Longboards and tall tales
PLUMAS COUNTY, Calif. After checking the caller ID, I broke protocol and answered my cell phone.”You’re skiing right now?”Yeah, I’m on the catwalk.”What’s a catwalk?”Where you live, it’s called a road. You know, between ski runs.”Oh, right. So you coming out here?”Next week. Just booked it.”Awesome. You’ll be here for the longboard World Championships.”What’s a longboard?”Downhill racing on 16-foot Douglas fir planks. I took second in the last race, but I plan on going to Mexico as the world champion. You should race too.”Eventually it occurred to me that I’d heard about these longboards some years ago. I remembered seeing footage of a revival of the old pioneer skiing practice, but I never really stopped to consider where it took place.I assumed it was some European tradition that managed to achieve a bizarre cult-like status similar to American Civil War reenactments in the South, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show further north.Instead, it turns out the freakish cult is in my old buddy Todd Reasor’s front yard, at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl in Johnsville, Calif., roughly an hour north of Lake Tahoe. And home to plenty of freakish activity beyond the “Historic Longboard Revival Series.”When the snow in Plumas County isn’t up to snuff, it’s not unusual for Reasor and his cronies to don a sasquatch costume and lope across the street in front of wayward tourists at dusk, just for kicks. When it is, he turns to 215cm Tua skinny skis and size 13 leather telemark boots, eliciting the nickname ZigZag Man, as much due to the shape of said turns as his uncanny resemblance to the guy on the package of cigarette rolling papers. But as often as not, there’s no turning whatsoever. Call it practice or tradition.As it happens, the ZigZag Man’s ‘hood in the woods doubles as the birthplace of downhill ski racing, according to Scott Lawson, director of the Plumas County Museum. The way Lawson tells it, the old “Norway skates” (as the original hand-carved planks were known) were the preferred mode of transportation among the Sierra Nevada miners making their way between camps in winters of the 1850s. In true pioneer spirit, it wasn’t long before the sporty fellows began racing on them.Planks of 12-16 feet were constructed of tight, vertical-grained Douglas fir, with a groove on the bottom cut out with a special “groovy plane,” and tips bent up by a long steaming process. Bindings consisted only of two pieces of leather attached to the skis with three or four holes on each side for lacing tight over leather boots. A small block of wood was attached to hold the heel in place.For starting and stopping, a single stout pole some six feet long with a wood block on the end was employed. Racers would make three or four strong, lunging thrusts with the pole to start before squatting down in their tucks and aiming straight downhill. Stopping was a matter of sitting on the pole and kicking up a massive rooster tail of snow.I imagined the planks utterly un-negotiable and moving at the speed of death. And that was before adding the secret ingredient, traditionally known as “dope.”Next to bravado, dope, apparently, is the key to longboard racing, and, as such, the recipes were heavily guarded by the dopemakers. Even today, though the recipes were handed down, the cooking times were not.Brewing a batch of dope entails some organic alchemy built around a waxy substance from the brow of a sperm whale called spermaceti, combined with varying amounts of Venice turpentine, oil of cedar, oil of tar, wintergreen, soapstone, balsam of fir, pine pitch and, in at least one instance, something that Lawson refers to as “Edison cylindrical records.”The dopemakers took pride in their work, spawning slogans such as "Sierra Lightning" and "Dope is King" that have lingered as long as the recipes.Race rules are pretty straightforward: No cheatin’ or spittin’. Once you get you’re dope on and the saw blade gong sounds, point ’em down. First one across the line wins.”Had I bogarted my dope, I’d be No. 1 right now,” Reasor told me. “Instead, I’m No. 2.”The word in Plumas County is that “Cornish Bob” was the first longboard champion, riding Bill Church’s magic dope down the 1,804-foot track at a speed of 88 mph in 14 seconds. That was in 1867, when the Alturas Snowshoe Club (snowshoes were another name for Norway skates) hosted the first formal skiing tournament a full decade before they were doing it in Norway, Lawson says.Turns out the Eureka Peak pioneers had an advantage over their Norwegian brethren, however, as the old mine ore bucket “tram” running up and down the mountain (a.k.a. Gold Mountain, depending on how old the old timer) is claimed as the first ski lift in the world.It has since been replaced by a T-bar, although competitors at the contemporary longboard World Championships must walk uphill to the starting line without spittin’, otherwise it’s cheatin’.I arrived in California with my leather boots and woolen pants prepared to hunt down the dopemaker, rent some groovy planks and compete for a longboard World Championship title, even abandoning an 18-inch powder day at Squaw Valley, USA for the opportunity. But on the eve of the race, Reasor received a call informing him that the event was canceled due to lack of snow on the course. For the next year, he would be de facto World Championship silver medalist.”That’s really disappointing,” he said, foregoing the sasquatch suit in favor of a hollow victory party in Truckee featuring a favorite local band, the Avant Gardeners. “I was looking forward to being world champion.”Equally disappointed, I left the ZigZag Man with a pair of modern K2 Super Stinx telemark skis and plastic boots, but I wondered how much use he’d get out of them. Those skis, after all, are shaped to turn. And that would break tradition.Freelance skier Scott Willoughby believes turning is overrated. He can be reached at Snowrite@vail.net.
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