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Up The Road: Snowshoes And Longboards At Plumas-Eureka

Tom Hilton

Winter is upon us. Fortunately, even in winter, when we desperately need a cure for cabin fever, most California parks are wide open and welcoming. Including our 200-some state parks, most of them still open at least for day use.

One notable, still almost a secret even in Northern California, is Plumas-Eureka State Park—a perfect summer getaway for family camping and hiking, but also a wonder in winter. Among other unique details, Plumas-Eureka near Blairsden is home to the annual Historic Longboard Revival Race Series, now in full swing.

Picture it: Contestants, male, female, young, and old alike, all decked out in 19th-century winter wear—bulky fur coats, billowing woolens, hefty boots. They strap themselves onto very long wooden skis or “longboards,” with nothing more than leather strips holding boot to board. Then these daredevils lunge straight downhill. Straight is essential, because these long, skinny skis—also known as “Norway skates,” or snowshoes, 9 to 16 feet long—do not turn.

Success is all in the dope, longboarders say, “dope” being the 1850s term for secret-recipe homemade ski wax. If you don’t have your own dope, you can get some at the race.

Keep in mind, after achieving lightning speed—Cornish Bob, a famous old-time longboarder, once flew down the slopes at 88 miles per hour!—you still need to stop. To do that, simply sit on your ski pole—which, in deep powder, makes an impressive sky-high “rooster tail.” Not to worry if you can’t get the hang of it. Folks here award a special prize for the most spectacular crash!

It’s no accident that the Plumas Ski Club stages its longboard races here, in the Sierra Nevada’s far north. Because this is where winter sports got their start in the Western Hemisphere.

This neighborhood was wild and woolly in 1851, as the California Gold Rush reached a fever pitch and miners rampaged across the landscape. But heavy winter snows made getting around impossible. And snowbound miners got pretty bored.

Skiing was introduced here, for transportation, in 1853. By the 1860s ski racing had become sport. Plumas Ski cCub members and the local E Clampus Vitus chapter say buckets on local gravity-powered mining trams, which otherwise carried gold ore to the stamp mills below, served as the world’s first ski lift. Skiing miners simply grabbed on to empty buckets to head back uphill.

For tamer sport, come to Plumas-Eureka any time in winter for day use, and groomed cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.

But for a proper park introduction—including excellent camping; fishing; hiking through lush pines and firs; and studying up on local history—come back in other seasons when the museum, campground, and other attractions are open.

The old Mohawk Mill and other mining outbuildings have been restored. Nearby is the park's excellent interpretive center, a former miners' bunkhouse, with displays on mining technology, natural history, and skiing history. Moriarty House, restored and fully furnished, offers a peek into the domestic side of mining camp life. For living history—gold panning, blacksmithing, riding on horse-drawn hay wagons—come for Gold Discovery Days on the third Saturday and Sunday in July.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.