Late one afternoon last summer, our family arrived at a campsite on the western shore of Lake Michigan. We had been driving all day, across Wisconsin on our way further east. The four of us—my wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 10—set up our tent, made dinner, then went down to the water. Two-foot waves were rolling across the lake, a taste of what lay ahead: We were going to the Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Competition—the oldest, most prestigious rock-skipping tournament in the United States, if not the world. Every Fourth of July, elite skippers (many former and current world-record holders) take turns throwing their stones into the waters where lakes Huron and Michigan meet, also known for having rolling, two-foot waves crashing on the beach.
I looked down, saw a decent skipping stone, and picked it up. My daughters were watching. The older one spoke up.
“Are you prepared for the fact that you probably won’t win?” she asked.
I threw the stone.
“Four,” she said. “But it caught a wave.”
My shoulders sagged.
“Don’t doubt yourself, Daddy!”
Her younger sister looked at her. “But you doubted him,” she said.
Prepared or not, I knew I had a knack for skipping. Some years earlier, I’d been driving through the mountains when I stopped at a roadside lake. The water was smooth as glass. I bent down, picked up a wide, flat stone, and sent it skimming across the water. It went on for what felt like forever, until it finally hit the rocky shore on the other side.
Behind me, a young boy spoke up.
“Wow,” he said. “You must be the world-champion rock skipper.”
I wasn’t. At least not yet. But I’d been skipping stones my whole life, ever since I was around my daughters’ ages, always getting better and better. There was almost nothing I loved better than the feeling of knowing—even before it hit the water—that you had a perfect throw, one that defies nature by making a stone both fly and float.
Mackinac, I had learned, was the place where such things were decided. These were my people—the ones who could spend hours on a beach looking for just the right stone, who would fill bags and boxes with skippers from secret locations, who would throw until their arm gave way, lost in the simple sorcery of stone skipping.
To reach the upper echelons of the skipping world was not easy. Mackinac was divided into two heats. First there was the “Open” division, in which every fudge-eating tourist on the island was welcome. Usually there were a few hundred people who entered. Only by winning the Open can you move up into the “Professional” division, which features heavy hitters such as Russ “Rockbottom” Byars, whose Guinness World Record held for years at 51 skips; Max “Top Gun” Steiner, who took the title from Byars with 65; and Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (no relation to Max) who currently holds the title with 88.
But now that I stood on the edge of the big lake watching the waves roll in, I wondered how anyone could skip a rock more than a few times on water like this.
The next day, we packed up and drove north, through the melancholy streets of Escanaba, near the southwest corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then north into the woods whose narrow highways were lined with old motels, “available” Adopt-a-Highway sections, and the occasional teepee-shaped trinket shop. We stopped at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and walked down to the beach only to find it packed full of weekend sightseers, outfitted with hydration packs and selfie sticks.
The beach, however, was a goldmine of beautiful stones perfect for skipping: flat and smooth and almost perfectly weighted. For half an hour, I practiced in the waves. It was tricky, but it could be done. Some sank straight into the crest. Others went surprisingly far, riding up the front and down the back of the swells of Lake Superior.
“Thirteen,” my daughter said. “Not too bad.”
That night we camped at a rustic site on a lake in the forest. The next morning we packed up and drove the rest of the way to the small town of St. Ignace at the eastern end of the UP. There we found our campsite, set up the tent, and settled in. I dumped out my box of skippers to try to pick out my winners.
When I spread them on a tarp, it immediately became clear that there were not as many as I had hoped. I had around a hundred stones of varying quality: some rough sandstone from the Mississippi; others dense basalt from Lake Superior; a few random, jagged stones from nameless dirt roads.
Some, I could see, were too light, and would probably fly up off the water. Others were too smooth and symmetrical, and would “stick” to the surface instead of popping up off it. A few were too “edgy” and would risk either snagging and sinking, or have the tendency to tilt and hook to the left or right, instead of running straight out into the water. What you want, according to reigning champ Kurt Steiner, is a stone that is not perfectly round but that has points, or lobes, that act as spokes. As the stone spins, these points will push the stone up off the water, keeping it airborne and preventing it from sticking.
“If you spin it fast enough, the stone will essentially walk on those spokes,” Steiner told me, when I had called him for skipping advice. “A really good skip tends to walk like that.”
Tomorrow, I would have six throws, and I found my six best stones. Three were nearly perfect. Three were flawed, either too light, or poorly weighted. But they all had good, flat bottoms. I would have to make the best of them.
That night on Mackinac, some of the pros were gathering for dinner and a screening of a new documentary about the scene, called Skips Stones For Fudge, which I wanted to see. So I went down to the harbor and took a ferry over.
Mackinac Island is a strange place. It has been a tourist trap for well over a century, but it is also a state park, and a kind of living history center. Motorized vehicles are banned, so all transport—including hauling garbage—must be done by horse. The main street is lined with fudge shops, and on hot summer days the mingling smells of chocolate and horse manure are the first things you notice when you get off the boat.
The street was so packed with people I could barely walk down it. But I finally made it to the Yacht Club, an old house that looked out over the harbor. Inside, I found John “The Sheriff” Kolar, who helps organize the tournament (and who held the world record in a three-way tie from 1977 to 1984) and he introduced me to other skippers, including Max Steiner, Glen “Hard Luck” Loy (another 1977-1984 title holder), and Mike “Airtight Alibi” Williamson, 2014 winner (who recently went rogue and skipped stones across the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool).
The room, in other words, was filled with rock-skipping royalty. But you wouldn’t have known it if you just wandered in. Elite stone skippers are more like athletes in the vein of Olympic bowlers. By day they are electrical engineers, computer technicians, rental car franchise managers. But here on Mackinac, they have climbed to the very height of this sport. Here, once a year, they are the best in the world.
Before dinner, I sat down next to Williamson. He’s a former DOT worker who reminded me of an uncle you don’t know very well at a family reunion. He is aging, balding, and not in particularly good shape. Two years ago he tore one of his biceps at the competition. But he keeps coming back, and it was clear why.
“Whenever I throw stones out on the water,” he told me, “it’s like throwing a shooting star.”
After dinner, and the film (which hinges on the rivalry between Russ Byars and Kurt Steiner and is full of gorgeous, long throws on still water… stone skipping porn), I caught the last ferry to the mainland. That night, I lay in our tent and dreamed of rocks gliding, of weightlessness, and of stones sinking into the waves.
The next morning, the sky was clear. Waking up, I couldn’t hear any waves, but I could see the sun peeking across the lake. I gathered my stones, and the four of us drove down to the harbor to catch the early ferry. As we sailed across the water, I fumbled with my rocks, wondering how they would do. The water seemed calm. My stomach less so.
Near the island, I could see American flags everywhere, in honor of Independence Day. As we disembarked, the air was still cool and there was little manure in the streets. The island had a celebratory, historic feel. It evoked a mix of hope and nostalgia I hadn’t felt for a long time.
We walked to the rocky beach where the competition would be held and each of us threw a few practice stones. The water was calm when no ferries came by, but it was a mess of chop when they did.
We lingered on the beach until the registration opened. We needed to fill out a form with our name and our nickname, which I had forgotten about. I panicked and scribbled “Flatbottom.” My oldest daughter looked at my sheet.
“What kind of nickname is that?” she asked.
“You know, the flat bottom of the skipping stone,” I said.
“So if I have a triangle stone, with a flat bottom, that would be a good skipper?”
“No,” I said.
Soon the pros started to arrive. Max Steiner (65 skips) gave our girls lessons while I tried to eavesdrop. I heard someone say, “Russ is here,” and I looked over to see Byars (51 skips), the six-time Mackinac champ who still held the highest score ever recorded here: 33 skips. He brought two large bags full of stones from the south shore of Lake Erie for anyone who needed them. I introduced myself. “What do you think your chances are today?” I asked.
Byars took a drag on his cigarette. “Good as anyone,” he said. “I’ve seen really good skippers throw straight to the bottom every time. You never know.”
A loudspeaker crackled. “Let he who is without Frisbee cast the first stone!”
The judges gathered their clipboards and spread out along the water’s edge. The open competition had begun. Slowly, a few brave souls wandered down, handed over their score sheets, and began skipping while the judges counted as best they could (video replays were banned in the 1970s) and wrote down their scores. Some were clearly tourists who had happened upon the tournament. Others were like me—those who had been quietly honing their craft on unknown lakes and rivers. They had driven hundreds of miles in hopes of making it to the elite level.
As we watched other amateurs skip, I was nervous. I looked at the water. We were supposed to skip as a family and I wanted to time our turn between the ferries. In a lull, my oldest daughter looked at me. There were no boats in sight. I nodded. She walked down to the nearest judge, gave him her sheet and started skipping her stones. She threw a couple threes and fours, and finally an eight. Our youngest wanted to do the “Gerplunking” contest across the beach, where kids tried to make the loudest splash, so my wife went next, also throwing some low single digits, but ending up with a solid 12.
The judge looked at me. “You going too?”
I looked at the water. There was a boat far off toward the mainland. A few others sat in the docks on the island. There was no telling how long they would stay there. I handed over my sheet, and took out my first stone.
Just then, a ferry started to back away from the island. If I went fast, I could still have good water. More ferries appeared on the horizon. Maybe I could thread the needle.
As I got ready to throw, some wide waves began to roll in. I drew my first stone back and let it fly. It went out strong and straight, then plunged into the side of a wave.
“Four,” the judge said, writing it down.
Sweat ran down my back. I waited for the water to settle, drew back the second stone and threw. It had good spin, and was not sticking or hooking. It went fast and hard. On calm water it would have gone forever. At Mackinac, it slowed in the waves and then sank gently.
I knew I could do better. The next stone I tried to shoot through a trench between two big rollers. But it jumped the edge and got caught in the wave behind.
Someone down the beach yelled, “The Canadian just hit the ferry!”
Was that Drew “The Canadian” Quayle, who had made an appearance in the documentary Skips Stones for Fudge? Distracted, I tried to focus. My stones were getting worse. Fourth one: went out like a bullet, clipped the top of a wave, and shot straight up into the sky.
I grabbed the fifth stone tight. I threw it as hard as I could. Too hard.
The last stone. It was my best one, a perfect oval just the right weight. I needed to get up over 20. I cleared my mind. I relaxed my arm, drew it back, and sent it sailing. As soon as it left my fingers, I knew it was a good throw. It ran straight out across the water before finally getting caught in the waves.
“Eighteen,” was the call.
The four of us walked back up the beach. My daughter took my sheet and analyzed my scores.
“Pretty good, Daddy!” she said.
A little while later, they announced a three-way tie for first place with 22 skips each. I had tied for second with a guy from Ohio. This year, at least, I would not be moving into the pros.
The amateurs’ tie was broken with a sudden-death skip off, which “The Canadian” (yes, it was Drew Quayle) won. After that, the real show began, with a competition featuring four former Guinness World Record holders, six past Mackinac winners, and a few young newcomers.
“We got a lot of 60-year-old arms out there,” one of the judges next to me muttered. “It’s good to have some new blood.”
The beach filled with spectators and amateurs. We found seats where we could see. One by one the masters walked down to the water and spun their stones out across its surface as a three-judge panel counted, conferred, and scored. The crowd cheered at the good throws and groaned at the bad ones. The old arms warmed up and the numbers climbed from 19 to 22 to 25 and finally to a beautiful, long, left-handed 27 by Dave “Lefty” Kolar, that no one was able to top. (A few of the pros, I noted, didn’t break 19.)
When the last stone was thrown, the announcer closed the games. Skippers and fans wandered back to the island’s streets. As the beach emptied, I felt a sudden wistfulness, and realized I didn’t want the day to end.
There would be other years, other lakes. Still, we lingered on the empty beach, feeling the sun, listening to the waves, and scanning the ground for the next stone waiting for its turn to fly.