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Maine gets wild and woolly each winter for the national toboggan championships
By Franz Lidz
Pierce is one of the weaker links in Team Wurst, a band of irregulars that for the past nine years has competed at the National Toboggan Championships in the coastal town of Camden, Maine. He and his teammates represent the best and the wurst of this two-day ice capade, Down East's most popular and peculiar midwinter sporting event.
A cross between an Alice in Wonderland costume ball and a family reunion, the nationals claim to be the only organized wooden toboggan races in the country. "We figured that because there wasn't any other, we might as well call it the nationals," says Camden hotelier David Dickey. "So far no other town has sued or challenged us."
Last year's 13th installment attracted hundreds of weekend sledders, some from such tobogganing hot spots as San Francisco and London. Many were decked out as cows, soup spoons, beer cans, crash-test dummies, cream puffs, saloon girls, nuns, Mexican federales, chickens, SpongeBobs, scuba divers and assorted grotesqueries that even Dr. Seuss wouldn't have concocted. "Actually, only some of my teammates are wearing costumes," said a member of the Gloucester (Mass.) Gorillas. "The rest just have a lot of body hair."
Team Wurst competed in the two- and three-person divisions as well as the marquee four-person event. The team's various configurations have had terrific names -- Couldn't Be Wurst, Curst Be the Wurst, My Kingdom for a Wurst, Whistle While You Wurst, Men at Wurst, Wurst than Evangelical Telemarketers -- and horrific times. In a decade of shooting the chute, the self-styled Wurstafarians have never advanced from the Saturday qualifier heats to the Sunday finals. To finish last in class is almost a point of pride. "We're going for the Triple Crown: dead last in every category," said Pierce as "It ain't the meat, it's the motion" blared from the team's CD player. "We're an epic squad of mediocrity with the lack of talent and equipment to lose it all."
He was saying this from behind a pyramid of baked-bean cans at the entrance of Team Wurst's yurt. Pierce and his bundled cohorts had set up camp on frozen Hosmer Pond near the end of the glazed 400-foot slide. The smell of franks 'n' beans hung thickly in the chill February air. "First in tailgate," said Pierce, "last down the chute."
Every few minutes the chute operator would yank a lever to release a squad of screaming, supine tobogganers on their plunge. Limbs tightly entwined, bodies stiff as corpses, they flashed past the yurt at 45 mph -- about half the speed of Olympic bobsledders -- before fishtailing across the ice below. The breakneck, brakeless joyride, with a drop of 70 feet from start to finish, generally lasts about nine seconds.
It's been all downhill in Camden since 1936, when town fathers and mothers decided to try to turn their hamlet into a winter resort that would rival Lake Placid. On an eastern slope of 1,300-foot Ragged Mountain, facing Penobscot Bay, volunteers earned free meals for clearing space for a ski jump, a lodge and a skate house. In a stand of birch they built a toboggan chute out of wood. The municipally owned facility was called the Snow Bowl.
Alas, Camden never did become Maine's Lake Placid, and by the early 1950s the chute had rotted. It was rebuilt in 1960, only to rot again by '64, the year it was shut down. In 1990 the slide and its launching platform, which sends tobogganers onto the track at a crazy angle, were rebuilt again. Collective 'bogganing was revived the following January, and the nationals were born. "We wanted to do something silly that no one could possibly take seriously," says Dickey. "One of the world's stupidest ideas took on a life of its own."
Now the nationals raise upward of $25,000 to help offset Snow Bowl operating costs. The registration fee for participants is $15 per person per sled. The cheering, cowbell-clanging spectators who line the flume are admitted free.
The first running of the nationals was a ragtag affair contested by a few dozen locals, mostly carpenters, waitresses and schoolkids. In that year and every year since, neither age nor gender nor athletic ability has been much of a factor. "Everybody's on the same level," says mechanic Art Dinsmore, 35, of perennial top seed Throbbin' Boggin. "Anybody can pull a toboggan out of the garage or find one in the trash." The prevailing attitude has always been cheeky irreverence. For the record, the worst culprits were not Grateful Sled, Planck's Constant or Haulin' Ash, but an early team named the Nads. Before takeoff, the P.A. announcer led the crowd in a robust cheer: Go Nads! Go Nads!
Depending on which old-timers you ask, success in the chute hinges on launch technique, ice conditions, air temperature, wind speed and surface preparations. The race is sometimes decided by hundredths of a second, so competitors spend months slickening their sleds with paraffin, silicon, Crisco, bowling-alley wax, Teflon, polyurethane, Lemon Pledge and all sorts of homemade unguents with names like Moose Grease, Walrus Lard and Porcupine Pee.
"We pick up dead raccoons," offered Lincolnville physical therapist Doug Keith. "Then we skin 'em and boil the bodies down to a clear paste. That's all I'm allowed to divulge about our external lubricants."
Rules for the nationals were tightened after Rich Beauchesne, a Camden orthopedic surgeon who now captains Hogs-N-Heifers, skittered away from the 2002 field, winning trophies in almost every division. "We didn't win the family class," laments Beauchesne. "It wasn't that we were slow: We just forgot to enter it."
Having concluded that weight mattered, the hefty Beauchesne spent a small fortune importing ipe wood from Brazil. "It was the heaviest stuff I could find," he says. And possibly the densest -- that particular kind of ironwood has a Class A fire rating, the same as steel and concrete. The 120-pound beast he created, affectionately called King Kong, roared down the chute so fast that the toboggan committee imposed a 50-pound limit for the following year.
The last time organizers had intervened was in the mid-1990s, when a Minnesota team entered a sled made from melted plastic milk jugs -- 370 of them. MJ Hummer, as the juggers were known, won the déclassé developmental class in 1996. The next year a boatbuilder from upstate arrived in Camden lugging a black fiberglass monstrosity with a Kevlar bottom. "That thing looked like a spaceship," Dickey recalls. "It tore the hell out of the track." The developmental class was scuttled. All sleds must be made of wood now.
Dickey is still a little peeved that Camdenites settled for calling their race the nationals. "I've always wanted to call it the Universal Toboggan Championships," he says. "Until the Martians come down and argue, we're it."
Issue date: February 2, 2004