Longboard ski racing returns to its Californian birthplace

Fast — as befits a question about alpine ski racing: where did it all start?

If Scandinavia comes to mind, consider this: Years before there were organized races in Europe, miners raced down mountains competitively in a part of California known as the Lost Sierra. , a mother lode of forests, lakes and remote small towns in Sierra and Plumas Counties about an hour north of Truckee.

This legacy is celebrated and re-enacted each year at the Johnsville Ski Bowl in Plumas-Eureka National Park. But COVID-19 interrupted the festivities for two years and during that time the Dixie Fire devastated surrounding areas.

So this year’s Longboard Revival Races, which wrap up this weekend, celebrate not only the resilience of early Californians, but also the modern courage of hard-hit mountain communities.

“As you can see, we needed a vacation,” Pete Bartels said, waving to a crowd that jostled, danced, shouted and drank beer at 10 a.m. at the February event.

The story goes like this: the gold rush attracted gold diggers from all over the world, and miners trapped in snow 30 feet deep learned to ski a longboard from a Norway-born pioneer , country of origin of longboard skiing. Driven by boredom, they took to running, regularly recording speeds in excess of 85 mph on skis up to 16 feet long, which were not designed to turn or stop.

Participants pick numbers from a bucket to get their race positions.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In the 1990s, a group of men who now call themselves the “Greybeards” brought back the longboard races that began around 1850 and died out in the 1950s. An early poster for the revived event was said the races would start at noon with the flask tipping.

Bartels, then a professor at Feather River College in Quincy, had fallen in love with the old wooden skis he saw at the local museum and which locals sometimes found in their sheds. He started a crafting class.

Once the skis are made, they had to run over it, Bartels explained.

The trick to speeding up was – as in the days of the Gold Rush – wax, called dope. Which explained the plaid hats on sale at February’s event proclaiming “Dope is King.”

No modern fluorocarbons are allowed, and everyone has their own recipe. Back when Bartels was racing as Eureka Pete, he used to favor paraffin, a bit of turpentine and WD-40.

Two racers on skis, with a starter in a top hat between them

Official starter Phil Gallagher, center, places the runners on the starting line.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Bartels has lived in Plumas County since 1972, which he says makes him a relative newcomer to those areas.

“When I got here, there was only one red light in the whole county,” he said. “Now there are four or five.”

First column

A showcase for captivating storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

The races take place on the third Sunday of January, February and March. In the early hours of last month’s event, the parking lot at the park was full.

People with children and dogs – and in a few cases dogs pulling children in sleds and vice versa – trudged up a long, steep road on a blue-sky morning when the sun shone on a thin layer of fresh snow.

In front of a ski lodge built circa 1958, the Feather River Jubilation Orchestra played a lively mix of bluegrass, old-school jigs, Eastern European classics and everything amateur musicians dreamed of. The banjo player had almost lost his house in the fires. The accordionist had been evacuated for weeks and stayed with one of the fiddlers.

The event’s CEO was drinking his second Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. If the race ended with an odd number of competitors, he said, he would be forced to run, and that required libations.

Members of a historical society watch the runners compete

Members of a historical society at longboard ski races. Competitors and spectators dress in 1860s period attire and adopt fictitious names for the day.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Robin Adrian-Murray, holding his grandson Mason, pointed and said, “Look, there’s your cousin Sierra.”

It was the third time a reporter had heard Sierra singled out – each time referring to a different woman.

“I guess it’s a common name around here,” Adrian-Murray said. “But not really. I can only think of four or five Sierras that I know.

She learned to ski on this hill when she was four years old. Later, she and her husband – who also grew up in the area – left to find their future.

Wooden skis made from pine planks, with leather bindings

The skis used in the onboard race are homemade pine boards with custom leather bindings. They must be 9 to 16 feet long to compete.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“But I’ve always loved mountains and being up high, so I convinced him to come back.”

They are one of ten families who live in Johnsville year-round. Their children learned to ski here and are now bringing their children.

For a long time, mountain communities have been trying to raise funds to install a chairlift and reopen those trails on what is believed to be America’s first downhill ski area.

But there has been virtually no snow for six years.

“There was a Christmas dusting that gave us hope, but not much since. And with the fires, there’s so much that’s gone,” Adrian-Murray said.

A man uses an iron to melt the wax on his skis

Bryson Schrader melts “dope” wax on wooden skis before competing in the Historic Longboard Race Revival Series.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“But we are quite lucky here. This is our backyard,” she said, nodding toward the craggy, snow-capped peak of Eureka, once called Gold Mountain because of the $25 million worth of gold produced by mining in hard rock in the late 1800s.

The races were held in heats, two riders at a time. In one of the first men’s races of the day, a skier fell immediately, struggling to get up on his long boards.

The other fell. Both gave up trying to regain an upright position and sat on their skis for a photo-finish of two clumsy lugers.

Monica Rutter, a first-time visitor to San Rafael, clapped loudly.

During the pandemic, her family had painted rocks, raised butterflies, baked bread.

“We are close and we believe that if you focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have, you will persevere.” she says.

But she is an attorney for the US Postal Service, and thousands of those workers have fallen ill with COVID-19. Several of those who died were close colleagues. Her aunt and cousin in South America are deceased. Her daughter spent her last year of high school at home. Her 14-year-old son is increasingly worried about being infected. She and her husband, both government lawyers, have been under more stress at work than ever before.

Spectators encourage skiers

Spectators cheer as riders compete in the Historic Longboard Race Revival Series in Johnsville.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“We are really lucky. But…” she said, pausing for a long moment. “It’s always difficult. I’m so happy to be here right now. There are nice people. There is beer. There are dogs. What’s not to love?”

She said she would tell her 82-year-old father, who plays football four times a week, about the event.

“Because old men have a thing for Gold Country,” she said, as several people around her nodded in agreement.

Announcer John Sheehan has called for a new event: The Pooches on the Podium Photo Shoot. (Get your “Dogs of Longboards” calendar this spring.) About 25 owners with multiple pets have gathered on the platform.

The malamute turned around to face the camera. A Labradoodle is mounted on a lathe. The owner of a shiny black Lab held his dog’s front paw up in the air as if to say hello. But the reporter from the local newspaper put down her camera.

“Where’s Annie?” she cried. “Annie is not in the photo.”

A ski racer raises his arms in triumph

A runner cheers as he crosses the finish line to win his heat.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A nervous little dog was produced, placed in the front row and the portrait was taken.

Sheehan hosted the event for two decades, and before the final round he asked over the loudspeaker for the gentleman in the red jacket to move, as he made it difficult for the intoxicated judges to see the finish line Red. The Clampers — an organization known for putting up historic plaques and, well, drinking — serve as judges for the event. The spectator held his prized place but took off his coat.

Now was the time for experienced runners to race down the mountain.

Two local men ran, which involved holding a motionless squat atop two waxed boards at high speed down a mountain.

“There are nice people. There is beer. There are dogs. What’s not to love?”

Monica Rutter, a spectator at last month’s ski longboard races.

Ryan Murray, 32, won a round that secured him a spot in the World Longboard Championship on Sunday. He is the father of Mason, cousin of Sierra, and belongs to a group called the Young Guns by the Graybeards.

Bartels, who gave Murray extra credit for his creative pre-race speech, said the Graybeards held on to their titles longer than they thought, mainly because the younger guys were used to doing the party too late the night before.

But now, afflicted with bad joints, weak hearts and messy shoulders, they can no longer hurtle down a mountain at 80 mph on skis twice their size.

But they run the show, egg on trash-talk and fend off some Norwegians who insist downhill racing started in Norway.

“They don’t have a shred of written evidence,” Bartels said.

A crowd of spectators watch a ski racer

Hundreds of spectators watch a competitor finish at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl in Johnsville.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

He continues to dig into history and recently read how, in the 1800s, Chinese miners were responsible for judging tasks and holding big bets.

“Maybe the kids raced home from school in Norway on snowshoes, but the real downhill racing started here in California,” he said.

Sheehan, the announcer, said the races – which promote “whiskey” and historical attire, thus explaining the many top hats, gingham skirts and flasks – are an important legacy.

“How it works here is that we give great deference to fun,” he said. “When times are tough, it’s important to take your mind off things and focus on pleasing each other.”

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