Plumas County Celebrates the Return of Longboard Racing
By Kurt Gensheimer
In the English language, the word “dope” takes on many meanings from a controlled substance and getting the inside scoop on a story to describing a dimwitted soul or using it in 1980s parlance for something very cool. But there’s another term for dope lost in modern vernacular; a preparation giving a desired quality to a surface.
In the case of longboard racing in the Lost Sierra region of the Northern Sierra Nevada, a pastime involving 15 foot-long planks of wood shaped into skis, dope is the wax applied to the bottom of skis determining the fate of their pilot. And the term “dope is king” means exactly that; when it comes to racing said planks of wood down a mountain, everything depends on how good your dope is.
This crossroads of chemistry and woodworking comes together every winter in the Plumas County hamlet of Johnsville, California at the Historic Longboard Revival Race Series, under the auspices of the Plumas Ski Club. Aside from being the epicenter of the 1849 Gold Rush, Plumas County also lays claim as the birthplace of downhill ski racing, not just in America, but arguably in the entire world. And because of the tramway mining ore buckets skiers used in the winter, Eureka Peak is also arguably the site of the first ski lift in the world.
Even the Sierra Nevada skiing legend Snowshoe Thompson, a native from the Telemark region of Norway who delivered mail across the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s, got his hide whooped by the Plumas County boys after they invited him to a longboard race. He might have had better skiing technique, but Snowshoe Thompson was no match for a race-tuned concoction of dope that was sworn to secrecy by its creator.
Wintertime as a Lost Sierra prospector during the Gold Rush was a snowbound existence, so in order to fight off months of cabin fever, miners took to the timber denuded slopes of mountains like Eureka Peak and Pilot Peak above Onion Valley, lined up side-to-side, took a nip from a flask and sent it down the mountain. Nearly every high elevation mining camp had a longboard club, traveling over snow to other camps for monthly races. Stakes were high, with some races handing out $1,000 in cash and gold; a heap of money today when adjusted for inflation. In the late 19th Century, longboard racers in the Lost Sierra were the fastest humans on the planet, clocking 12-second quarter-mile times at 90 miles an hour; faster than most modern cars can accelerate. Dope is king indeed.
Celebrating this rich history of daredevil antics and good-natured fun, 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the Revival Longboard Races at the Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl in Plumas Eureka State Park. After a two-year hiatus, the long-anticipated return of longboard racing happened on January 16, bringing a record crowd of spectators, aided by deep snowpack and bluebird weather.
Unlike most other social gatherings, the two-year hiatus wasn’t forced by a pandemic, as the outdoor setting with plenty of space makes for an ideal socially distanced event. The culprit preventing this popular gathering of Plumas County longboard skiers and historians was simply a lack of adequate snowpack, a concerning trend in the Sierra Nevada.
This winter in the Sierra has bucked the trend so far, as record-breaking December snowfall brought more than 15 feet to Plumas County, with the storms cold enough to drop snow all the way down to Mohawk Valley and nearby Graeagle, leaving the historic mining outpost of Johnsville buried up to second-story windows, just like old times.
Also just like old times, all participants who strap on longboards must wear period-correct attire, honoring the historic nature of the event. Top hats, leather boots, vests, duster coats, and Victorian-era dresses are all welcome at the starting line, as is a flask and a little friendly frontier trash talk. The only rules are “…no spittin’, no cheatin’, and no cursin’…” but the lattermost is inevitable up here in the mountains, especially after a few nips on the flask.
Held every third Sunday in January, February, and March – snowpack permitting – the January 16th running of the Longboard races was a spectator’s delight, as the excitement of returning to the groomed slopes of Eureka Peak must have gotten the best of competitors, evidenced by numerous harrowing wrecks drawing huge applause from the crowd. Thankfully there were no serious injuries beyond a few bruised egos. One of the female competitors, Mandy Beatty of Quincy, wore the most evident battle scar, using the side of her face as a brake after taking a tumble at full speed. It didn’t seem to phase Beatty one bit though, as her skinned-up face earned her multiple apres-crash sympathy beers from spectators.
Beyond being a jovial, family-friendly gathering of Lost Sierra residents celebrating the region’s history, the Revival Longboard Races are also an important fundraiser for the Plumas Ski Club. In partnership with Plumas Eureka State Park, Plumas Ski Club works to maintain the ski hill as well as the historic Intorf Lodge at the foot of the hill. Thanks to donations, raised funds, and the hard work of club members, the lodge was recently wired for electricity and powered by an on-site generator to aid in future events. Long Live Longboards.
Snowpack permitting, the 2022 edition will continue with the second race on Sunday, February 20 and Sunday, March 20. Races start at High Noon with registration opening at 10 am. Spectators are encouraged to arrive early as parking is limited. For more information on the event, the history of longboards, and donations, visit plumasskiclub.org.