have waxed their toboggans. After traveling 400 feet in the chute, toboggans exit the runout and slide out onto Hosmer Pond, which is a small pond adjacent to the recreation area. If the conditions are right, they’ll go all the way to the other side of the pond. Obviously, the pond has to be frozen in order for us to use it!
SDM: How do people take a toboggan on a ski lift?
Anderson: They don’t. When we say there’s nothing mechanical, that includes no lift. You walk up the hill with your team, carrying your toboggan. It is a long, steep walk. It's the only thing about the weekend I dislike, and try not to do too many times over the three days. One of the inspiring sights, though, is when you see the line of 100 teams standing and waiting for their turn in the chute.
SDM: You mentioned people racing in teams. How many people on a team?
Anderson: We have a total of 400 teams competing. There are 100 two-person teams, 100 three-person teams, and 200 four-person teams. The toboggans must be traditional and made of wood, and can weigh no more than 50 pounds – we have a weigh-in and inspection to make sure each conforms to the race rules. We do have an Experimental division, and that is for toboggans that weigh over 50 pounds, as well as those made out of materials other than wood and those that don’t fit the rules for any other reason. We award first, second and third prizes in each division of two-, three- and four-person teams. For the Experimental Division, there is only one first prize – it’s winner take all – and it’s not broken down into the number of people on the toboggan. But in any division, we have a bottom line: if it’s unsafe, it can’t race.
SDM: So is it a dangerous sport?
Anderson: There have definitely been accidents over the years. I would say that 99 percent of the time, it’s people who stick their arms or legs out of the toboggan when it’s going down the chute, or maybe they’re laughing so hard and they fall off when they come out of the chute and hit the ice. That can result in bumps and bruises and road rash – we educate racers in the loading area about how to stay safe, from start to finish. It’s like sledding when you’re a kid – you’re doing it for fun but there’s always a risk factor. But if you stay on the toboggan and you don’t try to get off before it stops, you’re generally going to be fine.
SDM: Are helmets required?
Anderson: Helmets are not required but over the years, we have seen more people wearing them. Now, I’d say about 50 percent of people wear them.
SDM: Do people panic when it’s going too fast?
Anderson: If people are going to panic, they’re going to do it at the top of the chute and not go down at all. That does happen, but peer pressure usually gets them to ride the toboggan down with their team at least once.
SDM: According to the website, costumes and team themes are a big part of it.
Anderson: Oh, they are, and we have some incredibly irreverent team names. We won’t let them use four-letter words but they are creative about getting around that, and most name their teams in other creative ways.
(Note: For a list of team names, go here).
We also have some teams with really elaborate costumes. We have a costume parade and contest and a panel of local celebrity judges. People really look forward to the costumes and they really enjoy creating their own. We also have people who just wear matching sweatshirts or coats – costumes aren’t required in order to race.
SDM: So it’s all in fun?
Anderson: There’s very much a festival atmosphere but at the same time, there are some absolutely serious racers who spend a lot of money and time preparing and figuring out how to get the fastest times. I’d say one-third to one-half of the people are serious about winning. They bring their own toboggans, and they train and practice together.
SDM: Does it all come down to one run?
Anderson: Not necessarily. It is a three-day event. On Friday, we have team check-in and toboggan inspections. If the conditions are good, the chute will be open to the public if they want to try it. On Saturday, racing starts. Every team gets two runs for qualifying. The two-person teams are the first event of the day; they take their first run, then the three-person teams take their first run, and then after that, the teams line up to do their second runs, again, with the two-person teams going first and the three-person teams after that.
Teams don’t have to take a second run if they think the time on their first run was good enough, so there’s always some discussion among team members about whether they should do another run. The fast single times will move on to the finals, held the next day.
We break for lunch, do the costume parade and judging, and then go to the four-person runs. They do their first runs on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning, they do their second runs. After the four-person runs are finished on Sunday, the top 40 two- and three-person teams go into the finals. They each do two runs and those two times are combined for a total. The top three fastest teams in each division get trophies. There’s also a prize for the fastest run in the whole event, and prizes for the fastest all-female team and the fastest school team, as well as the oldest team and the best toboggan.
SDM: How long is a run, on average?
Anderson: To be competitive, about nine seconds and some tenths. The chute is 400 feet long.
SDM: You mentioned earlier the fact that some people bring their own toboggans. What do people do if they don’t have a toboggan?
Anderson: We have a couple dozen that people can share. Since we don’t run in any specific order – only by division – there are always enough toboggans. Sometimes, though, people as a team will build their own toboggans every year, and for them, that’s as much a part of the experience as racing.
SDM: Are there spectators for this?
Anderson: Yes; the number varies, depending on the weather. We generally get between 3,000 and 5,000 people. If it’s a sunny day with temperatures between 30 and 40, and there’s no wind, the place is just packed. The parking lot will be full, and people will be taking shuttles to get in.
SDM: What is the effect on the local economy?
Anderson: Over the years, it has become a really important event for local businesses. This is the shoulder season for us. The holidays are over and we don’t have much in the way of winter racing sports in this area. This has become an enormous benefit for the Snow Bowl. People come in from all over, mostly New England states but also from Delaware, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and beyond, and some hotels are booked up to a year in advance. We’ve estimated that the Toboggan Nationals has a $1 million economic impact, and that’s just what we can track in this area. The surrounding communities benefit from it too – Rockland, Rockport, Thomaston – their grocery stores and restaurants get business, the bars are busy; it really is great for everyone.
SDM: How do new athletes decide to take it up?
Anderson: I would say the Toboggan Nationals are really addictive. So many people come as spectators and then come back the following year as racers. We get a good 15 to 20 registrations each year where people say that’s how they got started. And it’s not something you need to learn to do; if you’ve sat on a sled and ridden down a hill as a child, you can do this. Of course, this is not your mother’s snow hill. It’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s terrifying – it’s awesome.
SDM: How did you get started doing this?
Anderson: I was in the race probably back in ’97. I moved to Camden in 1998 and started volunteering. At first, I was loading toboggans and doing grunt work at the top of the chute, and I just stayed with it. I’m fortunate that there are great people on the committee and wonderful volunteer support too. It makes my job a lot easier and a lot less stressful.
SDM: And you’ve stuck with it ever since?
Anderson: I tried to move away one year, but they still made me come back to Tobogganville and work.