Tales, from back in the day, of Sactown’s original extreme sport
Any summer day on the American River, the banks on both sides teem with teenage kids. They jump from cliffs, sail BMX bikes off bluffs, swim the rapids. They’re like flies around the heads of the hordes of rafters floating by, a nuisance. In the 1970s, you sometimes also would see them riding plywood skimboards tethered to trees. Leaning against the pull of the rope, they’d skip across the riffles, the boards slapping against the wave crests under them.
These weren’t the ordinary skimboards—wooden saucers riding the film of surf along the waterline—or the carefully crafted “inland skimboards” ridden in the American River shallows today. These were far cruder things. Squares of salvaged plywood with a hole gored through at the top to hold the rope, a makeshift handle lashed to the nose. Wide enough to give you a good, stable stance, they were cumbersome and heavy. And each day, as the plywood sucked up more water, they got heavier.
Our first skimboard was a “For Sale” sign we found in a vacant lot below the levee. The rope was an old, frayed ski rope with a pockmarked rubber handle. That was the complete kit; everything you needed to ride out a summer. You found your spot, tied up and let the river do the work.
There were, and still are, hundreds of suitable skimboarding spots up and down the river. Places with a good run of riffles, a bank-side eddy and a strong tree at the water’s edge to tie to. Skimboarding was essentially water skiing in place. With the rope anchored to the tree, you reeled the board out downstream until the rope came taut. From the still eddy water, you climbed on and twitched the nose out into the current. The skimboard would pitch and yaw under you until the current out-muscled the loaded board, then it would rise to the surface like a hatching bug, and you were off.
Riding the riffles, the river changed constantly beneath you. Lampreys stared up at you from milky eyes. The board dug into the current and the rope hummed in your hands. It was a rush, and ostensibly dangerous enough that it could land you with a citation from the sheriff’s department for attempted suicide. Or so the story went.
On summer mornings, before the heat had settled in fully, we swam our board across the river to a snag below the Arden Rapid. The Arden bike bridge has since dried up the rapid’s line of standing waves, but before their extinction they worked like a team of muggers on the caravans of passing rafts.
On a busy day, the riffles beside the snag became an obstacle course of overturned rafts, ice chests, paddles and sunburned heads. Over the course of a single summer, we recovered in excess of 200 paddles, 20 ice chests, 40-50 stray beers and several rafters.
The fact that no competence or IQ test was required to float the river was unequivocally demonstrated each summer. Rafters drowned nearly every weekend in the mostly placid water. Life jackets were used as added insulation for ice chests, or as foot rests. The alacrity with which people dropped overboard and neglected to come back up should have been alarming, but barely made the news.
In the summer of 1975, word moved along the river that a skimboarder had drowned. Rafters were strangers on the river and didn’t know any better. The idea of a skimboarder drowning seemed about as likely as a beaver drowning. It could happen, we supposed, but we’d never heard of it.
It was another story, and stories were nothing new. They moved up and down the river’s banks as fluidly as the runs of shad and salmon. Tall tales, cautionary tales, riparian legends thrived. The most popular was the story of the friend of a friend’s friend who had a lamprey latch onto his thigh. He hacked it off with a knife, but the head remained attached and continued to pump blood from his leg in a pulsing, arterial stream.
There were stories of drownings, maimings and shattered bones. Some of them were true, but it was hard to know which. Rather than sort through them all, we just let them stand.
Details of the skimboard drowning were filled in as the story made its way along the shore. Other victims were added. The number of casualties fluctuated throughout the summer. By Labor Day, three skimboarders were dead.
It was unclear whether the deaths were the result of a single unlikely accident or a series of mishaps. No one knew their names or exactly where they drowned. “Upstream” was the most anyone could say. It was a tragedy, no doubt, and a story that buffed our image of ourselves. After all, we hadn’t died. But we did start keeping a knife beside the rope.
Most skimboards were headstone shaped, the corners angled off to make cutting easier. We left the corners on. Out of laziness originally, but our sloth resulted in a design with one advantage: If you walked to one of the front corners of the board, it would dive to the bottom and stay there.
Underwater, the river rattling in your ears, you were momentarily a part of that other world. Until your breath started to run out. Then you’d shuffle slowly to the back of the board, hang your heels off the tail, and yank the handle. The front of the board would tip up and catch the current, launching you up through the surface. You’d hang in the air for a second before splashing back down with a loud crack like a bone snapping.
One time I popped up from a dive and landed on the far side of the riffles, just ahead of a four-person raft. The rope was stretched taut at neck level. I yelled, and three of the rafters moved to duck under the rope. A girl of about 20 sat straight and stiff in the bow, staring at me with a crooked smile.
I bailed out just before she reached the rope. The board shot out from under me and sliced a few inches in front of her face. If she’d leaned forward, I’m sure I would have killed her. A little later, a rafter from the Bay Area had his jaw broken by a skimboard rope upstream.
It took a little time, but within a couple of years skimboards were mostly gone from the river. The ones that remained were temporary, fugitive arrangements. The American River Parkway Plan declared skimboarding a prohibited activity, along with beekeeping and model-rocket flying. Sheriff’s helicopters rode low along the riverbank, blasting warnings from their speakers like the voice of God.
In a way, though inevitable, it was a shame. As far as I know, this kind of skimboarding was invented here. Not by us, but by people like us. Kids with a summer to burn, looking for a cheap way to stay cool. It was perfect. It cost nothing. You didn’t need a car. You didn’t need a boat. All you needed was a rope, a board and a knife to cut the rope if something went wrong.