On a sunny and wind-whipped Memorial Day, for the hundreds of spectators standing on the western shores of the Eel River beneath Fernbridge, some 250 miles north of San Francisco, a truly unusual spectacle is about to unfold.
Giant sculptures will be crossing the river.
The first to enter the drink is Humpbacks of Notre Dame, a top-heavy, climate-change-inspired artwork featuring fabric-wrapped foam whales and French cathedrals. It is followed by an oversized representation of a lemon and a colossal ode to a can of tuna. A swarm of gargantuan bumblebees. A praying mantis riding atop an all-female hair band. An imitation hot rod full of Abraham Lincolns.
Welcome to the Kinetic Grand Championship, a three-day race of human-powered sculptures over 50 miles of land, sand, mud and water. This is where Burning Man meets the Tour de France. The competition kicks off in the central plaza of bohemian college town Arcata, and from there, the sculptures cruise over city streets, up and down coastal sand dunes, through Humboldt Bay and into the frigid and swiftly moving Eel River.
With any luck, all of the kinetic sculptures will later roll to the finish line through the Victorian-lined streets of Ferndale , where the madcap event and its questionable rules were first dreamed up in 1969. But in a race this convoluted, victory is far from a given.
Danger can come fast. As it enters the river, the top-heavy art on the Humpbacks of Notre Dame catches a powerful gust of wind, spinning the rig and sending it in the direction of one of the bridge's concrete pylons. Suddenly, the craft's bottom catches on a submerged log, redirecting it into faster-moving water near the pylon. The contraption begins to tilt, and it's over: It capsizes and tosses the crew into the icy river.
Beyond the potential for injuries, hypothermia or worse, capsizing also puts the team at risk of losing its "ace."
To ace the race, a sculpture must adhere to a set of strict policies, including Rule W, "Water Entry & Exit," which specifies that sculptures must be propelled into, through and out of the water by only the pilots on board. So as the search and rescue crews deployed, the pilots — now clinging to their sideways sculpture — were thoroughly uninterested in being helped.
They still believed they could right this ship, cross the remainder of the river, pedal to the finish and become Grand Champions. Like every other pilot, pit crew member, peon, barnacle, goddess, queen and spectator in this preposterous pageant, they were in it "for the glory."
Participants in the Kinetic Grand Championship have been seeking that glory for more than a half-century.
The groundwork for the competition was first laid in 1968, when metal sculptor and gallery owner Hobart Brown decided to improve upon his young son's tricycle in Ferndale. When he was finished, the "pentacycle" stood just over 5 feet tall and featured two extra wheels, wrought iron adornments, a steering wheel and a canopy overhead.
When another local artist, Jack Mays, saw the contraption, he announced that he could build a better one. Mays came up with a 12-foot-high pedal-powered army tank and started making plans for a competition. "In America, if you have two of anything, you have to race," Brown later explained.
In fact, nine additional entrants enlisted for the world's first race on Mother's Day in 1969, along Ferndale's Main Street. Neither Brown nor Mays was victorious; instead, a human-powered tortoise that squirted water and laid eggs triumphed. Really, though, everyone involved won.
At the time, there was a serious culture clash in the region. On one side, you had the descendants of white settlers who, after displacing the Native Americans who had lived in the area for thousands of years, spent their days logging, fishing, farming and mining. On the other, a wave of artsier types like Brown who had arrived in Humboldt County starting in the 1960s.
"Hippie Scalps $5," a sign read in the Ivanhoe bar in Ferndale, according to a book Brown wrote about the sculpture race. "We had a real redneck/multi-color neck problem," he continued. "But then the race came along, and it was different and exciting and back then, not a heck of a lot was happening in Ferndale, so people had a really good time with the race and everybody got out and got involved in it, and all of a sudden the town had a different point of view on the artists."
Brown — who is now dubbed "the glorious founder" — showed up to the race each year in a top hat and tailcoat. As time went on, the event got bigger, more challenging and considerably longer, drawing more elaborate entrants and widespread media coverage. About a dozen more kinetic sculpture races have since popped up across the world, from Poland to Baltimore, Philadelphia to Western Australia.
For many artists, these events have become a way of life. They compete year after year, often spending months preparing their art and sometimes risking life and limb to delight the spectators, finish the race and soak up all that glory.
The drizzly, gray weather was uncooperative on the opening day of the 54th annual Kinetic Grand Championship, and it didn't matter one bit. As the streets filled with umbrella-toting townspeople, elaborately costumed participants and general merriment, Arcata Plaza seemed to crackle with kinetic energy.
Starting at 9 a.m., the sculptures cruised the packed square. There are requisite stops for tech checks, brake tests and judging on art, pageantry and engineering, but it's also a good opportunity for a little friendly bribery, with participants offering everything from cupcakes to tiny artworks.
The pageantry judging area was especially raucous, with the Hot Rod Lincoln Loggers swinging axes and performing an impassioned (and heavily altered) version of the Gettysburg Address and the Tempus Fugitives — a team of all-female pilots masquerading as a hair band dubbed Praying Menace — rocking the plaza.
"Our main goal has always been world domination," Tempus Fugitives team captain Professor Queen Betty Crafter said. "But with three new pilots and a virgin captain, we decided we will have accomplished our mission if one, we don't die, and two, we have fun."
At noon, a whistle blew to signify the start of the race. A bee zoomed by with its antennae shooting fire. Then came a Florida-themed boat adorned in plastic alligators and mullet-sporting pilots. A UFO with two pilots facing opposite directions spun through, along with a giant pink rabbit with a swivel head, a clown car of "Screaming Yellow Zonkers" and a medic-inspired machine with what looked like blood bags hanging from the canopy.
Some spectators followed the course on their bicycles, while others headed directly for the most exciting viewing spot: Dead Man's Drop. Out in the Samoa Dunes, which the racers must climb and descend, the famous 100-foot drop has been known to eat sculptures and brazen photographers as well.
The drop was extra nerve-wracking because the race hadn't come through in a couple of years, and the dunes were somewhat overgrown, according to veteran spectators. Two teams were the first to roll up in their sand tires: the Humpbacks of Notre Dame and Plan Bee (the swarm of bees, who insist their team name was chosen long before the Roe v. Wade fiasco).
"I think we'll be fine," one of the Plan Bee pilots said, sounding unconvinced. As the wheels careened over the side, the sculpture picked up speed, sending a couple of pit crew members into the chaparral. But they were OK! And so too was every sculpture that did the drop, even the Lemonheads vehicle, which crashed spectacularly after the pilot had a wardrobe malfunction.
"He got some zest in his eyes," a team member said, referring to how the pilot's lemon hat fell down before the front wheel caught, toppling the craft.
On the second day, the racers and their sculptures gathered at the Wharfinger boat ramp in Eureka for their first water entry. They strapped on floatation devices and installed rudders, converting their machines into boats in preparation for a cruise in the bay. The pageantry judges, press and race "offishuls" lined up along the dock, while pit crew members, medics and photographers paddled around in kayaks.
The size of the splash was particularly important, as it merits a special award, and some of the larger crafts — including a sushi boat carrying a golden fortune cat — really gunned it down the ramp. Some of the sculptures weren't entirely cut out for amphibious life, while others had some kinks to work out. The back wheel on Puff Puff Pass the Peaceful Dragon began shooting water directly at the backside of its pilot.
"It's a bidet, ladies and gentlemen," one judge observed. "It's a kinetic bidet."
After cruising more than a mile up Humboldt Bay and exiting the water under the Samoa Bridge, the sculptures raced from Eureka to Crab Park, an isolated stretch of sand with beach access at the mouth of the Eel River, where the teams were required to camp out. Many of the tired pilots called it a night early, while more than a few rowdy pit crew members and peons stripped down and plunged into the ocean.
There's more than one way, it turns out, to get some glory.
The next morning, over at the Eel River crossing beneath Fernbridge, the Humpbacks of Notre Dame are drifting with their sculpture. All pilots are accounted for, and some have managed to remove their heavy helmets, which feature stylish but useless fake snorkel equipment on top. Their silver disco outfits are soaked through.
On the west bank of the river, hundreds of attendants are on their feet, nervously watching and waiting. Sitting in the shallows, a woman in a blue wig and mermaid attire glances forlornly at the ailing vessel — her father, Robert Van de Walle, is the team captain.
The current takes the sculpture toward a gravel island in the middle of the river, and Van de Walle gives instructions. "OK guys, when we get to wherever our feet touch, we're going to stand the rig up again, and we're going to get back on," Van de Walle says.
The team complies, and the pilots manage to muscle the sculpture back into an upright position. At that point, Van de Walle sees that the sand tires shifted out of place when the sculpture capsized and makes the call to remove them.
It turns out to be the wrong choice. When the sculpture reaches a sandbar, the surface is soft, like a dune face, and no matter how hard they try, the pilots cannot pedal the sculpture over the top. They jump back off and begin to slide it sideways rather than forward, a move that will help them preserve their ace. But it's slow going, and after about a half-hour of maneuvering the craft laterally but making little progress, a search and rescue officer speaks up.
"Your teammates are starting to shiver," he says.
"Yeah, but we're acing," Van de Walle explains. He is one of the shivering people, but for three years he has dreamed of acing this race. He keeps pushing, and after a few more minutes, the team manages to clear the sandbar.
They start off pedaling in the water again, making some progress before hitting another patch of scree. Van de Walle knows it's going to take too long to clear this one, and he hears the voices of search and rescue personnel.
"You guys have to stop. You're done. You're done," one says.
The pit crew comes over and takes control of the sculpture, and the pilots make their way to the west riverbank. As soon as Van de Walle arrives, he gets treated for hypothermia, along with another one of the pilots. Medics wrap them in sleeping bags, and volunteers provide skin-to-skin contact to warm them. They try to keep the mood light, but the disappointment in losing the ace (and the competition) is palpable.
"It was very disheartening to know that we had come so far, gotten so close and then just picked a bad spot of the river to cross," Van de Walle says.
"And we were overly ambitious with our art," his wife and co-pilot Dawn Thomas adds.
When Van de Walle's body temperature stabilizes and his executive functioning returns, his thoughts are clear: We need to get the art out of the river and up the bank, get back on it and finish pedaling to Ferndale. The team members are in full agreement. They eat some apples, drink some juice and gather dry clothing from complete strangers.
Hours later, when they pedal down Main Street to the finish, the crowd gives them a hero's welcome. That includes Rutabaga Princess Mystikal Wildflower, who looked smashing in a shiny silver suit covered in flowers and butterflies.
"It's a great comeback," she says of this year's event. "The beginning of the race was pouring down rain, and so given my persona being a wildflower, I needed all that rain to soak up in my roots. And now, full blast, full sunshine, it feels good. It's been a hard two years, so it's much needed."
Later that night, at the awards dinner, the Humpbacks of Notre Dame are shocked to learn that the judges are letting them keep their ace. There's a little-known rule, apparently, that if the safety of the team is in jeopardy, and in complying with medical advice the team breaks an ace rule, that team can petition to get it back.
Cheers erupt from the audience, and people run up to hug Van de Walle and Thomas, who have both broken into tears. And not only do they still have their ace, but as it turns out, their scores for art, engineering and speed are all extremely high, meaning they have won the race.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Humpbacks of Notre Dame are this year's Grand Champions. And it couldn't have happened in a more glorious way.
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