Monday, April 4, 2011

When kayaks and lawnchairs collide

(Chieftain column, April 7, 2011)

Pre-race staging area for Lawnchair Race 2011. Ricky Bobby's classy ride out front there.

I’d like to report an accident. A kayak ran over me Saturday. It was orange and moving quite fast. I couldn’t avoid the collision because I was trapped in a lawnchair at the time and the metal sled bolted under the chair was stuck in the snow.

Luckily my father taught me when I was a boy that if you ever find yourself in a downhill lawnchair race at a community ski area about to be run over by a whitewater kayak and can’t roll out of the way, just put up one of your legs and kick the oncoming kayak. Thanks, Dad. Worked great. Been limping since then, but think it’s just a pulled calf muscle. Jake Kurtz thinks he dislocated a shoulder in the same race, so I got off easy.

I'm the little black dot that gets pummeled about the 40-second mark. Next year: rollcage.

We might solve the energy crisis if Wallowa County skiers ever apply the same thought and effort toward other forms of transportation as they do sliding down a hill sitting on lawnchairs. The lineup before the race looks like a full-scale version of the pinewood derby on skis, inspired by old issues of Popular Mechanics and The Road Warrior. Timm Turrentine constructed a racing machine along these lines with a bumping stereo system he used to crank ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ during the race for mood music.

Two-time lawnchair race champion Paul Arentsen currently holds the patent on the winning design. It’s deceptively simple, with solid engineering theory at work. He got up enough speed this year to bounce off the video camera strapped to his helmet. Paul was so confident he’d be out in front that he pointed his helmet-cam backwards this year to get video of the people he was beating. That’s pretty bold. Bordering on cocky. And I told him so. I had to tell him using sign language, because I was still out of breath from climbing the hill with my lawnchair racer, which refused to be pulled up the mountain on the T-bar.

Paul's winning sled is in the upper-right. My not-winning sled in the foreground.

Some people might get discouraged when their racing vehicle refuses to be pulled uphill in a straight line—but I designed this thing to go one way. Down. So I saw this as a good sign. I put my racer over my shoulder and marched up the side of that mountain, pausing occasionally to catch my breath in the brisk mountain air and cough out my spleen, two gall stones and I think one of my Achilles tendons. It’s kind of steep.

Strategy is important. You want to line up on the left side because the slope pulls you into the trees on the right. Also you want to be far away from the guy with the kayak that has two skis zip-tied on either side of a 2x4. I got my starting spot on the left, but it was mixed blessings. So did the kayak. I saw that contraption at the bottom of the hill and thought, “That’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Turrentine hit play on “Flight of the Valkyries,” then it was Three, Two, One, Go and the race was on. I shoved off, got up speed and my sled that kept turning downhill when I tried going up now changed it’s mind and veered hard uphill when I thought we were going down.

I looked up to see the kayak coming right for me. Turns out it was an accident waiting to happen. But at least the wait was over.

And I can’t wait for next year’s Fergifest.