Detours: Leap frog

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am

The third weekend in May is the highlight of life in Angels Camp, a quiet city about three hours by road east of San Francisco in the Sierra foothills. During a three-day period, 50,000 people descend on the place - 2,000 of them to frighten frogs.

'The life cycle of the frog is to eat, to not be eaten, and to breed,' says Joe Kitchell, a lanky man in his 40s with a droopy moustache, whose claim to fame is that he's an expert at frightening frogs. 'Our job is to make them think they're going to be eaten.' So that they'll jump.

'You might yell, whistle loud or smack the ground behind them. You want the frog to think, OK, I'm out of here.' Sound weird? Yes, but the reason for the influx of people is the Calaveras County Fair. And the high point of the fair - unless you're a farmer bringing pigs or steers to show and sell - is the annual world frog-jumping championships.

Angels Camp started life in the 1800s as a gold-mining settlement. One man who regularly made the trip from San Francisco was Samuel Clemens, who would achieve fame under his pen name, Mark Twain.

A tale he heard on one of his visits inspired his first published work, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The story, published in 1865, records the antics of a man named Jim Smiley and his jumping frog, Dan'l Webster. The championships, inspired by Twain's story, started in 1928. These days, replica frogs abound in Angels Camp, where even the high school mascot is a frog - with bull's horns (a bullfrog, above).

Before the annual event, the streets are festooned with lines of clothes, reminiscent of how people hung their washing out to dry in mining times.

The annual frog-jumping champion (who, confusingly, is a human and not a frog) receives a plaque with their name cemented into the main street pavement.

Kitchell is a former world frog-jumping champion. He'll try to grab back his 2005 title this weekend. The Angels Camp native has been jumping with his team, the Calaveras Frog Jockeys, for 18 years.

'I've never seen a frog scared to death,' he says. 'And, contrary to popular belief, we don't eat the legs. The frogs get put back in a pond.'

Although visitors can rent a frog for US$2 (fun jump) to US$6 (competitive jump) from 400 frogs made available by the organisers, Kitchell and his teammates spend the week leading up to the jump-off catching frogs in secret local ponds.

He's learned many things during his years as a frog jockey. 'The first year, we had an ice chest full of beer and put the frogs in there - and they went into hibernation mode, so we learned not to do that. We also learned not to handle them too much. They become docile.'

Then there's luck. And the mood of the frog. 'You can be the best jockey, but the frog has to want to jump. Sometimes, you put a frog on the starting pad and realise a stick of dynamite won't get him to move. When you get out there, you're at the mercy of your frog.'

So what's the appeal? 'Well, it's fun. Everybody in our team grew up playing ball. You get older and run out of things you can compete in. This is sort of like our last competitive sport.'