The thrill of the hill

A portrait of the toboggan racers
By Louis Bettcher | Feb 13, 2018
Photo by: Louis Bettcher Teams "Spudrunner" and "Deedles Screeching Eagles" members from left: Christine Whitemore, Jay McCrum, Isabelle Wright, Dana McCrum, Bob Birmingham, Darrell McCrum, Collin McCrum, Fred Whited, Rachel Whited, Ava Whited, Ethan Birmingham

Camden — For the 28th year the Camden Snow Bowl hosted the U.S. National Toboggan Championships, sending teams of sledders down the ice-covered wooden chute on Ragged Mountain onto the frozen surface of Hosmer Pond. The event drew thousands from all over the state, New England and even other countries.

Dressed in colorful costumes, or racing to benefit a cause, teams waited their turn to descend the chute, hoping to fulfill their need for speed and earn a wooden trophy topped with a miniature toboggan. For team "Spudrunners,” composed of family members from Aroostook County and Durham, what began as a casual winter outing has become a serious annual tradition.

Fred Whited, who leads the team, is a sixth generation potato farmer from Aroostook County. The potatoes that he and his family members farm are used to produce potato chips for companies such as Humpty Dumpty and Utz. Whited first heard of the Toboggan Championships 10 years ago on a trip to visit his in-laws in Northport, and when considering a team name, Spudrunners seemed appropriate -- marrying the product of their livelihood with the downhill event.

"We couldn't think of a cooler name. Our first year, the race was just something to do for fun, and we placed 39th in the four-man competition. But after that, we extended our team to include more family members, and we built our first sled," said Whited on Feb. 10. Since then the Spudrunners have built at least seven toboggans, assembled from Ash wood.

Whited said that a lot of “trial and error” was involved in building the team's first sled, but now he and his comrades can build a toboggan in as little as 20 hours. In the weeks leading up to the championships, members of Spudrunners met for one night each week, waxing and preparing the sleds for their trip to Camden.

On Saturday, the group was found in parking spaces at the base of the mountain, which they reserve in advance each year: one for a tent where they worked on their sleds for the races, and another for a heated trailer -- a purchase made by the family to let children and adults not competing in the races stay warm and comfortable. Outside the trailer, all seven sleds are displayed proudly on a rack.

"If we didn't have the trailer, a lot of them probably wouldn't come," said Whited with a laugh as one after another, family members including small children filed out to observe the races.

Now in college, Whited's nieces Dana McCrum and Isabelle Wright were so taken with the toboggan races that they began competing in the championships as freshmen in high school. Over the weekend, the girls represented Husson University on a three-person sled team "Deeles Screeching Eagles," competing against teams from seven other colleges.

"When we first started, a lot of our friends didn't know anything about the toboggan races, and a lot of them thought we were crazy. But now they think it's cool. I was telling a friend of mine about what I'll be doing this weekend and she said, 'you've lived an interesting life!'" said McCrum. "We started by watching our uncle compete over the years, but once you go down the chute for the first time you get an adrenaline rush, and you just want to get faster and faster with your racing."

There is no money at stake for the winners of the races -- simply a wooden trophy. But as Spudrunner's Ethan Wright said, bragging rights are priceless.

"There aren't many things that you can do competitively in your 30s and 40s that are as fun as this, and there are even fewer that you can say you're a national champion in," said Wright.

Town rivalry continues

Over the weekend, teams dressed as dinosaurs and wild animals shared the toboggan chute with local politicians: members of the Camden and Rockport Select Boards competed against each other, with Camden winning the match for the second year in a row, this time by one one-hundredth of a second.

"I don't want to talk about it. By one one-hundredth of a second? The only explanation I can think of is that they cheated," joked Rockport Selectman Owen Casas on Feb. 10. Prior to the Select Boards' race, an empty toboggan was sent down the hill in memory of Jack Williams, who helped build the chute and organized the first competitions in 1991.

On Sunday, temperatures in the Midcoast rose to above freezing, which could have been problematic for event-goers who had assembled on Hosmer Pond, and for racers who relied on the ice-slicked chute to achieve the fastest runs. Nonetheless, the Spudrunners earned trophies for finishing in first place for the four-person competition and second place in the two-person finals. Dana and Isabelle won first place representing Husson University in the college races.

"Even though we were standing in six inches of water for most of the day, we'll be bringing a lot of wooden trophies up north, and it was worth it," said Whited on Feb. 11.

Although some participants take the event more seriously than others, the U.S. National Toboggan Championships offer a chance for anyone to place their faith in gravity, escape from convention, and enjoy, on a larger scale, the thrill of sledding they remember from their childhood.

"For someone who has never gone down the toboggan chute for the first time, it might seem pretty scary when you're up there, waiting for the plank to drop and you go down the hill. But it's worth it as you go down and hear everyone scream for you, so grab some friends, and hold on tight!" said Wright.

From left: Spudrunners' Fred Whited, Zack Grass, Darrell McCrum and Ethan Wright hold a trophy from the U.S. National Toboggan Championships on Feb. 11. (Courtesy of: Fred Whited)
Team "Deedles Screeching Eagles" from left, are Husson University's Dana McCrum, Isabelle Wright and Zack Grass pose with their trophy at the Camden Snow Bowl on Feb. 11. (Courtesy of: Fred Whited)
An event organizer marks a sled dedicated to Jack Williams at the U.S. National Toboggan Championships on Feb. 10. (Photo by: Beth Birmingham)
Attendees gather on Hosmer Pond during the U.S. National Toboggan Championships on Feb. 10. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
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