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Frogs Still Jumping in Jubilee

Despite Concerns About Disease, the Annual Event Is On

May 18, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

ANGELS CAMP, Calif. — For the 75th straight spring, the golden foothills of the Mother Lode are awhirl with Calaveras County's celebrated jumping frog jubilee, an annual rite of Americana inspired by a Mark Twain short story.

The big hop-off is today at the local fairgrounds, known as Frogtown. Amphibian athletes are primed to leap for the record books, if not back to their favorite lily pads.

Locals are just happy the contest didn't croak.

By tradition, the more than 2,000 frogs taking part each year are returned to the ponds whence they came. But wildlife officials say bullfrogs are the aquatic equivalents of Typhoid Mary, capable of silently sharing diseases and carrying them home to cause havoc among more sensitive amphibians. Worse yet, these hefty eastern imports -- brought west in the late 1800s -- have proved big bullies in the wild, eclipsing smaller native frogs that are teetering on the endangered species list.

For a time over the last year, it seemed such concerns might put a crimp in the annual competition. Organizers spoke of the unthinkable -- frogs held in captivity, even euthanized. Some folks worried aloud that it might spell an end to the jumping part of the jubilee, which consistently draws 40,000 visitors in the third weekend in May, giving the local economy an old-fashioned jolt of capitalism.

But state Fish and Game officials backed off any threats after discovering an obscure 1957 statute that exempts frog jumping contests from rules prohibiting the return of amphibians to the wild. They did, however, meet with the jubilee's management a few weeks ago to negotiate a compromise, decreeing that web-footed contestants would be retired to just a few select local ponds designated by wildlife officials.

Warren "Buck" King, the jubilee manager and unofficial Frogtown mayor, has already posted river-blue signs advising contestants that they are free to dump their frogs in the fairground's smile-shaped pond.

Organizers also are distributing a green flier drawn up by Fish and Game officials to better educate competitors, the human frog drivers who whoop and gesticulate to urge the amphibians along on the triple-jump journey on the big stage.

Although the squabble seemed no laughing matter only a few weeks ago, King can't help but find some mirth in it all now.

This is, after all, a man who persuaded local officials to install a "Hop of Fame" along downtown sidewalks -- bronze plaques immortalizing great hops past by champions like Splashdown, Ripple, Wet Bet and the current world record holder at 21 feet 5 3/4 inches, Rosie the Ribiter.

"I'll bet old Mark Twain is laughing up there right now," King said. "Problems with animal rights groups. Problems with environmentalists. He's saying, 'Look what I started!' "

Twain visited the county in the 1860s as a struggling journalist and left on the road to immortality as one of America's most celebrated humorists. He heard a tall tale about a frog contest and in 1865 immortalized it as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The short story was his first hit.

The jubilee wasn't born until 1928, when local leaders were hunting for a suitable way to commemorate the opening of their first paved roads. These days, competitors include a half-dozen hard-core frog-jumping squads, which roar into town with truckloads of specially selected frogs.

John Hand and his Oregon Frog Team arrived with a semi trailer from his home in Sweet Home, Ore. A barrel-chested man with a white beard, Hand has been competing for several decades. He once held the world record with Weird Harold and is itching to get it back.

As for the bullfrog brouhaha, he doesn't think much of it.

"It all seems blown out of proportion," said Hand, who prepares his web-footed athletes by bathing them in a plastic bucket of warm water, stretching out their legs, then sending them to the "lily pad," the small painted circle from which they are launched on a short trip of three measured jumps.

Last week, as a long line of children stepped up one at a time on the carpet-covered stage, frogs in hand, a pair of California Fish and Game officials kept an eye on the proceedings. Ed Pert, the department's fisheries programs chief, pronounced himself satisfied that fair organizers were doing all they could to stem the outbreak of disease and to tutor human participants.

"People are receptive," Pert said. "I think everyone just wants to continue the tradition and not harm the frogs."

Of particular interest was the "Hoppin' Hotel." Tucked beneath the two-story-tall frog-jumping stage, the hotel is lined with seven cast-iron water tanks filled with the 300 or more frogs rented to greenhorn competitors who show up without their own.

Donovan Hamanka, manager of the hotel, talked with pride about the care his crew provides -- flushing out tanks regularly, handling the amphibians with care.

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