Hee-hawin’ up The Ridge

A ride-along with Clampers at the Donkey Derby

Other Brother Darryl shows drover Charlie Ryon who’s the boss at the Donkey Derby.

Other Brother Darryl shows drover Charlie Ryon who’s the boss at the Donkey Derby.

Photo by Brad Lambert

On The Ridge, where exceptional equines hold a considerable degree of social status, perhaps no other four-legged creature is held in such high esteem as an 18-year-old jenny named Poppy. Poppy’s popularity isn’t just based on numerous appearances in the annual Gold Nugget Days’ Donkey Derby—where she clinched her third straight victory last Saturday (April 28)—but also for her legendary valor.

“Is this the donkey that fought off a cougar?” a star-struck, gray-haired man asked Poppy’s drover, Henry Schleiger, as the duo enjoyed a post-victory lap around the perimeter of the derby’s terminus, an obstacle course set up on a gravel lot outside of the Magalia Community Church.

“This donkey fought off a cougar that had gripped its goat friend by the head!” The man gushed, relating the story after Shleiger confirmed that Poppy was indeed the donkey in question. “It was by a pond, out in the mud and stuff, and [she] kicked him over 30 times … was hee-hawing in [the cougar’s] face … and the cougar ran off! A horse would just depart, but this donkey withstood a mountain lion!”

Shleiger downplayed details about how many times the cougar was kicked, but confirmed the tale was otherwise true. “It’s pretty well-known around these parts,” he said, as Poppy soaked in the adoration of her human admirers.

As sensational as Poppy’s heroic tale is, it’s not surprising given the history of a mule race that is—by design—steeped in ridiculousness. This year marked the 60th anniversary of the Donkey Derby and Gold Nugget Days, the annual series of community events aimed at celebrating Paradise and The Ridge’s Gold Rush history. For roughly 50 of those years, the derby has been overseen by E Clampus Vitus (ECV), a pseudo-secret fraternal society devoted to booze, history and absurdity whose members are known as Clampers.

The derby commemorates the discovery of the 54-pound Dogtown Nugget, discovered nearby in April 1859 and carried up from the Feather River Canyon by a donkey. Drover-and-donkey teams (there were four this year) travel a 3-mile route that starts at Whiskey Flat and winds around other colorfully named landmarks like “Separation Stretch” and “Point of No Return.” Each donkey is laden with 54 pounds of sand in its saddle-packs to symbolize the nugget.

The obstacle course, where a few hundred people gathered Saturday to witness the finale, consists of car tires, a tunnel and a pool of water the teams must navigate. Josiah Sandstrom, vice humbug of ECV’s Pair ‘O’ Dice Chapter 7-11, explained the teams often have a much harder time with the obstacles than the long, uphill trek.

He was proven correct: 35-year derby veteran Charlie Ryon and his partner, Other Brother Darryl, arrived several minutes before Shleiger and Poppy, but were overtaken by the winners as the donkey fought the drover through each obstacle. They were also passed by Dave Greslie—who was competing in the event for his 45th year—and his donkey, Bentley, who like Greslie was dressed in blue jeans. Ryon’s 20-year-old grandson failed to finish after his donkey, Darryl, balked at the tires and instead sat down directly on top of his drover. Still, all four competitors got plaques for placing first through third and dead last. The first three places also won cash prizes, paid out in gunny sacks filled with silver coins.

“That’s what happens,” Ryon said with a shrug after the race, adding there is no fool-proof way to teach a donkey to step through rubber tires or walk through a tunnel. “They either do, or they don’t.”