The Annual Kinetic Grand Championship is a Memorial Day weekend tradition in Humboldt County California. The 1969 fun weekend started as a two block dash down Main Street Ferndale California. It turned into an annual 3 day marathon (except during the pandemic) where humans power their moving “sculptures” through towns, beaches, sand dunes, pastures, trails, and rivers.
It is a lot of fun for both participants and spectators. Where else can you get a prize for “Best Bribe”? Or how about the prize for the first to break down? Or where can you cheer on your favorite human powered wacky vehicles and their teams over many viewing points.
It Starts with the Sculptures
This 50-mile race begins with the sculptures—a incredible array of engineering ingenuity and artistic folly. Individuals or teams create all-terrain devices that they hope will both capture the imagination of the judges and the audience and also triumph in (or at least complete) the multi-hazard course.
Most sculptures are built on innovative, primarily chain and sprocket-powered chassis that are reused with different themes and artistic accruements each year. One unique, although not especially successful design entailed a large, inflatable scooter-like device that was powered by a single pilot walking on the back wheel.
The resultant sculptures can be utilitarian, as a mountain bike with big tires and attachable pontoons, sardonically humorous as with the kinetic “ambulance” that joined the competition “for the gory”, or flamboyantly ostentatious, as with huge wings, belching steam vents or flame cannons.
Sculptures can be powered by individuals or groups from two to six or more. But regardless of the size of the number of people powering the device, most, especially the larger, more complex devices, require crews to help in often-required repairs, to restrain devices during steep descents (especially Dead Man’s Drop) and especially help them scale particularly steep grades—especially in climbing sand dunes.
The fun rolls out over three days:
Day 1: Sand Dunes and Dead Man’s Drop
It all starts around the downtown Arcata’s plaza. Spectators line the plaza to check out the sculptures. At the sound of the noon whistle, the sculptures take three spins around the plaza before departing on their 50-mile excursion.
While the contestants test the roadworthiness of their all-terrain, human-powered vehicles, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch. We met up with the contingent at its first big test: a two–mile peddle along a beach, up a steep sand dune, and down the dreaded, even steeper downhill stretch named Deadman’s Drop.
The crowd watches anxiously, trying to predict which sculptures might tumble rather than ride down the dune. The teams that survive the drop then peddle their contraptions to Eureka where they spend an evening combining merriment and rest (with their sculptures) at Halverson Park.
Day 2: Will They Float or Sink
The second day provides a test of the device’s seaworthiness with a launch from the Eureka docks. Sculptures, now sporting pontoons or other floatation devices, launch into the bay. Those that don’t sink or capsize on launch, are then peddled or paddled about a mile and a half along the Humboldt Bay coast.
They then emerge for their next big challenges—a one-mile climb up, and then a steep descent down the seven percent grade Table Bluff Hill, ending the day in Ferndale’s Crab Park.
Day 3: Heading to the Finish By Land and Sea
The last day normally requires both land and sea legs. Normally, the contestants travel by road to the muddy flats of and then cross the typically shallow Eel River. Due to heavy rains and the river’s currents, the water crossing was done via a bridge in 2023. They then negotiate their way through cows grazing in surrounding pastures and finally, make it to the finish line in Ferndale where the crowds cheered and toasted the incoming sculptures. While the crowds partied, the participants were looking forward to the celebratory awards dinner and sleeping in their own beds.
For winners, losers and spectators, a good time is had by all. While we felt that it was more fun in previous years when all sculptures went down Deadman’s Drop without a crew restraining the fall by rope or had to enter the water at such slow speeds. But it is probably a safer race than in past years.
Beyond the Race: Exploring the Area
The course runs through three lovely, largely Victorian-style Humboldt County towns. Each grew wealthy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and have retained (or at least restored) the charm.
Arcata was a supply town during the Gold Rush. It has a lovely central plaza from where the race begins. And just a block off the square, is a local farmers market and associated food stands. Walking around the streets, you see some beautiful homes.
Eureka is the largest and most diverse of the race’s three towns. It earned its initial fortune as the largest port between San Francisco and the Columbia River and was the transit center for the region’s lumber industry. It has a beautifully restored, 19th-century brick Victorian downtown. Some of the area’s most impressive mansions include the Carter House and especially the huge, fabulously ornate, 1885 Carson Manson.
The town is also a showcase for public murals and for well-maintained homes of several other architectural styles ranging from Queen Anne, Tudor and Norman Revival to Gothic and Craftsman.
Ferndale: Filled with Victorian Buildings
Ferndale grew rich in the late 19th century on the basis of the quality of the butter produced by its dairy herds. Its Main Street is lined with Victorian buildings. Don’t miss going in some of them. The Golden Gait Mercantile, for example, is a general store but half of its upstairs has been dedicated to something of a general store museum.
The largely Victorian town has been designated a California Historical Landmark. The main street is anchored by the1890 Victorian Inn with its 14-foot ceilings, period furnishings and photos. The town’s Victorian character, however, goes well beyond commercial buildings. One map highlights 62 historic Victorians in and on the way into town.
The range of Victorian-style houses is huge, ranging from formal Queen Anne to whimsical gingerbread, as exemplified by the 1899 Gingerbread Mansion, an Inn that was once a single family homes is just one of the so-called Butterfat Mansions that are scattered through the town.
They scale downward to small Victorian-era cottages and dozens of more recent buildings built in a Victorian style. These range from single-family homes two a two-room, two-story Victorian-style playhouse now housed in the pretty Hadley Park. A leisurely stroll is particularly worth the effort in spring, when the flowers and the trees are in full bloom. Especially when you happen to run into the Dixie Gators Brass Band practicing their Dixieland repertoire in one of the members’ front yards.
Of Land and Sea
But as pretty as are the towns, the area’s natural environment is as impressive and as lovely. Begin with the redwood forests that practically embrace the town, from Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the southwest and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park to the Coast to the northwest. If you’re not a “tree person”, how about the windswept beach and wind-carved dunes along the coast, or the tranquil marshes that surround the bay and the Eel River floodplain.
With or without an event, this is a beautiful area to visit.