Longboards—Mountain Men on Skis

Longboard skiing—the only way that over-wintering gold miners could cross the treacherous snow packs of Northern California’s gold country—started in the 1850s. In May 1851, at what is now Plumas-Eureka State Park, a group of prospectors looking for a legendary “gold lake” discovered a quartz outcropping with a rich vein of gold running through it. This was the beginning of the Plumas-Eureka gold mine, which eventually employed hundreds of miners.

As hard as a miner’s life was, it was nothing compared to trying to survive winter in this part of California. In fact, many who had traveled thousands of miles to the gold country abandoned their claims after the first snowfall.

longboard



Snow-shoes, long boards, and “Norway skates”
In 1853, several Scandinavian sailors (who had jumped ship in San Francisco Bay to head for the gold fields) taught their fellow miners how to craft the contraptions we now call longboards. These so-called “Norway skates” allowed the miners to travel safely across the Sierra snow.

Longboard Racing—“No Spittin’, No Cheatin’”
Longboard racing began in 1867, when the Alturas Snowshoe Club was founded. Considered “uncivilized” by purists, the rowdy sport had few rules, and never achieved international popularity.

Once a skier got to the bottom of a slope (aided by a stick held between the legs that was used as a brake), he had a long hike back up the mountain. The races brought fair-sized crowds, many who came especially to see the women (and even children) ski. Surprisingly, in an era when females were not allowed to vote or to even have much voice in their own lives, they were encouraged to compete on the slopes.

An article in the February 7, 1861, Sacramento Daily Union reported, ”Great big men, extremely small children, and delicate looking females ascend La Porte’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, and how they come down!”

Secrets to Success
What made the races even more thrilling was the speed attained by people standing on what looked like 16-foot-long barrel staves, tied to their shoes with leather bindings. Recorded speeds reached nearly 90 mph. The secret to their amazing velocity was a ski polish that had nearly as many recipes as it had users.

They called it “dope.” Among the ingredients: whale oil, wintergreen, pine pitch, oil of cedar, turpentine, oil of tar—any or all of these and a dozen other ingredients are on lists of that time. Today, though a number of closely guarded “dope” recipes have been handed down, such important details as cooking times and other secret knowledge have been left out.

These days, three times a year, race participants at Plumas-Eureka State Park dress in period-style clothing; They may only use dope made from authentic ingredients on their long boards. All participants must climb the hill on foot and be prepared to spring into action.

Once the gong is sounded, the race is on!

For more details on longboard skiing at Plumas-Eureka, see
http://www.plumasskiclub.org/index.html