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Calaveras frog jockeys leap at a chance to win annual distance contest

ANGELS CAMP — Mark Twain amused readers with his 1865 tale of a frog famous for how far it could leap.

Tell that to the top contestants in the Jumping Frog Jubilee of 2010. They stood stone-faced near the stage Friday as event organizers went over the rules.

You have one minute to get your frog to jump. You must exit the stage after your turn. If you don't like how the leap was measured, you can fill out a grievance form.

These contestants are the elite in the wide world of frog sports, vying for the $5,000 that would be awarded should anyone break the record of 21 feet, 5¾ inches, set by Rosie the Ribiter in 1986.

For all the preparation, it often comes down to dumb luck.

"You find a frog and you hope to hell that he will jump," said Bill Guzules of Santa Clara, one of the frog jockeys.

The 82nd annual jubilee, part of the Calaveras County Fair, started Thursday and will run through

Sunday. The final day includes the 2 p.m. finals in the "international" competition, where the top jockeys compete.

Other fairgoers can rent frogs — $4 for children, $7 for adults.

One at a time, contestants place a frog on the carpeted stage and watch how far it can go in three jumps. The distance is measured from the starting point to the end of the third jump, so sharp turns are not welcome.

The contestants can stamp their feet or do other things — within the rules — to encourage the frogs.

It helps to keep the critter away from the hubbub until the last minute.

"The thing is, you don't want to practice," said event volunteer Tim Burt. "You want the frog as wild as it can be."

These are not your puny native frogs. These are bullfrogs, which are native to the central and eastern United States and were brought to California in the 1800s. Some of them probably could take down a chihuahua.

Guzules, who coached a frog jump team at the elementary school where he taught, spent seven recent nights looking for frogs in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Competitive frogs should be "not too big, not too small," he said.

They can eat rats and birds, he added, but that would make them too heavy for jumping.

In Twain's story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," the title character was sabotaged by shotgun pellets placed in its mouth.

Don't try that at the jubilee, which adopted a Frog Welfare Policy in 1995. Among other things, it spells out how to handle the rental frogs, which are kept in a cool room under the main stage.

Raen Kuykendall, 9, of nearby Douglas Flat is one of the volunteer frog wranglers, delivering seven at a time in a wet burlap sack to the stage.

"If they get dry, they get sick," she said. "If someone is taking some time (to jump), I put the next one in a little pool thing so it's nice and ready."

Twain was 29 when he visited the Gold Rush settlements in Calaveras County in early 1865. He apparently heard the frog legend in a tavern and turned it into a short story that helped stake his early reputation.

Twain went on to pen "Huckleberry Finn" and other classics. April 21 of this year was the centennial of his death.

Friday, the author returned to life in the form of McAvoy Layne, an impersonator who lives near Lake Tahoe and is working the Calaveras fair.

Twain/Layne let on that the 1865 story had not been among his favorites.

"Over time, I have warmed up to the frog story," he said. "Yesterday, I was walking around with a frog on my shoulder."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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