by sarah kennedy
The pastime that Americans call stone skipping, or rock skipping, is known by many names across the world. In Denmark, it's called smutting. In the UK, ducks and drakes. In many languages, the term translates to something involving frogs—little frogs, frog jumps, letting the frogs out, etc. Whatever it's called, it is a thing that's long been done wherever there are stones and water. But is it a sport? By most criteria that call golf a sport—it involves the body, it can be competitive, it relies on skill—it's hard to see what would disqualify stone skipping from the same designation. Still, for most people who have stood barefoot along a lake shore, a beer in one hand, skimming a stone or two while waiting for the charcoal on the grill to heat up, the term "sport" sounds like a stretch, not to mention "state championship," "nationals," and "world record." Then again, this is a world of hot dog eating championships, of blue ribbons awarded to the largest squash, of cockroach racing and thumb wrestling. Where there is a chance to win, people will compete.
The Rock in River Festival is held every year in Franklin, Pennsylvania, eighty miles north of Pittsburgh. It's one of a handful of elite stone skipping championships in the country, and my boyfriend Mike and I attended in the summer of 2013 because his friend Eric would be competing for the third time. Mike didn't want to miss the chance to support him. I was happy to go along. I wanted to know: Is stone skipping more like rock-paper-scissors or golf? Is it a skill and a craft, undertaken with reverence and honed with dedication, or is it a little bit of a joke? What does it mean to the people who partake? As I often do, I assumed this somewhat enigmatic enterprise was hiding some wisdom about the meaning of life.
Mike, our dog and I drove to Franklin the morning of the competition, and we arrived over an hour late. Google told us it would take almost six hours to get there from Philadelphia, but somehow we didn't believe it. It's hard to remember that Pennsylvania is so big when I can't think of more than three or four landmarks between Philly and Pittsburgh—as if my knowledge of a place should be proportional to its real size. In fact, the state is vast, comprising 46,000 square miles, 2562 municipalities, and thirteen million people. If I met five hundred new Pennsylvanians every day of my life, I would be well over a hundred before I met them all. That morning, we hurried past all of it, sure that what mattered was waiting in Franklin.
When we finally pulled into town, my eyes were locked on the printout of turn-by-turn directions, so I failed to notice the large hand-written sign for the Rock in River Festival. Mike's head swiveled in the direction of its large arrow.
"Oh, it's right there. See it? That must be it right there."
And there it was, a grassy riverside expanse next to a playground and a small parking lot. I expected that parking would be a problem for late arrivals, but I was wrong. It's not that the place was empty. There were probably fifty or sixty cars parked along the lawn, a handful with out-of-state plates. But I've seen bigger crowds at the annual rutabaga-curling competition in Ithaca, New York, in which peeled rutabaga are hurled toward a target along the wooden floor of a Farmer's Market pavilion.
"Are you sure this isn't a handicapped spot? Can we really park this close?"
Walking from the car toward a cluster of pop-up tents, we passed an old minivan with open doors. A teenager standing beside the van talked to a man in the passenger seat, rattling off a list of the things he had spent money on so far—five dollars for a plate of chicken, three dollars for ice cream, a dollar for some water. Two women stood next to the van wearing little black bonnets and long plaid cotton dresses. They looked Amish. The contents of the open hatch—a pile of purple and yellow balloon animals and two cases of Pepsi—seemed incongruous with the women's clothing, but I realized that I had no idea whether the Amish drank soda. Perhaps it made perfect sense.
We had missed the entire amateur division, but I wasn't too concerned. The pros had yet to begin, and there would be some big names participating: world record holder Russ "Rock Bottom" Byars; former world record holder Kurt "Mountain Man" Steiner, who won the previous two years; and our friend Eric Henne, the young guy from Ithaca who appeared out of nowhere at the Franklin championship in 2011 and nearly beat Steiner in 2011 and 2012.
Eric is tall and lanky, with a long protruding chin and light blue eyes that gleam beneath dark bushy eyebrows. When he laughs, his square shoulders bounce up and down and his mouth opens into a shape that looks like it could have been drawn by a child—upper and lower lips curving into parallel semicircles that recede into deep creases on the sides. He looks a little like Gumby, if Gumby sported a five o'clock shadow and a Marlboro. He dropped out of college after a couple years and moved back home to Ithaca, where he worked as a waiter and bartender and now managed one of our favorite bars. Sometimes he talked about getting out of Ithaca, but it's the kind of town that sucks you in. I lived in Ithaca for nine years before moving to Philadelphia, and now, in the humid cloak of city summers, I long for the cool of its lakes and waterfalls. It's easy not to leave, even when you know it's time for a change.
Four or five years ago, Mike told me that Eric is serious about rock skipping.
"What do you mean by 'serious'?"
It seemed to me that the serious pursuit of rock skipping must come hand in hand with a deep current of ironic humor, like a young Brooklynite's serious pursuit of growing a mustache. But Eric is not an ironic guy. His humor is straightforward and earnest.
"Like, does he train?"
"Oh yeah. He's incredibly good. He could potentially set a world record."
In 2011, Eric appeared at the Franklin championship for the first time. As an unknown, he competed first in the amateur division. Any amateur who skips twenty-five times is automatically qualified forever to compete as a pro. Eric did so easily, scoring a 33 and winning the division by five skips. Later in the afternoon, he threw stones as a "professional," while his then-girlfriend stood on the grassy hill, the words "Eric Henne makes my heart skip" emblazoned across her white T-shirt in black Sharpie marker.
The pros that day in 2011 included "Rock Bottom" Byars and "Mountain Man" Steiner. Byars, the current Guinness World Records holder with fifty-one skips, is a big guy with a broad barrel chest and skinny legs. Whenever he competes, he wears a t-shirt that says "Skips Rocks for Fudge." His thick blond hair always looks like it's at an awkward stage of growing out a crew cut—the top spraying up in various directions like a water fountain on the fritz. He looks like an overgrown child, friendly and lacking hard edges.
Steiner, who held the record before Byars, is four or five inches shorter and of a much slighter build. He has a frizzy gray beard and wears his hair in a low ponytail. He's not old—pictures from ten years ago show him with a full head of dark brown hair that's slowly grayed over the last decade of stone skipping competitions and world record battles. He's probably in his early fifties, same as Byars, but he looks craggy and weathered next to Byars' doughy blond curves.
Elite stone-skipping seems to be a small club, with a couple dozen guys who travel to a few major contests and trade championship titles back and forth. New faces are rare. Eric came out of nowhere when he threw his final stone on that August afternoon in 2011, and so perhaps the judges couldn't accurately process the unexpected event transpiring before their eyes. It's not a straightforward business counting skips that recede into the distance with pitty-pats that come fast and close, the stone looking more like it's gliding across the water than making individual points of contact that can be counted. Beyond twenty-five skips or so, you can no longer definitively count the individual skips without filming, so the numbers at a competition like this, judged by the naked eyes of three guys in Hawaiian shirts, can sometimes feel like they're being pulled out of thin air. It's usually possible to determine whether one skip is better than another, based on duration and distance, but the numbers eventually start to feel arbitrary and subjective. In 2011, Eric's final throw was announced at 37, but multiple bystanders claimed that it was longer than that. People said it seemed longer than Mountain Man's 39 from the first round, but it was hard to be sure. Eric took 2nd place. Later that afternoon, walking from one Franklin bar to another, he was greeted by a drunken local who shouted across the street, "You were fucking robbed!"
In 2012, Eric returned. Each competitor threw six stones, one at a time over the course of six rounds. After all the stones were thrown, the contest was locked in a three-way tie with 40 skips each for Eric, Mountain Man, and a lesser-known named Paul Fero. To break a tie, they look to each contender's second-highest skip. For Mountain Man, it was a 39. For Eric, a 37. Once more, Mountain Man took first place and Eric took second.
It wasn't hard to locate Eric. He was flanked by his girlfriend, Karen, and friends Micah and Matt, who had driven the five hours from Ithaca with him that morning and would serve as both his supporters and competitors this year. If the name "Mountain Man" wasn't already taken as a stone-skipping moniker, Micah could have snatched it for himself. His cherubic face was buried behind a frizzy orange beard and thick yellow hair the color of straw that stood in place when he ran his hands through it, which he often did while spouting philosophy or quoting the Greeks. He was a loud know-it-all with a twinkle in his eye, and while he knew that he was unlikely to reach Eric's level of mastery with a stone, he hoped he could make a decent showing. Matt, a short stocky guy with olive skin and a shaved head, was the forty-year old uncle of another of their friends. He relished his dual identity as a high school English teacher and a father who partied with his daughters and nieces and nephews. At a party, he was as likely to be found playing beer pong as holding court in a lawn chair, reciting a soliloquy from King Lear. For stone-skipping, he wore a Bob Marley t-shirt and long cargo shorts. After failing to make it out of the amateurs in 2012, that morning Matt redeemed himself with a high skip of 32 and would be competing alongside Micah and Eric in the afternoon.
They were about to walk into town for a beer in the hour before the pro division began. Wanting to make sure I experienced as much of the festival as possible, I hesitated. If we left now, I would miss my chance to see any of the rock painting competition, to guess the weight of "Skippy the Rock," or to pet the animals in the small petting zoo, and I wondered if I would fail to decipher the je ne sais quoi of a stone-skipping festival. But the chance for a beer with friends trumped other motives, so I went with the five of them and drank a quick pint on the back lawn of a bar enclosed by a white picket fence. The guys threw back a shot of liquor—Jagermeister for Eric and well gin for Micah—to fortify themselves before the competition. Then we walked back to the park along the main street of Franklin, its large brick buildings and ornate street lamps reminiscent of the town's 19th century oil boom heyday. Back at the festival, I took my seat among spectators—a couple hundred, tops—along a small grassy hillside overlooking the confluence of the Alleghany River and French Creek, where the water was still and the skipping was fine.
The question I began by asking myself—is this a serious thing or is it a joke—was the wrong question to ask. The question itself presumed that it couldn't be both, that you can't have a sense of humor about a thing you work hard at, that silliness and dedication can't coexist. This is a sport with official terminology including the words pitty-pat, skronker, plink, and plonk and a world record holder who started competing in pursuit of the block of fudge given as a prize. The festivals are overseen by an appointee called the High Commissioner of Stone Skipping. Of course it's a little silly. And yet to send a stone skittering across the water thirty or forty or fifty times, eventually fading into flitting bounces more like an insect than a rock? That is very, very hard, and very few people can do it. It requires strength, precision, and technique. Maybe it's other sports that have it all wrong. Maybe stone skippers are rare in their ability to accurately grasp their sport's real significance and insignificance. A thing can be meaningful because it is fun. A person can be serious about a thing without believing that the nation will rise and fall around the tides of his individual successes or failures.
The competition consisted of eighteen men and two women. One woman had driven from Boston because she was looking to up the ante after twice winning a less elite contest in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. She wore a spaghetti strap tank top that revealed most of the tattoo on her right shoulder blade. It was an homage to stone skipping, with several sets of concentric circles decreasing in diameter as they arched up toward her shoulder, like the ripples that radiate from each plink of the stone as it skips into the distance. She wound up like a softball pitcher's windmill, delivering the speed she needed for an impressive twenty-five skips on her final throw. The other woman, an older Franklinite with white hair, wasted no time with the pre-throw chit-chat, theatrics, or centering breaths that delayed most guys' throws by ten or fifteen seconds. She just walked to the water's edge, chucked a couple of stones that skipped fifteen or eighteen times, turned around and walked back to her seat. The announcer, struck by her efficiency and anxious to provide a narrative, commented multiple times that she must have something cooking on the stove, something she needed to return to in the kitchen.
This announcer, Eric Steiner (no known relation to Kurt the Mountain Man), was a thick guy from Michigan who had found his little niche of fame as The Voice of stone skipping competitions, most notably the Mackinac Island, Michigan championship he organizes each summer. Despite an alleged inability to skip a stone himself, he has become the public face of the sport, interviewed by newspapers nationwide as well as for a short human interest piece on National Public Radio. He wore a pale yellow polo from Mackinac Island, which spread tight around his large belly and tucked into khaki shorts. His stream of commentary went uninterrupted for nearly an hour, but for the silences he occasionally afforded skippers about to launch their stones. If his performance was any indication of the culture of the sport, it would seem that trash-talk is the main mode of dialogue between skippers. After a poor throw, The Voice took no mercy.
"Man, I have never seen someone throw a rock like that—it was a kerplop and a zero . . . And that's why you're not a professional . . . Oooh, man, that was ugly."
It seemed likely that the man with the microphone was irritating more people than he was entertaining. He was the only one heckling the skippers, and most folks near me sat quietly. The participants themselves ranged in reactions to bad throws. The old pros, with nicknames like "Rockbottom" and "Stone Whisperer" and "Airtight Alibi," usually grinned and threw up their hands. Their reputations were untouchable and they could afford to laugh off any gaffes. There were a few unknowns with similar attitudes, perhaps the locals who wandered over on a whim. And then there were the folks who struggled to hide their frustration when they choked. A little grimace and a shake of the head as they walked back to the places they were sitting.
After Micah failed to hit twenty on any of his skips, he sat down in front of Mike on the grass, leaning back on his elbows. When the nine-year-old wunderkind who followed him hit 35 on his final throw, Mike leaned forward toward Micah.
"Dude, that kid kicked your ass."
Micah did not respond, so Mike repeated himself. Micah turned his head slightly to the left, enough to peer at us through the far corner of his peripheral vision.
"I heard you," Micah said.
Eric's first skip was a disappointment—only a 14—but it was beautiful to watch. The stone took a long time to hit the water on its first skip and when it did, it sprang back off the surface and then traced a slow sweeping arc to the left. The stone seemed to slowly lift itself with the air on each ascent and then plunge downward to ping the water and then release, creating a bouncing path by which the stone threaded sky into water. Other guys threw the stones like a line drive, but Eric's had the uncanny path of a curve ball. This one failed to go far, but it felt like watching the creation of a piece of art. As far as scores go, his next three weren't much better—19, 18, and 19 again. He kept hitting a ripple in the water that made the stone hop and lose momentum. Others were having more luck—Mountain Man got a 40 on his first skip, and Dave "Spiderman" Ohmer got a 43 on his third. The Voice took it as his duty to leave as little silence as possible. During a brief lull in the action, he mused that "somebody up above" should be thanked for the day's beautiful weather, and at one point he raised his arm with a flourish, alerting us to a majestic bald eagle flying past.
"It's an osprey," muttered Karen, a veterinary science student.
The last round brought Eric a bit of rally, but it wasn't enough. His final skip was his highest for the day, but at a 35, it wasn't even enough to secure him third place. Matt threw last (scoring a proud 32) and after his final stone, Steiner announced "Spiderman" Ohmer the "unofficial" winner. It was a strange designation as there was no video footage to review, no way to insert any evidence or argument that would determine someone else to be the victor.
Steiner thanked us for coming, and invited us to Mackinac next summer. "Will somebody take that thing away from him," Micah called through the corner of his mouth before Steiner finally let the microphone fall to his side.
In the middle of the competition, Mike went to buy us lunch from one of the vendors and returned with two platters of barbecued chicken, baked beans, and coleslaw. Our dog sat wide-eyed by our feet as we tore pieces of meat off bones and licked our fingers. Two small blond boys approached from behind us and crouched down. "Can we pet your dog?" one asked, and proceeded to cup his palm and pat her back lightly, barely touching her. An even smaller girl, maybe three years old, wearing a bathing suit with a small pink ruffle around the waist, rolled like a log down the small hill beside us, shrieking with laughter. Behind us, the small crowd was rapt. In the moment when a stone was thrown, they grew hushed, as if watching tennis. I turned to my left toward Karen and Eric and snapped a picture. Eric is looking at the camera and grinning, as if he's got everything he needs.
After the trophy ceremony, we went out for another beer on the back patio of a neighborhood bar. Eric, Micah, Matt and Karen had the long drive back to Ithaca ahead, and Mike and I were heading to the Alleghany National Forest to camp for the night. We were all vaguely aware of the drives and the destinations ahead, but it was hard to leave. I figured that Eric's mediocre performance would disappoint him, but he seemed happy and relaxed. Nobody talked about stone-skipping anymore. The event, only an hour in the past, seemed ultimately inconsequential—not that it didn't have meaning, but that it didn't change anything. Even if Eric had won, he would be blessed with a distinction that would mean nothing to all but a handful of folks in the world. In a way, it all started to feel almost spiritual—the striving for a thing that changes no one but yourself. I came hoping to understand this stone-skipping endeavor as if I could distill it into something with meaning for others. But perhaps this misses the point. That morning, as we approached the exit off Route 80 that would take us toward Franklin, we passed a blue two-tiered sign along the highway, the kind where they list the restaurants and gas stations at the next exit. It was completely blank but for the word "attractions" at the top. "There are things to do here," I imagined it to say, "but you can find them for yourself. You decide where meaning lies."
Since the filing of this piece, Guinness World Records has certified a new world record for Most Skips of a Skimming Stone: Maxwell Steiner skipped a stone sixty-five times in Franklin, PA, in August 2014, surpassing Byars' 2007 record by fourteen skips. Byars witnessed and filmed the event.
SARAH KENNEDY currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Rutgers University Camden. She previously worked as a lexicographer, a travel writer, a waitress, a bartender, and an amusement park ride operator. She holds a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Rutgers-Camden. She has essays forthcoming in Chautauqua Magazine and Under the Sun.