By Bill Skiff
Have you ever found yourself sailing down a hill with your feet flying out both sides of your body and your hands grabbing a couple of wooden handles, trying to keep your balance? If you haven’t, you have missed one of Vermont’s finest winter sports … jack jumping.
Jack jumping is not for the faint of heart, but neither is snowboarding. They both require a fierce desire to learn, especially in the beginning. You have to love falling, falling and falling some more. Both jack jumping and snowboarding have steep learning curves; you must be willing to pay the price to become proficient, but boy is it worth it. Well, at least jack jumping is—I haven’t successfully snowboarded yet.
Jack jumping is an old sport. The earliest ones were reported to have been made in New England in the mid- to late-1800s. In Vermont, they were always homemade from scraps found around the farm. The oldest patent issued for a jack jumper is said to have been in 1929 in Switzerland.
Most historians believe the jack jumper was first used by loggers, then later by children to enjoy the winter months. The Ski Museum in Stowe has a couple of Vermont samples. It is felt they were first made using barrel staves with wooden posts and seats attached.
My dad gave me his jack jumper when I was a kid on the farm. He taught me how to ride it on a hill behind the barn. Dad was a good rider. He came sliding down the hill with his barn boots held at a jaunty angle as he sat on the seat and turned the jack jumper from side to side. All the while he was sliding down, he was yelling to me as to how he did it: “Keep your feet up, stay balanced on the seat, look straight ahead, shift your weight as you turn and hold on tight.”
That was some mouthful, and one hard to duplicate. I never saw Dad do it again but he sure made a believer out of me with that one run.
I still have my jack jumper today. It is covered with fading red barn paint. Its runner is 32 inches long, one-and-a-half inches wide and a half-inch thick. The bottom is covered with an inch-and-a-half-wide piece of polished steel. Fast? I guess it’s fast. I have never mastered it at full speed. The center pole is 16 inches high, with a seat attached to it. The seat is 15 inches long and five inches wide. There are two handles under the seat to hang on to. And hang on you must if you want to ride for any length of time.
Dad’s old jack jumper was my first winter companion. I had not become interested in skiing yet. Also, skiing and the equipment needed were expensive. My dog Teddy and I would climb the hill in back of the house, me lugging the jack jumper and Teddy chasing anything that moved. There were no packed trails or smooth roads to slide down. It was pack your own trail and hope there was enough time left to get in a couple of runs before dark.
I could never master riding with both feet off the ground at the same time, but I was able to master the total ride: getting me down the hill in one piece without stopping or falling. Well, most of the time.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]