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No time for coasting in this annual Snow Bowl contest

Email|Print| Text size + By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

CAMDEN, Maine -- If, as Andy Warhol predicted a generation ago, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, the competitors in next weekend's annual National Toboggan Championships will earn their accolades nine seconds at a time.

But tobogganers are familiar with the fleeting nature of fame, and with the unusual course over which they will try to make their mark -- the tiny Camden Snow Bowl, a vest-pocket Alpine ski area on Maine's mid-coast, a region better known for ocean views than for snowy slopes.

There are no high-speed quads, no high-tech equipment, no fancy base lodge. The Snow Bowl is a living-history experience, a throwback to a time when community ski areas dotted the New England landscape. Back then, no hill was considered too small for a tow, no slope too gentle to schuss.

About a dozen nautically named slopes and trails, such as Spinnaker, Windjammer, and Clipper, ebb and flow down the Snow Bowl's 850-foot vertical drop on the side of Ragged Mountain.

Breaks in the trees offer glimpses of skaters on Hosmer Pond, at the mountain's base, and beyond to island-specked Penobscot Bay. Occasionally, a brine-scented breeze flits across the slopes. Sometimes, fog swirls in and around the ancient T-bar, pokey double chair, and tiny A-frame lodge, where a job posting for harbor master might share the bulletin board with hand-scrawled ads for used skis.

The toboggan chute dates from 1936, when the Camden Outing Club established the ski area. The chute has been rebuilt twice, most recently in the late 1980s, an undertaking led by Jack Williams, an avid skier and Camden native.

"There are still some remains of the old track, but I got the plans and rebuilt it using much of the original, but this time with pressure-treated wood," Williams said at last year's event. "It cost about $8,000 and took 60 volunteers working over 12 weeks."

Volunteers are crucial to the survival of the town-owned ski area, which has "an uneasy truce" with local taxpayers. In theory, it's self-supporting; in reality, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Fund-raising is a perennial concern, and in the early 1990s, then-area manager Ken Bailey suggested a toboggan race as a way to ease the local tax burden.

Williams wasn't sold on the idea. "I said, that's crazy, it's only a nine-second track, " he recalled. Much to his surprise, the event caught on.

In 2006, more than 400 teams participated , raising about $36,000 toward the area's annual operating budget of $463,000.

Although teams have come from as far away as Australia to compete for ultimate water-cooler bragging rights, most participants are local and come for the camaraderie, fun, and perhaps name recognition that comes with a big event in a small town.

As many as 2,000 spectators -- a few in costume, many with kids or dogs in tow -- line the course, ringing cowbells, waving flags, and cheering as the public address announcer calls the action.

Some toboggan teams boast attention-grabbing names like the Throbbin' Boggins, Big Kahoonas, Frozen Assets, and Green Eyes and Ham. A few take the championships very seriously, devising strategies to give them the edge in races that often come down to thousandths of a second. Some go so far as to design special sleds, concoct secret waxes, and practice unusual aerodynamic techniques.

"Sled design, finish, and weight are all important," said Rich Beauchesne, of Camden's Hogs & Heifers team. So important that Beauchesne spent a year in Switzerland researching them.

The key factor is weight. Team training officially begins on Thanksgiving and ends after the final run, which allows the Hogs & Heifers to pig out at the Saturday night Chili and Chowder Challenge. The training has paid off over the years: "The only awards we haven't won are team spirit and costume," Beauchesne said.

"It's all conditions," said Art Dinsmore, of the Ash Pounders. "We've tried tons of waxes over the years. We have our own special blend." The team also has a couple of innovative sleds built with fewer slats, which, in theory, should reduce friction and result in faster times. "We have six sleds," he said. "We use the older ones for qualifications, the good ones for finals."

Big Kahoonas founding member Ed Greenrose believes one key to success is "getting in sync at the start." One year, the team even practiced starts in his West Rockport living room. "If everyone was in sync, we could slide across the carpet five feet," he said. That really paid off in 2005, when the local team swept all events, including the world championship .

While veteran teams strive to shave off a thousandth of a second, new competitors are more concerned with simply descending the chute in one piece.

Last year, Mike Hannaford of Andover admitted he was nervous as he waited for the starter to drop the sled into the chute. Screams rooted equally in fear and excitement punctuate many a first-timer's run. "Great mother of God!" screamed a Virginia woman, as her sled dropped into the steep track and quickly picked up speed.

And that was in a slow-snow year.

Camden's coastal weather is often a crapshoot. Last year's above-freezing temperatures meant more slush than ice in the chute, and its run off onto Hosmer Pond, although deemed safe by race officials, was so soggy that the all-male East German Women's Team wore life jackets.

This year, the Snow Bowl is open, Hosmer Pond is frozen, and the toboggan chute will be ready for those in search of a few seconds of fame.

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