CAMDEN, Maine — The first time Mary Bumiller participated in the U.S. National Toboggan Championships in Camden, one of her first thoughts after flying down the 440-foot-long ice chute was that she was never going to do it again.
“It’s really scary,” Bumiller said.
But this year she’s going back on her promise to herself, participating in the championships as a member of an all-female toboggan team called the Funkadelic Flamingo Flyers — a team that is preparing to win.
The women have roped in coach David Dickie, who helped build the ice chute in 1990, as they prepare for the event, which kicks off Friday in Camden and will run through Sunday. The team has secured a championship-winning toboggan to ride, has been practicing a regimen of core-strengthening exercises, and is working on team building through a signature cocktail and pink costumes to match.
Bumiller will team up with Maile Buker of Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Tammie Ahmadieh of Camden.
Getting down the chute only takes a matter of seconds, usually around nine or 10. But the women of the Funkadelic Flamingo Flyers are picking up on what makes the sledding event so endearing to those who make it an annual tradition.
Sure, it’s the nine seconds of thrills and a shot at sledding victory, but it’s also about friendship, tradition and, of course, fun.
“I am so looking forward to this. I am an adrenaline junkie at heart, and I’m doing this with my flamingo flock. With the equipment and gear that we have, why not?” Buker said. “My only disappointment is that it’s going to go so fast, and it will be over before we know it.”
‘A wild ride’
For the past 29 years, the U.S. National Toboggan Championships has drawn thousands of people, both racers and spectators, to the Camden Snow Bowl annually for one weekend in February.
The championships, colloquially called the Toboggan Nationals, can feature a maximum of 425 teams. While it’s been a number of years since registrations have hit that number, organizer Holly Edwards said they are close this year with about 400 teams.
Teams of two, three and four people drop into the ice-covered chute from partway up Ragged Mountain, traveling at roughly 40 miles per hour down the chute, before being spit out onto a frozen Hosmer Pond. This is all done on traditional wooden toboggans, which are made by the teams themselves, borrowed or purchased.
The races start on Saturday, with all teams making a qualifying run. Teams that advance to the finals race again on Sunday, competing for the first spot — and a solid mahogany trophy — in a number of categories.
So what compels a person to fly down a chute with nothing between them and ice but thin planks of wood?
Edwards suggests that you watch some of the races and see if you’re not compelled to sign up next year.
“Being a spectator at the Toboggan Nationals is the gateway to being a racer,” Edwards said. “We have so many many people who come to watch and they flip the next year.”
Each year, Edwards said a lot of the teams that participate are returning teams, whether they’re there to win or just for the fun of “Tobogganville” — a tailgating-esque environment but on ice and snow with costumes and sleds.
But there are a number of teams every year who are going down the chute for the first time. Camden resident Ewie Greet, a member of the team Weekend at Ewie’s, has been participating as a racer in the Toboggan Nationals for about 20 years. He tells tobogganing newcomers that once you get over the initial anxiety, the rest is all a blur.
“There’s the anxiety of getting on the sled and getting ready to go if you’ve never done it before. But once that thing goes down, you’re screaming and nine seconds later, you’re done, whooping and hollering,” Greet said. “It’s a wild ride.”
What it takes to win
A number of factors must fall into place to travel the 440 feet faster than anyone else.
“Anybody can win if they do it right, which is just a few simple things. But everybody does it different,” Dickie said.
Weather is the first key ingredient, Edwards said. Colder temperatures mean a more frozen surface in the chute, which allows the sled to glide faster instead of getting bogged down on slush.
Positioning in the sled also plays a big role. Dickie said typically the heaviest teammate perches in the front of the sled to drive it down the chute. Behind the first person you want to make sure that each person stays firmly inside of the sled. Any movement of the arms or feet could cause the sled to hit the sides of the chute, slowing down the team.
After weather and positioning, enthusiasm becomes the X factor.
“This race has gone from a Monty Python silly race, to 25 percent to 35 percent of the people being there to win,” Dickie said.
Sled style and preparation vary greatly. Each sled must weigh less than 50 pounds and not stretch more than 12 feet long.
Folks without a toboggan looking to participate can borrow one of the Snow Bowl’s toboggans. But for many seasoned toboggan racers, sled preparation is where things can get intense.
Larry Thomas on the Lincolnville team called Slab City Sliders made both of the sleds his teams use. Thomas made the sleds in 1993, the year after he raced for the first time. While some teams make new sleds every few years, Thomas believes his sleds have suited him just fine with the annual upkeep of sanding and waxing.
The wax racers use on the bottom of their sleds is the secret weapon in this event, though it is hard to know if you have a winning wax solution until you place.
“We won the four-man two years in a row in ‘96 and ‘97, and all we used was Turtle Wax car wax. But that doesn’t seem to work anymore,” Thomas said. “You just never really know. If you’re doing bad, just try something different.”
For Greet, sled preparation begins Jan. 1. While he didn’t make his sleds, the devotion he pours into getting them race ready every year is a craft. Each sled receives a fresh coat of polyurethane to “get them all nice and shiny.”
Then comes the extreme sanding. Greet uses four different sandpaper grits to get the bottom of the sleds as smooth as possible. Once that is achieved, rubbing and polishing compounds go on, and wax can be applied.
On race day,“You kind of show [your sleds] off a bit,” Greet said. “You get your rack and put them up there. You don’t win any money, so it’s just more of a pride thing. You’re just trying to beat your friends really.”
Mind over mountain
Mental preparation is also a big part of race day.
For the Funkadelic Flamingo Flyers, that means a mix of fashion and ferocity. Decked out in bright pink snowsuits, the team is hoping that channeling their feathered mascot will lead them to victory.
“The idea of flock power is what is bringing us together around this common goal of screaming down this chute at 40 miles per hour and spitballing across a frozen pond. But we’re doing it with flair, and we’re doing it with style,” Buker said. “The thing about the flamingo is that you can never underestimate them.”