"Do you realize how difficult it is to find these?" asks Craig Beck, holding up a pair of thin white candles and pacing back and forth in his cluttered ski-making workshop near Lake Tahoe, Calif. Beck, 49, is the founder of the National Long-board Association, a group of skiers dedicated to—no, make that obsessed with—re-creating a style of ski racing that flourished in northern California mining camps in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. And for Beck, no aspect of making his skis authentic is too trivial to overlook, even if it means hunting down 100-year-old candles made from whale sperm.
The skis Beck makes, enormous wooden slats known as longboards, arc fashioned from the same materials as their 19th-century forerunners and cut to the same specifications with antique tools. During the National Longboard Association's races, held in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range from January through April, participants dress in period costumes. And when it comes to preparing the skis for racing, Beck insists that his waxes be made strictly according to traditional recipes.
These recipes, which Beck discovered while researching the history of longboard racing, read like something from the Salem witch trials. The concoctions—called dope by the old racers—had names like Skedaddle and Breakneck and Greased Lightning. They included such ingredients as glycerin, camphor oil, pine pitch, balsam fir, bristlecone drops and, of course, sperm.
"I had to read and read and read to find out that sperm meant whale sperm, also known as spermaceti," says Beck, explaining that the substance is a waxy material found in the heads of sperm whales and that it was once used in the production of cosmetics and candles. "When I started asking around and trying to buy some sperm I was told, 'You can't get that—whales are an endangered species, and spermaceti hasn't been sold since the 1800s.' "
Beck wasn't deterred. He traveled to Hawaii, where whaling was practiced in the 19th century, and visited old fishing villages trying to track down any remaining spermaceti. "In the basement of a thrift shop in a tiny town on Maui, I found four spermaceti candles," says Beck. "On the box it says they were made in 1894." Eventually Beck gathered all the other necessary waxmaking materials and was able to make his genuine longboard racing dope.
Beck, who has lived in the Lake Tahoe area since the age of 14, never seems to do anything halfway. His father, Don, was an Air Force test pilot and champion biplane racer, and from him Craig inherited a passion for all things fast-moving. Sitting in Craig's garage is a flaming red 1966 Shelby Cobra that, he says proudly, "can easily go over 200 miles per hour." Beck is an experienced pilot of power planes, sailplanes and ultralights, as well as an expert hang glider, speed skier and extreme skier.
Married with three children ranging in age from 12 to 24, Beck makes his living as a general contractor and sports-action filmmaker, specializing in skiing and hang-gliding productions. He became intrigued by longboard racing in the early '80s while researching a screenplay that he was writing about John (Snowshoe) Thompson. Thompson was a legendary mid-19th-century postman who delivered mail to remote mining towns in the Sierra Nevada by climbing over mountain passes while wearing long wooden skis that he called Norwegian snow-shoes. As Thompson's fame spread—during severe winters he was the northern Sierra's only link to the outside world—so did the use of longboards. By the 1860s, longboard racing (sometimes also called snow-shoe racing) had become the mining communities' main winter recreation.
The miners were a rough-and-tumble lot, and the races reflected it. They were flat-out speed events. Racers, several at a time, would line up at the top of a hill and head straight to the bottom without making so much as a single turn. According to newspaper accounts, winners would sometimes reach speeds of more than 80 mph.
The top racers were usually those whose skis had the slipperiest wax, and the winning team's chief waxmaker—called the dopemaster—often became more famous than the champions themselves. Formulas for fast dopes were closely guarded secrets.
For nearly 40 years, when racers from nearby towns competed against each other, crowds gathered and large sums of money put up by the local ski clubs were awarded to the winners. Rivalries between some towns were so intense that battles in the newspaper editorial pages—each town's paper telling its readers just how badly it would whip its opponents—would begin weeks before the actual contest. But in the early 1900s, as the mines began shutting down and the Sierra's population started shrinking, no amount of dedication could save longboard competition. The last major race was held in 1911.