Longboards create and sustain a way of life
The winter is upon us, and with it, we don our snow boots and puffy jackets, we turn up our heaters and put chains on our tires. And many of us head out to the Plumas-Eureka Ski Bowl above Johnsville to watch the annual Historic Longboard Revival Races.
How times have changed since the races began in the 1860s. But Jan. 20 at 10:30 a.m., winter adventurers from all over will zoom down the slope on historic longboard skis. They will be decked in 1860s gear, and the event will commemorate the initial miners and settlers who fought against the violent winters of the Lost Sierra with the creation of the 12-foot wooden skis originally called “snowshoes.”
The Plumas Ski Club established the annual revival races in 1990, and they have been a Plumas County must-see since then. They are held the third Sunday of January, February and March — depending on conditions.
Though the races are a way for the people of the county to enjoy an exciting winter event, they also bring a sense of nostalgia and reverence for the hardy men and women who braved the tough winters with just lengthy pieces of Douglas fir lumber strapped to their boots.
According to author William Berry in his book “Lost Sierra: Gold, Ghosts and Skis,” when the Gold Rush hit California in 1849, the Lost Sierra was a year late. In 1850 a select number of miners stumbled upon the terrain and found what was rumored to be a lake full of gold.
When rumors of this “gold lake” traveled, more miners entered the territory the next summer. Though the lake of gold was never actually found, the miners struck it rich in other places, such as Eureka Peak.
The more people came to the area, the harder it was to close up camp for the winter. By 1853, many miners had been mislead by a mild winter the year before and decided to stay year-round. Those who wanted to leave could hardly afford it because the 1853 season yielded a poor profit with all of the easy gold pickings gone.
That year’s winter was relentless, and took a toll on the miners and their families. Supplies were next to impossible to obtain and many people did not make it because they couldn’t travel in the huge drifts and blustery storms.
It was also that winter when reports of strange tracks in the snow began to arise.
The Argonaut immigrant miners introduced “Norway skates” to the area, and suddenly the winters became bearable. The skis, at the time called snowshoes, quickly became a way of life.
Doctors traveled on the snowshoes to deliver babies, who would have their own pair of snowshoes by the time they were toddlers. Children would travel to school on them and romances blossomed when youths went to the downhill races to watch the miners — and even the women — compete on their snowshoes, which they coated with homemade wax called “dope.”
Fannie Woodward Hunsinger, born in Mohawk Valley in 1863, said in her autobiography, “Instead of taking their girls automobile or buggy riding, young men took them snow-shoeing.”
Though competitors raced informally all over the Lost Sierra, the first known organized downhill ski race was hosted by the Alturas Ski Club on Feb. 23, 1867, in La Porte.
In a letter to the Plumas National Newspaper dated March 15, 1867, a La Porte man named Mudsill recalled the event.
“The Great Snow Shoe Race was an unbounded success — a glorious time for this end of Plumas County. Everybody enjoyed themselves hugely and were happy,” he wrote.
He also spoke about a great competition between the participants of Sierra County and Plumas County, in a tone not much different from that of two towns caught in a high school football rivalry.
“The youngest member of the Mudsill family has been running on (the races) so heavy that he has torn every board off the door yard fence to making snow shoes, and every cooking utensil and door knob about the house is all stuck up with that confounded ‘dope,’” he wrote.
The races are divided by gender, and the participants must hike with their skis to the starting line at the top of the slope. The public is invited to participate and watch the historical event.
For more information on the races visit plumasskiclub.org.