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Retro skiing gaining fame


Longboard-making class moving closer to Reno

Story and Video By Kyril Plaskon | Feature Image by Carrie Bushá

A tiny town population 20 just north of Reno is claiming national fame, drawing hundreds of people and making headlines in the Huffington Post, Forbes, Denver Post, Nevada Appeal, Dallas Morning News and more recently, in the LA Times and on TV with Johnny Mosley’s Wildest Dreams.

Why? Retro skiing of course, with the lowest of low-tech skis, bindings, clothes, boots and dope.

Johnsville, Calif. is home to the Plumas Ski Club, and the birthplace of downhill ski racing in the 1860s when Norweigan miners taught us how to enjoy the snowy mountains. The club runs an annual Historic Longboard Revival Series with three races a year (cancelled this month because of low snow).

Racers wear top hats, knickers, suspenders, leather boots, flannel . . . anything old, oh, and they drink plenty of whisky and beer which adds thrill to the tremendous lack of control while flying downhill, tips first on longboards. 

“I don’t know why we call them that,” said Asa Gilmore of Reno, sporting his signature handle-bar mustache to kick off the 2020 races. Back 150 years ago, the miners probably didn’t know what to call these things they were putting on their feet, so they called them what they are, boards that are long (longboards) or shoes for the snow (snowshoes). They are made out of 2x6s.

“I have skied, but this is not like skiing as we think of it these days,” Gilmore said at the top of a hill, looking down at the leather binding that lashed his feet to the longboards. “The bindings are just tight enough to be dangerous and just loose enough that you can lose them.”

The hand-made skis are as tall as a log cabin. They have no edges, so when people launch off a hillside, there’s no turning, no fancy jumps, just point down, squat, like trying to stand on two sleds while 500 fans cheer you on. Racers who don’t yard-sale on the way down, grip one wooden pole that they use to slow them down at the end.

The price to race is retro too.

“Only 20 bucks to rent skis and 20 to race. Reasonable,” said Faith Laprovos of Reno as she carried her massive skis to the top of a small hill. She has been coming for a few years and she was giving it a try for the first time. “Honestly, I am just winging it. I practiced yesterday a couple of times and I just have to try it out and hopefully make it down.”

Also unlike professional ski competitions today, here in Johnsville, doping is encouraged and you see it everywhere. At the top of the hill, preparing to launch was longboarding veteran Jessica Nelson. She was crouched next to her skis using dope.

“I have secret ingredients in my dope that I have melted together and formed into a little block so I can wax up my skis.” Back 150 years ago, longboarders also didn’t know what to call this concoction of pitch and wax and whatever else they put on their skis. So they called it dope and they printed promotional posters for the races with big bold letters “Dope is King.” Nelson knows why it’s king.

“They won based on what kind of dope was best for that condition. And so, all of the dopes that you use for these races are supposed to be authentic with ingredients that would have been available then. You can’t use any of the hydrocarbons that people use for ski racing now.”

While doping her wood ski, she gets a splinter and stops to try to squeeze it out. That’s pretty common here too and it ends the conversation. She made her own skis, just like they did in the olden days. 

DIY sporting goods

Doping skis. Image: Carrie Bushá

Longboarders estimate that the old-timey skis are worth about $1,000 when you take into account all the labor. You can’t just go buy a pair at the local mercantile. You gotta make ‘em.

For $250, men, women and children can fashion their own longboards in a wood-working class from Feather River College. Sierra Pacific Industries donates the wood.  Photos in the class show students curving the tips, binding leather straps, cutting grooves, branding and sealing the longboards and whatnot. For the first time, that class is moving from Quincy to Portola in Fall 2020, just 50 minutes north of Reno where they hope to get more students.

The class has bounced from place to place over the years. A small group has kept it alive. “About 20-some years ago, there was a group of us that started this revival in the lost Sierra,” said Phil Gallagher from underneath his top hat. “150 years ago, the fastest men on this earth, the fastest men that would live to talk about it were right here. 88 miles an hour!” He was giving the “go” to kick off each race at the January event. There are two more races this year.

The race that put Johnsville on the map 160 years ago was when legendary mailman of the Sierra, Snowshoe Thompson, visited the site to see what all the hubbub was about. Today, there are statues commemorating Thompson at ski resorts throughout the Sierra. Resorts often commission the Club to put on their retro ski show races. 

Plumas Ski Club president Don Fregulia of Graeagle says the nonprofit has kept it going for 27 years now. “This is one vehicle that we are using to try to raise money,” he says. The club want to raise enough money for a lift. Then they won’t have to carry the longboards up the hill. Wouldn’t that be novel.

‘Til you can make it to the races watch these old-timey thrill-seekers hoof it up the hill and then barrel down with glee.

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Kyril Plaskon is an Education Officer with the State of Nevada, a Business and Industry teacher in the Washoe County School District, PhD student in Educational Technology at UNR and author of Silent Heroes of the Cold War: Declassified. If you have a story you think should be told, contact him at [email protected]

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