Hop Along in Calaveras California: Jumping Frogs, Giant Sequoias, and Mark Twain

The Sierra Foothills in California’s gold country has many traditions, some dating back to the gold mining camps of the 1850s; wheelbarrow races in Placerville, duck races in Sutter Creek, but none so famous, odd and just plain amusing as the frog jumping contest at the Calaveras County Fair.

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A frog-jumping contest might seem more suited to reality TV, but in 1865 humorist Mark Twain published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short story which received national acclaim about a con man who bet a stranger that his frog could jump farther than the strangers and based on his time in the region. But the stranger gets the last laugh, and $40 in gold, when he surreptitiously fills the con mans frog with buckshot.

No one knows if Twain’s tale was fact or fiction, though it’s known that miners would bet on anything just to pass the time in the rugged wilderness. Regardless, the Calaveras County Fair started the official frog-jumping contest in 1927 and it is the Fair’s main attraction which takes place each May.

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However this amphibian circus is far more serious than you might imagine. To start with only American bullfrogs, a minimum of four inches in length, are allowed to jump however anyone can rent and jump a frog for $10. The frogs are placed on an eight-inch diameter pad and once there you cannot touch them. The first three jumps of your frog, no matter how short or long those individual distances, are counted as the total jump which makes Rosie the Ribeter’s 21 foot 5 3/4 inch record-holding jump in 1986 make sense. Being a novice my frog didn’t take well to being yelled at and he came in with an unimpressive seven-foot jump, in spite of the enthusiastic crowds.

The whole thing seems silly until you know that Brown University in Rhode Island conducted tests to see exactly how far frogs can jump and how you can learn to leap your frog.

How to Jump A Frog

Yes, there are secrets to jumping a frog. Whether the frog is male or female is of no concern - they jump the same. The most common way to motivate your frog is to blow on its rear end, which stimulates them to move. You can also shout at them, trying to spook them, but this is a less successful strategy. The single best tool is a thermometer. Frogs are cold-blooded creatures and they get more active as they warm up, not unlike us humans. A body temperature of 86 degrees seems to be the magic number for frogs; any hotter and they become lethargic. Many frog-jumping teams measure the body temperature of their frogs for optimum jumping, swapping out frogs who are under or over the 86 degree core. Frogs, like us, get tired and wilt in the heat and conversely are less motivated to move when it’s cold. The frogs are jumped once a day, sometimes twice - in the morning and afternoon, which is why many people bring their own collection of frogs rather than rely on a single one.

Above and Inside Giant Trees

But a visit to Calaveras offers more than hopping frogs. There is gold panning, white water rafting, horseback riding, visiting the historical mining camps that dot the area and the region is populated with trees, lots of trees.

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One way to see them is to fly above them at speeds of 40 mph. Moaning Cavern in Vallecito not only brags of having the largest underground cavern in California (large enough that the Statue of Liberty could fit inside), but has twin zip lines stretching 1,500 feet above the tree tops whereby you can race against someone else, or just keep each other company as you zoom like a bird in the air. The oldest person to zip was 98 years old and a zip line offers a pure rush as you roar over mature pine forests at speeds of 35 mph. To capture the experience you can rent a Go Pro camera mounted to your helmet, or use Google glasses to film yourself in action. Unlike other zip lines, this is one long uninterrupted line and you do not operate it using a hand break, the system has a built in breaking system so all you have to do is enjoy the ride.

If flying above forests is too daunting then Big Trees State Park is your counterpoint to the rush of zip lines; a sedate and stunning collection of giant sequoias reaching heights of 325 feet with diameters of 33 feet. Back in 1852 no one believed Augustus T. Dowd when he described massive trees he had found while tracking a wounded grizzly bear. Today giant sequoias are the largest trees on earth living for more than 2,000 years, and the North Grove of the park is populated with 150 of them.

Stretched out across a 1 3/4 mile loop the hard packed path with minimal elevation gain quite suitable for a baby stroller, even a wheelchair.

Populated with a mix of ponderosa pines, sugar pines, incense cedars, white fir and pacific dogwoods this forest is stunning; the sequoias so colossal you crane your neck constantly to take them in. There are 26 specific sequoias along the path, notable for their size, shape, age and even one you used to be able to drive through. Aside from the vocal strains of other people in the forest, the deep rustle of the wind in the treetops hundreds of feet above you is magical.

Creature Comforts -- Lodging

Saddle Creek Resort is Sierra Foothills’ golf at its best. Designed by Carter Morrish and located in Copperopolis the resort offers lodging for golfers, but little known is that non-golfers can stay here; a counterpoint to the standard motels and quaint but pricy B&Bs. Several bungalows offer terrific value if you're staying in the region for several days as there is a full kitchen, two bedrooms and two bath options, a large living area with fireplace and a patio in which to soak up the sedate and wide open visuals of the golf course. Their on-site restaurant, Copper Grille, offers a Friday and Saturday dinner menu which changes weekly, which might include lobster risotto, prime rib, Dover sole stuffed with crab. They offer lunch and breakfast daily.

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Michael Cervin is the author four Moon travel books, and two travel blogs He is the contributing travel writer, and restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press. Notable publications include Decanter Magazine, Westways, Wine Enthusiast, Skywest, The Writer, Wine & Spirits, Food & Beverage World, and more than 80 others. He also contributes to NPR, and is a regular travel expert on the award-winning Around the World Radio, and The Big Blend's Vacation Station.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: April 1st, 2015

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