CAMDEN, Maine — Accompanied by the clank of cowbells, the Saturday afternoon competitors in the 19th annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships at the Snow Bowl giggled and screamed their way down the 400-foot chute of ice.
Some craved glory. Others had a smaller, more heartfelt goal.
“We’re hoping just to make it out alive,” said Carmen Felix of Camden, clad in a nun’s habit and waiting for the four-person toboggan races to start.
“Amen to that, sister!” said Pam Moyer of South Thomaston, who wore a giant cross around her neck.
Both women were on the Holy Smokes team.
“We’re having a great time,” Moyer said.
About 370 toboggan-racing teams from as far away as California — and with names such as Lil’ Deuce Moose and the Beer Coasters — participated in the two-day affair. The races bring thousands of people to the ski mountain and have become an economic engine of the area’s winter economy.
“We thought it would be successful just because it’s weird,” said event founder Ken Bailey, who was announcing the races. “Also, there’s the fact that anybody can become a national champion. All you need is a toboggan and some luck.”
Organizers were feeling confident that new safety and communication measures in place would allow them to avoid a repeat of the 2008 event, when a toboggan collision injured six racers — including one person who had to be taken by LifeFlight helicopter to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“If people get on the toboggans the way they’ve been instructed, there won’t be any problems,” Bailey said.
While riders on the speediest sled of the two-day event are legitimately dubbed the new national champions, silliness seemed even more important than speed in the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the toboggan run.
Alicia McKenney’s eyes looked steely under her chicken hat. When she moved, a cloud of yellow feathers drifted off her costume to settle in the snow around her feet.
“We want to win for the best costume,” McKenney said. “I want one of those trophies bad.”
Her team, Peace Be The Journey, almost never made it up to the Snow Bowl. McKenney said that she had ordered a toboggan from L.L. Bean, but the company sent her a wooden chair in the mail instead. When she called to have the mistake fixed, the Freeport mail-order giant said it was sold out of toboggans until next fall.
But McKenney was undaunted. She posted an all-points bulletin for a toboggan on the Internet classified ad service Craigslist and hit pay dirt when a Warren man responded. He was a die-hard competitor in the U.S. Nationals but was laid low by surgery this year and couldn’t participate. So he decided to lend his handmade toboggan to the chickens from southern Maine.
The team members had never even made a practice run together, but they had the costumes, they had the toboggan and said they were ready.
“We’re virgin chickens — this is the real deal,” McKenney said. “You’ll probably hear us squawking.”
As the races began, Bailey cheerfully kept the onlookers in the loop.
“Do you notice the panicked look on their faces when they’re going by?” he called out over the loudspeaker as one team careened by. “They’re having fun!”
Down on the ice of Hosmer Pond, Anastasia and Brian Kaufman of Cumberland, R.I., were watching as laughing racers came to a halt and untangled themselves from their toboggans. Nearby, some boys played pickup ice hockey, ice fishermen watched for their flags to go up and an amped-up jam band struck up some cool tunes on the ice.
“We stumbled upon this two years ago, and we had so much fun,” Anastasia Kaufman said. “We said we were going to come back.”
Meanwhile, McKenney’s Peace Be The Journey team zipped down the chute in just under nine seconds, leaving yellow feathers in the sled’s wake.
“That’s what you get for letting chickens race,” Bailey quipped, asking bystanders to pluck some of the feathers off the ice.
McKenney said the race itself was “really scary and very intimidating.”
But she’s no chicken.
“Definitely we’ll do it again,” she said.
Her teammate Eben Metivier said that he’s on board, too.
“We’re already planning next year’s costumes,” he said.
And the winners are …
In the two-person toboggan category, Fast Ash Lugers of Fairfield won in a combined time of 18.15 seconds for two runs, Iron Factory was second in 18.18 and Two Wingnuts third in 18.24.
The Smithereens of Holden was the top three-person toboggan with a time of 17.93, Medical Miracles was second in 17.98 and Cracker My Ash third in 18.02.
In the four-person competition, Internal Bleeding also of Holden won with an 18.01 finish, with Weekend Plans in 18.04 and Not All There in 18.06 second and third, respectively.
The fastest all-woman team was Root Controller in 18.11, and the fastest kids team was 4 Neighborhood Kids in 18.17.
Lawrence High School’s Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum were the top high school team in 18.45, while University of Southern Maine representative Half-a Ton of Fun was the fastest college team in 18.47.
The award for oldest team went to the Readin Rockets with an average age of 69.
Wonder Sled won the best-costume award.
BDN writer Jessica Bloch contributed to this report.