The Dope on Longboard Races in Plumas County
Some believe that life is to be lived and frivolity is at the top of the list. This can be seen every third Sunday from January through March at the Longboard Ski Races at Johnsville Ski Bowl hosted by the Plumas Ski Club. “These races are one of the highest levels of enjoyment one can partake in,” says John Sheehan, chief-talker, aka Longboard Race announcer. “Plus we are keeping a 150-year tradition alive while having a great time.”
So how did racing 88 miles per hour down a hill on two pieces of wood come to pass in Plumas County? Per Sheehan, “Norway Skates” or skis were first introduced to the mining camps in 1853. “It was the ideal vehicle for getting around in the winter season. On skis all ages traveled from five to as much as 15 miles.” Though this helped transport people, the winter months in this remote area could get tedious so when boredom set in so did ideas on how to relieve the doldrums.
Downhill Racing Was Born
Skiing and going downhill fast has been around for 1,000’s of years. From China to Norway, but in 1861 the first organized ski races with prizes were held in the mining area of Plumas at Onion Valley between Quincy and La Porte. A second “claim to fame” was the first “ski lift.” To get to the top of the mountains, racers hitched a ride in ore buckets. Though not glamorous, it worked! Whether Plumas County has these bragging rights or not, Longboard Races were here to stay. For the next 12 years, races were held between various mining camps. It wasn’t until 1877 similar downhill events were held in Norway. It continued for 20 years with organized meets of 50 or more participants, 500 spectators, and purses of $500 to $1000. So popular there were skiers who did the “circuit” just as they do today though the circuit has such descriptive names as La Porte, Johnsville, Jamison City, Poker Flats, Sierra City, Monte Cristo, and such.
The skis worn by these early speed demons were called snowshoes or longboards. They were made of tight, vertical-rained Douglas Fir. The skis were shaped with planes, the groove on the bottom with a special “grooving” plane and with bent tips gotten through a long steaming process. Travelling skis were eight to 10 feet while racing skis were a minimum of 10 feet with some as long at 15 feet, a challenge to control. On both, bindings were merely two pieces of leather attached to the sides with three to four holes on each side to tightly lace. A small block of wood was attached to the ski to keep the heel in place. Skiers started and stopped using a six-foot pole with a block of wood on the end. Starting was done by three to four lunging thrusts. Stopping was a bit more spectacular. Skiers sat on the pole applying pressure creating a drag and a spectacular “rooster tail” of snow.
The Secret to Winning
Equipment is essential, but the all-important “dope” applied to the base of the skis was just as much a factor in winning a race as was the skier’s ability and the skis. The recipes for dope were closely guarded as they are today. Some recipes have been handed down over many generations and are still a “secret. “Some materials used to hopefully make a winning batch include spermaceti, a waxy substance from the brow of a sperm whale, oil of cedar, Venice turpentine, oil of tar, wintergreen, soapstone, balsam of fir, pine pitch, and even one batch maker used melted Edison cylindrical records. The speeds the dope produced led to slogans such as “Sierra Lightning” and “dope is King.” We will advise you that finding these ingredients today might be a challenge. But be warned, no modern fluorocarbons are allowed!
The sport of longboard races ran until the last race in 1917. In the early 1930s there was a small revival of the sport and another one in the 1950s. Building on tradition, three races make a series and are held annually at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl in Johnsville. The racers must dress in period clothing, only dope from authentic recipes can be applied and “one pole only” still applies. As in the original races, men and women ski separately, and participants must climb the hill on foot to reach the starting line. “That can be a feat in itself but is all part of the fun,” says Sheehan. Once at the starting line a gong is sounded and the racers are off! Nothing much has changed in over 150 years . . . the strongest start, the straightest line, the best balance and the best dope determines the winner.
“Vintage” Downhill Ski Races Continue in 2023
Races are on this year with a wonderful snow pack. Live music and food add to the festivities. “On a ‘fair’ weekend, we get over 1,000 people coming to watch as this vintage approach to downhill skiing.” Sheehan adds that though all out for a good time, the origin of “racing to win” has not changed. “Longboard racing is so popular that Feather River College in Quincy offers a class in making authentic longboard skis.” Wood from local mills with straight grain and free of knots for strength is still used as were the original skis in the 1800s. “Many of the skis are personalized and are truly works of art but bottom line they are built for speed. The desire to be the fastest and break records hasn’t change over the years,” he adds with a laugh.
Mark your calendars now and plan to join in the fun for at least one of the dates; Jan 15, February 19, and March 19th for the Annual Plumas County Longboard Races. Come race, or just enjoy the festivities for the day. Sierra Adventure Monkeys provide shuttles from the parking lot to the ski area. For more information on this event and others happening this winter, visit our Plumas County Event Calendar. Need an idea of places to stay, check out our lodging listings.