|Jim and Alex Stevenson, circa 1957|
The jumble of river rocks on the bank changes with every flood but there is always a little beach at this spot. The strong current is funneled through a solid limestone chute that the river has carved out of the bed-rock. The main flow is near the far bank while the near-side is calm as a mill pond. In fact, the current is reversed along the beach, drifting up-river to rejoin the rapids that drop into the chute. When the river is in full spate there is a whirpool here that audibly swirls, sucks and gurgles above the rushing white-noise of water and the strange submarine bonks and bumps of boulders on the move.
Fast water like that can transport rocks, gravel and sand, but as soon as it loses it's energy it drops its burden; the heaviest stones first, then the grit and pebbles and finally fine grains of sand. The sand lies nearest the water and the rocks get bigger as you ascend the beach, placed there during the heaviest of floods. The best skiffing stones lie in a strand line, above the sand and below the boulders, but now they are all gone, so the boys keep looking between the bigger rocks where they find a few more to send skipping over the water.
The brothers are both expert skiffers, having spent countless summer afternoons playing this game that members of their family have played here, in the same spot, for almost a century. They bend low and launch their missiles at a shallow trajectory so that they hit the surface flat and fast, like a seaplane landing at high speed and bouncing back into the air.
Boys like these two have probably been skiffing, skimming or skipping stones since the Stone Age. It may be the World's oldest sport, a precursor of cricket and baseball from the times before we invented the wheel or filled a pig's bladder with air to make a ball. Now there is an official world record for the game.*
The science of it, both the skip and the arc, has been studied by physicists and the mathematics involved in describing it may even have made possible our space-age efforts to land a man on the moon or put a robot on a comet.
As for those two boys, who knows what their future holds? What forces will shape the arc of their trajectory?
*The Guinness Book of Records reports that the record was achieved on September 6, 2013 in Pennsylvania by Kurt "Mountain Man" Steiner, age 48. The record stands at 88 skips.