Last weekend the 2018 U.S. National Toboggan Championships were held at the Camden Snow Bowl. The competition, touted by Wikipedia as “the only organized wooden toboggan race in the country and possibly the world,” is no match for the Olympic Games, but for 28 years the event has been providing spectators and participants from St. George and elsewhere in the midcoast with plenty of entertainment (check out the costumes) and excitement (everybody goes down the same 400’-long wooden chute, sometimes as fast as 40mph, ending on frozen Hosmer Pond).
In a way, the toboggan competition marks the climax of the “winter games” here in midcoast Maine and St. George. The town’s ski club program, which makes available discounted lift tickets on winter Thursday afternoons/evenings at the Snow Bowl, ends this week. And the outdoor skating rink at the St. George School will soon be dismantled and stowed away. Next week’s February school break vacation will see folks grabbing their snowshoes and heading to Georges River Land Trust trailheads, ice fishing on nearby ponds and lakes or traveling to ski slopes in the western mountains or camps further north for final outdoor adventures. And unless there is still a lot more snow in the town’s future, Ben Vail, the Parks and Recreation Department director, may soon be bringing to an end his practice of donning his snowshoes after a snowstorm and breaking the nature trail at the school for public use.
But there is another side to the mostly unorganized, snow-and-cold dependent “winter games” that occupy people here in St. George and the midcoast. “Fall and spring the town makes sure the fields are in shape for school use, but in the winter the school becomes the town’s defacto recreation center,” Recreation Director Vail points out. And while St. George adults enjoy evening pick-up volleyball, pickleball and basketball games, youth basketball is the premier wintertime activity at the school’s gym.
Saturday mornings starting at 7:30am there are basketball clinics for K-2 kids followed by games for older teams. Weekday afternoons there are practices for girls and boys teams (grades 5-6 and 3-4) with final round robin play with other area schools. And then, March 16-18, St. George will host the annual Mussel Ridge Basketball Tournament for grades 3-4 boys and girls teams from surrounding towns.
“The Mussel Ridge event is very big,” Vail acknowledges, noting that it is the Recreation Booster’s (the extra-budgetary arm of the Parks and Recreation Committee) major fundraiser—this year the group is hoping to raise enough funds to repair the merry-go-round and install a replica of a lobster boat for kids to play on at Collins Park in Port Clyde. What makes the St. George School the perfect venue for such a tournament is that the gym is sized for elementary-age girls and boys. A wide range of community members come out to both work and enjoy the tournament.
The entertainment value of both youth and high-school basketball cannot be underestimated, Vail points out.
“Here in Maine basketball is a very big winter sport,” Vail stresses. “In the smaller communities, especially, when the school teams are playing, it’s a big source of entertainment.”
Vail himself, he admits, is a big high-school basketball fan. He spends most February vacation weeks attending tournament games in Augusta and sometimes Portland. “I saw 33 games last year,” he says with a grin. “For generations people from all those communities in northern Maine—Fort Kent to Calais and everywhere in between—would come to see their teams play in Bangor. They would get hotel rooms and spend the whole week there watching games. The Bangor Auditorium used to be called the ‘Mecca.’”
In this regard, the fact that offering opportunities to travel to sports games has also proven to be a popular St. George Parks and Recreation Department program comes as no surprise. Most recently, on Sunday, January 28, a bus full of St. George friends and families took in a Maine Red Claws game—the Red Claws are a professional minor league basketball team affiliated with the Boston Celtics—at their home court in Portland. Vail credits Raymie Upham, a former Parks and Recreation Committee member, with the idea of sponsoring these trips.
“The town trips were an idea I got when I was young,” Upham says. “My father use to take me on chartered Red Sox trips sponsored by the Rockland Elks. About five years ago the Thomaston Recreation Department did some Celtics trips and I thought it was time for the St. George Recreation Department to start one of our own. We have done anything from Celtics to Sea Dogs and even college football games down to Bowdoin College. It’s a good way to bring the community together and it’s a blast for the kids.”
Ann Hoppe, a current Recreation Committee member, adds, “The idea behind the bus trips was so that families would have an inexpensive way to get to these events with transportation included. In the case of the Red Claws trip, $25 a person covered a coach bus ride to Portland, including the price of the ticket. And it’s a nice family affair. It’s fun. The kids get to sit together and chit chat and the parents have time to visit together as well. And it’s just relaxing. We heard so many parents say, ‘Oh, it was so nice not to have to drive down there, but to sit back and relax and not have to worry about finding a place to park.’”
As for the game itself, Hoppe adds, the big thing was what makes all these winter games so important: “There was just lots and lots of spirit.” —JW
PHOTOS: Top, Carol Arness; middle, Julie Wortman