Outside magazine, December 1996
Even though my arenas of expertise are canted toward tropical places, I was not surprised to receive a call last winter asking me to add the weight of my outdoor experience to an entry in the U.S. National Toboggan Championships in Camden, Maine. "I'm trying to put together a crack downhill team," someone named Craig Popelars told me. "Every year, a bunch of old college buddies and I get together and do something unusual. You know, travel someplace, try something we've never tried. It's like a reunion. But we're taking this toboggan race seriously."
I was suspicious. A national championship that was open to any wandering ninny who could afford a sled?
"It sounds almost too good to be true, huh?" said Popelars, a North Carolina publishing-house marketer and sportsman. "Our group has already entered two men's teams and one women's team. And as it turns out, we just may have an open spot on the roster."
Although Popelars was coy with me at first, his motive for calling gradually became apparent. As I listened carefully, I realized that he was counting on my well-known leadership skills to guide him and his cronies over the competitive hump.
"That too," he said quickly, "but I didn't mean the weight of your experience. I just meant your weight. As in, how much do you weigh?"
When I told him, he said, "Boy oh boy, that spot is yours if you want it."
Frankly, the guy impressed me. To have one's athletic ability accessed instantly and accurately over the phone is a rare thing indeed.
I tried to picture it: Rent a fast car in Bangor and practice emergency tactical turns on the black ice of Maine's interstate highways. Wear one of those natty red bibs while feasting on restaurant lobster. Climb aboard a toboggan and rocket down an impossibly steep mountain chute in weather so dangerously cold that prudent locals have to employ the buddy system just to fetch the mail.
I imagined a kind of Big Chill interplay: Popelars and his friends, a mix of men and women thrown together in a cozy chéteau, their emotions fueled by terrifying sled runs, windchill, past hurts and histories, and lots of vacation beverages.
I made a delicate inquiry about the beverage arrangements. "That's the best thing about the whole trip to Camden," Popelars replied. "We've got a fantastic sponsor: Red Ass Ale. It's a brewery out of Colorado. They're providing us with sleds, T-shirts, hats, and more beer than we could ever possibly drink."
"Whatever they're sending," I told Popelars, "just tell them to double it."
I was going to Camden.
Camden's great toboggan race was started in 1991 with the same tongue-in-cheek spirit that inspired its somewhat redundant name: the U.S. National. "That's just the name we came up with," Ken Bailey, one of the founders, told me. "It was kind of a lark."
In '91, Bailey was Camden's director of parks and recreation. Now he's sports and outdoor editor of the Camden Herald. Our meeting was serendipitous. Numbed by the 80-degree temperature drop from Florida to Maine, I had wandered into the Herald office because it looked warm and the door wasn't locked. A Laundromat would have served, but karma had different plans. The kindly Herald staff allowed me to defrost while I listened to Bailey reminisce.
"The way it got started," he said, "a local fellow, Jack Williams, decided we ought to fix up the city's old toboggan chute. We got the whole thing organized. Once it was back on line, we decided to put on a race for the locals. It was just something to do. But we started checking around and realized that with the exception of a few Olympic-type chutes, we've got the only real toboggan run in the country. So whoever won would be national champion, right? We came up with the impressive name, and everyone thought it would be a fun little event."
The first year, locals set a happy precedent by wearing bizarre costumes and treating the one-day race like some outrë family picnic. In February, in Maine, even a bad reason to celebrate is good enough. Not a single person froze, hardly anyone was arrested, and word of the event spread quickly to bordering snowbelt states and other sufferers of cabin fever.
After that, the U.S. National Toboggan Championships didn't grow--it exploded. Competitors flew in, their boards checked like baggage, or they journeyed cross-country in Winnebagos specially decorated with team colors. Their custom-built toboggans were coated with their own special bottom waxes--secret formulas, each and every one.
It was craziness, and everyone involved knew it. Which may be why it seemed so reasonable to start taking the race seriously.
As the race's cochair Sue Chase observed in the presence of a local reporter, "Take a bunch of grown adults, put them all together on a basic item, and they'll immediately discover a way to cheat."
Well ... maybe not cheat, but competitors did, and still do, try to gain every small advantage possible. The toboggan was invented nearly 5,000 years ago by American Indians, and its greatest attribute--its simplicity--has always provided, for racers, an age-old challenge: How does one make a very simple, runnerless sled move faster than a bunch of other very simple, runnerless sleds? These are not the Cresta or luge sleds that are used in the Olympics. These are your basic wood-on-wood toboggans, six to nine feet long, 18 inches wide, with rope railings.
The organizers had to invent a number of different classes of competition. They also had to cap the number of entries at 200 and spread the races out over two days. They added a high-tech electronic timing system and included sideshow activities such as dogsled rides, snow-tubing, and the Chili & Chowder Challenge.
It was just before the Chili & Chowder Challenge (great chowder, terrible chili) that I joined Craig Popelars and the proud members of Team Red Ass for our first formal meeting. There were 12 of us, eight men and four women, all close friends except for me.
"This team has only two rules," Popelars told us. He was standing beside the fire at the lodge where we were staying; all of us were wearing our official team hats. "A lot of us," he said, "are from the South, so it's important to remind you: Do not leave cases of beer outside, because they will freeze. And then they will explode."
By putting the safety of his teammates first, Popelars was already winning my respect. I liked his friends, too, all professional people who had come from a variety of states. I liked the way they pretended to ignore their team captain even though they actually hung on his every word.
And Rule Number Two? "Eat lots and lots of food," Popelars told us. "None of that healthy crap, either. What we want is fat, all we can get. The more weight we can put on those sleds, the faster we'll go. Last year, there was a team called the Big Kahoonas that won this thing, and the rumor is that they trained on nothing but kielbasas and cheese dip. If you have any doubts about nutrition, just eat what Randy eats."
Yes, already my leadership skills were binding us as a unit.
I was further heartened when Popelars added, "Remember, people, we didn't come all the way here to Camden to have fun. We came here to win."
Yet it was impossible not to have fun with these people as my teammates. Their reunion spirit proved to be contagious. If they harbored any deep hurts and dark histories, they were far too busy dancing at local nightspots or "dry-practicing" toboggan starts to share them. For hours, we would sit by the crackling fire, four on a toboggan, experimenting with the most effective methods of linking legs over the shoulders of the next sledder.
Another reason it was impossible not to have fun was Camden itself. Surrounded by blue mountains and clustered in a lovely basin where the Megunticook River meets the Atlantic, this old stronghold of dory fishermen is one of the prettiest towns in America.
I arrived on a Thursday for the weekend event and spent my free day viewing the postcard scenery and chatting with the locals. I didn't detect a hint of the hardheaded Yankee coldness for which the region is widely--and wrongly--known.
On the other hand, the weather provided all the coldness anyone could ever want. The temperature perpetually hovered around zero. The simple process of breathing produced an unpleasant crackling sound far up in the nasal passages, the sound of hundreds of mini-icicles thawing and refreezing and then thawing again.
Not that the locals seemed affected. Unlike the snowbelt citizenry of the Midwest, the people of Maine never brag about windchill factor. They don't seem to pay much attention. It's really, really, really cold. They're well aware of the problem. But since they can't do anything about it, they'd rather not waste the words.
When I informed a wizened gas station attendant that I, a Floridian, was a member of one of the many toboggan teams in town, he studied the scudding clouds in the gray sky, the falling snow, and then calmly suggested, "Might ought to wear some gloves. It can get cold up there on the mountain."
For the qualifying runs at the Camden Snow Bowl on Saturday morning, I wore nearly every piece of clothing I own--including gloves--yet was nearly anesthetized with cold before I'd finished the long walk past the ski slopes to the toboggan chute. "Just try to think of something warm," suggested Steve Hallman, one of Popelars's buddies from North Carolina. "Anything." Instead, I chose to concentrate on the wintry Mardi Gras scene that was swirling around me: hundreds of people roaming the snowfield, carrying toboggans, polishing toboggans, waiting in a line that threaded its way up the mountain. Many of the competitors were dressed in odd costumes that illustrated the names of their teams: Gilbert's Gimlets (gigantic, furry-green limes), the Hurdling Curds (milk cows with surgical-glove udders), Bobbitt's Blade (don't ask), Bad Habits (nuns), Sister Act (ditto--nuns everywhere), Kevorkian's Alternative (lots of IV tubes were involved), the Beefy Boys, the Beefy Girls, the Fat Bloated Idiots.
"We should have thought of that," Hallman said. "Wearing costumes."
I considered the name of the beer company sponsoring us. "I've been wearing mine," I said, "since the moment I got out of the car."
Popelars had divided the guys into two four-man teams. Chosen for our athleticism and our superior performance at Friday night's practice trials, Hallman, myself, and Joe Bowbliss and Pete Macaluso, both of New Jersey, referred to ourselves as the A-Team.
Popelars, however, was less delicate. "The fat guys take one sled," he told us. "Normal people use the other."
My concerns about frostbite faded as we neared the loading station of the toboggan chute--an apparatus that, to a novice, looks like a rickety hog trough pointed straight toward hell. To qualify for Sunday's finals, we would have to have a very good run. Our pride was on the line, because earlier we had fallen into an unfortunate shouting match with members of Gilbert's Gimlets and made exceedingly rash promises: "See you in the finals!"
Now it was time to produce.
At the starter's call, "Load up!" I squeezed my boots under the curled prow of the toboggan and sat hunched there while my three teammates laced their legs over me and under me--an awkward position that leaves one feeling responsible for body parts that he doesn't own and vulnerable in body parts that he does.
The fact that I was at the front of the sled was not comforting. Sure, no toboggan in the history of the U.S. National has ever gone careening out of the chute and hit a tree or a car or a nun, but that didn't mean it couldn't happen. And who would absorb most of that horrible impact?
But I had come prepared to survive any catastrophe. "You got your catcher's mask on?" Macaluso asked from somewhere behind me. Damn right I did. A Wilson pro model with steel bars, a nice red one that I trusted more than any air bag designed in Detroit.
As bowman of the sled, I also served as the de facto captain. I nodded to the starter. The four of us leaned forward, leaned back, lunged forward again. Slowly, we started to tip ... Then we dropped from the trapdoor and hurtled through arctic air, as tree limbs and clouds blurred past. The wooden walls of the chute kept grabbing at loose elbows and knees, and the wind screamed in our ears.
We could hear the crowds howling encouragement as we flew across the electronic finish line and clunked down off the track. We slid freely across a long sheet of ice, slowed by occasional patches of snow. We began to weave and fishtail and then finally tumbled off our sled.
The four of us were immediately on our feet, listening for our time over the public address system: 9.42 seconds. Not great, but it was good enough to get us into the finals--the only Team Red Ass toboggan to make the cut.
The next day we would be humiliated by toboggan pros such as Slab City and the Beefy Boys. The final round, I learned, was no place for an amateur from Florida. Represented were the cream of the tobogganing crop, all downhill aficionados who took their body weight as seriously as they took their sleds.
It was an interesting thing to watch, these huge people wolfing footlong hot dogs, guarding their delicate toboggans as they waited in line, often pausing to inspect the glass-slick bottoms of their sleds. It was their sport. They worked very hard at it and kept their own counsel when it came to secrets of diet or sled design.
Which is why the best times turned in that day were a full second faster than ours--an incremental improvement that may not sound like much, but in fact represents a major shaving off the tobogganer's clock.
It didn't matter much to us. That night, we sat around the fire sipping the official team beverage while Bowbliss played the guitar and Macaluso read his poetry. I watched as the women combed and braided one another's hair. I watched as their men stared at them with affection.
I watched them all, one by one, wait patiently to present their own version of an old story, and I listened to a lot of laughter. The only chill I felt, big or otherwise, was when someone opened the door to rescue more refreshments. Leave beer outside in Maine, you know, and it'll explode.