CAMDEN, Maine ― In the three decades since the U.S. Toboggan National Championships began at a town-owned ski mountain in Camden, nothing — not even a blizzard or poor ice conditions — had ever forced the event to be outright canceled.
But last year, the COVID-19 pandemic left organizers with no other choice but to cancel the only organized wooden toboggan race in the U.S for the first time ever.
This weekend, the beloved winter event is returning for its 31st event. The event typically draws thousands of people ― both racers and spectators ― to the Camden Snow Bowl for the second weekend in February and given the relatively warm temperatures slated for Friday and Saturday, organizers expect a large turnout.
Masks will be required while people are inside Snow Bowl facilities, though the bulk of the festivities take place outside, where Camden Snow Bowl Assistant Manager Holly Anderson said people should use common sense when it comes to taking precautions. The event has always required teams to pre-register, but to cut down on the number of people needing to go indoors, an online submission system was implemented this year for participants to sign required waivers before racing.
Race registration filled up about two weeks earlier than normal this year, Anderson said, with 400 teams signing up to fly down the 440-foot-long chute on traditional wooden toboggans. Teams of two, three and four will compete to see who can make it down the chute and onto the frozen pond at its base the fastest.
The popularity of the event ― which draws racers from across Maine, the country and in some instances the globe ― can be attributed to its accessibility, Anderson said, in that it’s something anybody can do with just a little bit of courage.
“It really brings back that childhood sense of adventure and exhilaration when we would all go sledding, whether it was on saucers or wooden toboggans,” Anderson said.
In Camden there’s a sense of excitement around the return of the signature event, according to town officials. Every winter the championships present an opportunity for both locals and visitors to make the most out of what a Maine winter has to offer.
“There is an interest in getting out, doing something different and fun and seeing others from town and out of town, also,” Camden Select Board Chair Bob Falciani said. “It’s more than the toboggan race itself, it’s more of a town gathering kind of a function. It’s for people to get out in the winter months and do something other than skiing, skating or shoveling snow.”
While the relatively warm winter temperatures forecasted for Friday and Saturday will be welcomed by spectators, Anderson said it’s going to make for slower trips down the chute.
Ideally, the chute would be full with an even layer of ice for championship weekend, but the recent rain has melted the majority of it, so snow will be packed into the chute instead. Ice and colder temperatures result in faster run times for competitors, but given that the races have been able to return this year, Anderson doesn’t think too many people will mind.
“They’re not going to give a hoot about it. They’re here for the party, they’re here for the camaraderie, they’re here to get together with their friends and have a good time,” Anderson said.
With the 30th U.S. Toboggan National Championships being held in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic prompted closures and cancellations, organizers are glad 2021 is the only year that will go without a championship event and are eager to welcome back racers and spectators to the Camden Snow Bowl.
“It’s nice to be able to say that … we only lost one year because of a pandemic,” Anderson said.