Slide Show Maine gets wild and woolly each winter for the national TOBOGGAN championships

February 02, 2004

I'm trying to be totally frank," says Derek Pierce. He's
succeeding. A half-dozen knockwursts are strung around his neck,
and a papier-mache red hot, about the size of a dachshund, is
sausaged into a pocket of his parka. "Every dog has its day, and
this is mine," says Pierce, a 37-year-old school principal,
waving a wiener that serves as a sword, a wand or a scepter,
depending on the point he's making. ¶ 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 upwards 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 declasse 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."

This is the 28th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Michigan

TEN COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON MIND-BOGGANIN' Mainers of all shapes and sizes come costumed to Camden to take part in the nationals, the only--and thus by default biggest--event of its kind. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON GREASED LIGHTNING Using lubricants ranging from Crisco to raccoon fat, competitors at the nationals can reach speeds upward of 45 mph on Snow Bowl's 400-foot chute.

"We wanted to do something that nobody could possibly take
seriously," says Dickey. "One of the world's stupidest ideas took
on a life of its own."

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
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