It doesn’t look that steep at first.

It’s not until the chute operator lifts the safety bar and the nose of your sled begins to tip forward on its elevated platform that you get a momentary glimpse of the impending, iced-up decline down the mountain.

But by then, you’re tucked into the front end of a wooden toboggan, another rider’s snow boots in your lap and his legs like a trap around your waist, both of you caught in that slow-motion second before stationary turns into slingshot.

If you were like me, you might futilely pull up on the toboggan rope that you’ve been instructed to hold onto, as though you were whoa-ing a horse. But this horse doesn’t whoa.

Instead, the toboggan plunges downward, rattling wildly in the wooden track. Instinctively, a loud “woo-hoo” streams out, the sound vibrating through your chest before it’s whipped away by the force of the wind. The rush of frigid air forces you to squint and blithely plucks your winter hat from your head, tossing it to the trees as the toboggan speeds to 35 mph.

Straight ahead, the chute stretches out like a slender one-way road to a frozen pond and (hopefully) a safe landing. At your periphery, a blur of brown trees is contrasted by white snow and a scatter of color from the winter coats of nearby spectators.

In a blink, the toboggan levels out, diving headlong toward the white expanse of frozen water. A dusting of snow explodes over the sled, pelting your exposed face with a hundred tiny stings.

The chute track ends, loosing the toboggan onto the pond’s snow-covered surface, where it fights its way forward, churning up a cloud of snow until it comes to a stop in shin-deep snow nearly a quarter-mile from where it started — with you on top, reclined back into your cohort’s lap, stunned and grinning.

You’ve just conquered the chute at the U.S. National Toboggan Championships.

Now in its 21st year, the annual sled-centric competition lures more than 400 teams and their toboggans to the Camden Snow Bowl’s 400-foot-long toboggan chute for a weekend of races and revelry.

Teams coordinate intricate costumes using permanent markers, pillow stuffing and underpants. They name their teams things like “Phat Ash,” “Internal Bleeding,” “Slednecks” and “Chute Me.” And they take the championships very seriously.

Many have their own tricks for gaining speed, like greasy concoctions smeared on the toboggan’s undercarriage. Some teams purposely tip their sled over on the ice to spare the toboggan’s bottom, but good luck getting any of them to share what “secret sauce” is on it. Competitive tobogganers tend to be tight-lipped.

The grounds nearby are aptly known as “Tobogganville” during the championships and, in addition to the races, the weekend offers a flurry of activity, including bonfires, a snow sculpture contest, a fireworks display, music, a chili challenge and skiing, snowboarding and tubing on the Snow Bowl slopes.

Food vendors abound, as do groups of bundled tailgaters huddled around coolers and grills and toboggans taking naps in the sharp winter sun.

The championships have gotten quite popular since 1990, when the event was launched as a fundraiser for the Snow Bowl, and contenders have been known to come from several states or countries away.

This year, the two-, three- and four-person race registrations have already filled up, but there are still spots available in the new experimental division, which is geared toward racers with toboggans that don’t meet the traditional race requirements (i.e., toboggans that are more than 50 pounds, shorter than 6 feet or longer than 12, composed of a substance other than wood, etc.).

And on Friday, the chute is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., giving racers a chance to practice and nonracers a chance to live the toboggan chute dream, for a $5 fee. Throughout the day, visitors can enjoy a fire and grub, as well as a cash bar in the Tobogganville welcome tent.

Saturday starts early with registration and toboggan inspection from 7 to 11 a.m., and the first runs for two- and three-person teams start at 8 a.m. The Snow Bowl opens for skiing, boarding and tubing at 9 a.m., and there’s also a chili challenge at 11 a.m. in the welcome tent and fireworks over Camden Harbor at 5:30 p.m.

The races run virtually nonstop throughout the day, so competitors and onlookers can sidle up to the chute to watch a fast-moving parade of toboggans whiz past, the riders sometimes silent, sometimes screaming.

On Sunday, the runs resume at 9 a.m., with the finals at noon, and awards are given out at the 3 p.m. ceremony.

It’s an entertaining environment, even for those who aren’t competing. Free shuttles run every 20 minutes from downtown Camden, and there’s free parking in a few downtown lots, making getting to and from the Snow Bowl a breeze despite the crowds.

But should you have the chance to take a toboggan down the chute, remember to keep your arms in, lean back for aerodynamics, tuck your loose-fitting hat into a pocket and, for the love of the chute, don’t tell anyone what you put on the toboggan’s bottom.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

[email protected]

Follow her on Twitter at:

twitter.com/mainetoday