Up The Road: Longboard Skiing

Feb 1, 2017

Right about now you might be wondering when winter will end. Maybe you miss the sun, and want to miss the cold. Not to mention all this rain-the very same rain we've all been praying for, in desperation, for years. Californians, so fickle. Time to buck up, buckaroos, and embrace winter-all of it-cold, wet feet and all. Get out there and enjoy yourself. In that great Western tradition, go find some adventure. Here's one you won't find anywhere else-the annual World Championship Longboard Ski Races held at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl above Johnsville in Plumas County.

Picture it: Contestants, both male and female, young and not-so-young, decked out in 19th-century winter attire, strap themselves onto very long wooden skis or "longboards" with nothing more than leather strips. Then the daredevils lunge straight downhill. Going straight is absolutely necessary, because these long, skinny skis, sometimes 15 feet or longer, do not turn. Success is all in the dope, longboard ski historians say, "dope" being the 1850s term for secret-recipe homemade ski wax.

Credit Plumas Ski Club

But after you achieve lightning speed-Cornish Bob, a famous longboard champion, flew down the slopes at 88 miles per hour!-you do have to stop. That means practically sitting on your ski pole, creating an impressive "rooster tail" of flying snow behind when there's plenty of powder. But if fellows aren't careful with that pole they may worry about their ability to father future generations. (Thus the nickname "soprano stick.") Ladies have been silent on the subject of ski-pole contact. They probably worry more about those long skirts flying up in their faces, showing off pantaloons to all and sundry spectators. And yes, being blinded by fine woolens, even temporarily, is a safety hazard. Complicating competition still further is the alcohol, a big part of the event since local competition began. Imbibing is almost mandatory, in keeping with tradition; safety helmets and goggles, however, are not allowed.

Members of the Plumas Ski Club and the officiating E Clampus Vitus chapter will tell you that the area between LaPorte and Johnsville, now part of Plumas Eureka State Park, is where competitive downhill skiing started in the western hemisphere. They also say local mining buckets, part of the tram system that carried gold quartz to the stamp mills below, served as the world's first ski lift, because miners would ride the buckets up the mountain before speeding downhill.

These days, you walk up the hill, little more than a bunny hill, carrying your skis, and then shove off once the gong sounds, the gong being a suspended saw blade. Anyone who achieves even half the velocity of Cornish Bob is surely a champion. But even losers can be winners: There is always a prize for the most spectacular crash. Back in the day, champions got up to $1,000 in prize money, which even in the high-inflation economy of the gold rush was a whole lot of money. Today you'll get about 50 bucks in gold, a slap on the back, and maybe a pull off someone's whiskey flask.

Credit Plumas Ski Club

Skiing, ideal for winter transportation, was introduced in the remote northern Sierra Nevada mining camps in 1853. Downhill ski racing as sport came in 1861, with the first organized races held at Onion Valley, between Quincy and La Porte. Longboard racing had its ups and downs since, and seemed to die out in 1917. But it sputtered back to life briefly in the 1930s, and again in the 1950s. The current racing revival revved up in the 1990s and has been picking up speed ever since.

About those early downhill racers: Thanks largely to Hollywood, people today think of California's '49ers as grizzled, illiterate geezers dragging pack donkeys. But most of the miners who rushed to California in 1849 were strapping, young, and well-educated, middle- or upper class men who came seeking adventure as much as overnight wealth. But the miner's life was rough. Good food was hard to come by, like medical care, sanitation, and shelter. Malnutrition, scurvy, cholera, and typhus were common ailments. While a few '49ers became millionaires, many returned to their family homes broken men. Thank heavens some of them managed to have some fun before they broke.