Archive 50
Archived 02/12/2010


Shooting the Chute For the First Time

By Lorraine Drumheller

This weekend will be Kristin’s first time down the chute, and she’s nervous.  I tell her not to worry, that hundreds of people, including children, “shoot” the chute every year.  I reaffirm the vacation-oriented state motto, that all things in Maine are “The Way Life Should Be.”  She squints her eyes, balancing my eager reassurances against the spectacle before her: a 431 ft. wooden chute covered with a rock-solid layer of ice descending 70 feet down the side of Ragged Mountain ski area and opening up onto the frozen expanse of Hosmer Pond.

Her complicity is important; after all, the glory of the Toboggan Nationals is second to (well, some things,) here in the small coastal community of Camden, Maine.  It must be confessed, the name of the event is a bit of a misnomer.  Rather than athletes, the competitors are locals; rather than uniforms, some wear costumes; rather than some technologically advanced apparatus demanding perfect form, 2-, 3- and 4-man teams pile onto long wooden toboggans, usually without any definite steering and offering only a thin pad and rope handles in the way of comfort.

Tomorrow marks my second official participation in the Nationals and the fifth or sixth time I’ve attended.  I once spent one blissful year living in Camden, so I have first hand experience witnessing the pageantry and importance of this event to the local population.  Colorful banners are affixed to streetlights, restaurants and hotels offer special meals and deals, and the usually reserved townies begin reciting tales of former tobogganing glory to anyone willing to listen.

Although each team is assigned a number, members must also come up with a name. The Nationals must be in the minority of competitions where names like “Frozen Assets” and “Wax that Ash” echo from the speaker system peppering the competition grounds.  Thankfully, my best friend, Kristin, works in international advocacy and shortly after I invited her to be on my team, one of her coworkers offered up this year’s name: Trinidad and Toboggan.

My uncle, a year-round resident of nearby Lincolnville, provides us our snowy chariot.  She’s 10 feet long, made of ash, and this will be her maiden voyage down the chute.  Unlike other sports, which require continuously updated gear, a new sled is bad news for the quasi-serious tobogganeer.  This is because the bottom of the sled must be carefully planed, sanded, waxed and polished; otherwise, the uneven wooden surface will take precious hundredths of seconds off the run time.  Kristin and I spend a few hours performing what little refining can be accomplished the night before competition.  To the evident hilarity of my uncle’s other dinner guests, we then practice a few different sled positions, each more ridiculous than the last. By the end of the night before the race, our stomachs are sore from laughter, and we’re as ready as we’re going to get.

In a state where winter lasts about half the year, February can be a very bitter month, and this one is no exception.  The temperature gauge outside my uncle’s kitchen reads zero degrees the first morning of the competition.  Kristin and I share a quick breakfast of strong coffee and oatmeal with Maine blueberries before piling on layers of clothing: complete sets of long underwear, followed by insulated ski pants, turtlenecks, and thick woolen sweaters.  Special moisture-wicking wool socks, hooded ski jackets, additional hats, scarves, gloves and boots that lace up to the knees complete our competition gear.  Kristen is leggy and thin, so she pulls off the look sportingly.  At a curvy 5’4”, I feel and look a bit like an overstuffed marshmallow, but I’m warm and that’s what counts.

When we arrive, the competition grounds look like some Hunter S. Thompson-inspired acid trip.  Competitors costumed like nuns (the “Holy Smokers”), super heroes (the “Insledibles”) and well, just themselves (“2 Old 2 Know Better”), stop to meet and greet, register their toboggans and then lug them up the mountainside to stand in line for their first run.  Kristen and I follow suit, and it’s not too long before we are perched high above the frozen pond, the loyal crowd of toboggan devotees that have stationed themselves around the timing shed, far, far below.

After a few minutes of waiting, picking up opposite ends of the toboggan, moving it and ourselves forward, and then setting it carefully back down in the snow, we come to the platform.  Down two sets of snow-covered stairs, we descend into the mouth of the chute.  Kristin eyes the two Coast Guards stationed there.  I’d like to smile at her, but my chin is frozen.  I say a small prayer, mentioning somewhere therein that I don’t want to lose her friendship in case of…

We heave the toboggan onto the iced track.  We climb on and with a quick struggle, somehow intertwine our arms and legs, hoping the connection is secure enough to keep one or both of us from falling off.  And suddenly, it’s quiet.  We’ve entered some sort of hyper-focused awareness – I’ve read about this in interviews with professional athletes – we must be in some kind of toboggan-zone!  The platform volunteers wheel us forward to the launching section of the track.  They receive the go-ahead from the timing shed, lift the connecting lever and DOWN we go!  We hear the crowd screaming (no, wait – that’s just me), we see the tops of leafless trees and snow clouds above go flying past, and uph!, we’ve just hit the pond.  And we’re not stopping…we keep sledding and sledding and we’re laughing and laughing.  And finally we stick out our legs, breaking with our heels and we come to a quiet stop halfway between the end of the chute and the other side of the shore.  I turn to Kristin, who is smiling and ready for her second run.

©2009 Lorraine Drumheller

Team #48, Tinidad and Toboggan with Lorraine Drumheller and Kristin Nicholson start their first qualifying rund down the chute in the 2009 U.S. National Toboggan Championships.

In the chute

Team #48: In the chute and on the way to Hosmer Pond.

Tinidad and Toboggan glide across the Hosmer Pond Ice after their 2nd qualifying run


Lorraine, Kirstin and the 10 footer.

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