The Calaveras Frog Jumping Contest

   The Calaveras Frog Jumping Contest

(This article ran as “Rosie is Still the Queen”  in the Cupertino News on July 14th, 2009.)

By Sandy Sims

Rosie the Ribiter jumped 21 feet 5.75 inches in 1986, and nary a one has beaten the long-legged beauty since. But each year, during the third week of May, contenders trek from all over the United States to Angels Camp in California’s historical gold country, hoping to leap passed Rosie’s record.

Thousands of two-legged types wander the shores of lakes, swamps, rivers, ponds, even backyards in search of that special bullfrog. They lug their green hoppers in coolers, Tupperware, cans — whatever holds a little water and a frog or two or ten — to the Calaveras County Fair International Frog Jump Championship in Angels Camp. This year (2009) was no exception. More than 2,000 frogs competed, and 40,000-plus people came to watch.

a "frog jockey" (photo by Jeff White) The frog jockey gets em hopping. (Photo by Jeff White)

Surrounded by all the hoopla of a big county fair-including carnival rides, farm animals, booths of food and froggie kitsch, pie contests, music, dancing, and all around fun-the frog contest was the main event.

Qualifying trials on Saturday determined the top 50 frogs that competed in the International Frog Jump Grand Finals held in the stadium on Sunday,

The people who inspire the frogs to jump are called—and I’m not kidding—frog jockeys. Some of these jockeys have been inspiring frogs for over 20 years; some are second and third generation jockeys. Rosie’s jockey, Lee Giudici, who hails from Los Altos, has been returning with new frogs since before Rosie made her mark in 1986.

But this is no casual event. There are rules. A frog must measure at least four inches from nose to tail. Its four feet, including toes, must all be on the eight-inch green pad before it starts to jump. And it only has a few seconds in which to do its three hops. (The distance is measured as a total of three hops.) There are other rules, too. While jockeys can tickle or pinch the frog to get it to leave the pad, they cannot touch the frog after it’s left the pad. But they can do almost anything else. And they do. They yell, jump, whistle, clap, slap the ground.

We aren’t just talking fun; there’s money in this. In 2009 first place won $750 and on down to $50 for eighth place. And if a frog equals Rosie’s record, it’s $1,000, but if it were to actually beat Rosie, it’s a whopping $5,000.

All this craziness was inspired by Mark Twain‘s 1865 short story .  The setting for the story that made him famous was Angels Camp, one of the gold rush towns in the Sierras above Sacramento. Back when Twain was there, the town was a dusty, Old West sort of place, with dirt roads, saloons, and wooden sidewalks.

The idea for the contest was conceived in 1928 when the people of Angels Camp — still a mining town back then — passed a bond measure to finally pave their roads. Wanting to celebrate in a big way, they decided to trade on Twain’s famous story and have a frog-jumping contest. Some 15,000 people came to the first jubilee, and the winning frog jumped 3 feet 6 inches.

These days, things are a bit more gentrified in Angels Camp, with bed and breakfast inns, contemporary cuisine, art galleries, golf resorts, and wineries tucked in the nooks and crannies of the hills.

But there’s not a lot of gentrification that can be done to a frog-jumping contest. It’s still pretty wild to watch a jockey inspire his frog. And you can bet old Rosie is watching down from froggie heaven, proud that not a one has topped her record.

Note: Calaveras County is dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to frogs and advocates the safe and proper handling of frogs used in public events.