Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The 4th of July and the World Championship Porcupine Race

Let me start this out with a simple U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Because what I experienced on the 4th of July was well deserving of the chant.

I was in Idaho during the 4th of July. Idaho gets a bad rap sometimes. I blame the fringe militias that pop up every now and again. Idaho is an incredible state filled with all kinds of exciting things. Skiing, hiking, fishing, rafting, they’ve got it all. But one city rises above the rest: Council.

As of the official census data from 2000, the population of Council, Idaho was 816 people. Since then, it is thought to have decreased. And when the population decreases in a town of 816, it becomes obvious. Luckily, I love small towns. I love the Rocky Mountain states. So give me a small town in a Rocky Mountain state, and well, then I’m in Council, Idaho.

The goal wasn't actually to end up in Council, Idaho. Instead we were heading up to an area near McCall and chose to drive through Council to avoid the traffic. And what a serendipitous shortcut it turned out to be. Because from the back seat of the car, staring back at me, damn near taunting me, was the greatest sign I had ever seen. World Championship Porcupine Race and 4th of July Celebration. In that order. The World Championship Porcupine Race took top billing over the celebrations of America’s independence. Obviously.
Now I’m sure someone out there is thinking that the claim of Council, Idaho, being home to the World Championship Porcupine Race is just more American hubris. Of course, those people are terrible human beings and have no sense of humor.

The citizens of Council do have humor though. Obviously, I was intrigued. So I broached the subject with the family. Because what better way to spend the 4th of July than watching porcupine racing? There was skepticism. Understandably. Were these real porcupines? If so, why? How did they race? So many questions.

Turns out, Morfar (see what I did there with the Swedish?) knows people. Lots of people. Like people at the Chamber of Commerce in Council. So after a couple of phone calls, it was confirmed. Yes, the porcupines were real. Porcupines would be racing on the 4th of July.

Once again… U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

I had never actually seen a live porcupine, let alone one racing. I couldn’t sleep on the night of the third. The excitement was palpable. That’s not true. At least the sleeping part. But the excitement was palpable.
We arrived a bit early to watch the parade. Because it was the 4th of July and that’s what you do. The parade in and of itself was small-town-'Merican. Flags. Little kids driving four-wheelers. Anti-Obama floats. And porcupines. Twenty-one porcupines were paraded through town in preparation for the races. They were treated like heroes. As they should be.

As the parade wound down, I thanked a 10 year old boy who had helped me get a popsicle for free from one of the floats. Turns out, parade participants are hesitant to throw popsicles to 25-year old guys with beards, but have no qualms about throwing an extra one to a 10-year old.

Anyway, being the superior conversationalist that I am, I got some information about the races from the kid. Follow the crowd to the football field. The races will be held there. Watch out, it can get pretty wild. Sometimes the porcupines get out of the race tracks and into the crowds. Porcupines have what can best be described as son-of-a-bitch quills. They are a son of a bitch to get out because they are barbed.

With that knowledge in mind, we headed off to the football field. Home to the eight-man Lumberjack football team. State champions in 2006. Gooooooooo Lumberjacks!

But I digress. The area was still filling up so I camped out on the sidelines. A front row seat if you will. I was either going to get a close up view of the porcupine races or get a son of a bitch quill in me. I liked my chances.

We were surrounded by locals. And we were very obviously not local. You may ask how I know. It’s easy. My body isn’t covered in tattoos. I’m not 18 with a kid. I’m not pounding beers at 11 in the morning with a cigarette hanging out of the side of my mouth. But most importantly, my teeth are relatively straight. While Council apparently has an orthopedics office, (I know because they sponsored two of the racers), they seem to lack an orthodontics office. Unfortunately. That was mean. I'm sorry. Mostly.

As the sun beat down on my poor Swedish-colored scalp, which would eventually turn a nice shade of red, the event began. But first, some background information on the event.

Each porcupine is sponsored by a person or company. The porcupines also have two handlers. The handlers are the men and women responsible for racing the porcupines. And also for catching the porcupines the night before. How do you catch a porcupine? Carefully and with a trap. Apparently the citizens of Council are remiss to give out their secrets to catching a porcupine because that’s all we got out of them.

Once the porcupines are captured and sponsored they are put up for auction the day of the race. Rumors swirled and no one really knew where the money went. Most agreed it went to a charity. Which charity? Who knows? Maybe the Chamber of Commerce. One lady, her voice haggard from years of cheering at porcupine races, and probably a lot of smoking, informed us that the money actually went to whoever had purchased the winning porcupine at auction. The money was then divided between the sponsor of the porcupine, the handlers, and then the auction winner who then gave the money to charity. Thousands of dollars were spent. In cash. The top bid for a porcupine was $200. The winning porcupine was purchased for $140.

After 21 porcupines were finally auctioned off, and I had the cultivated the beginning stages of melanoma on the top of my head, the races were ready to start. Three heats of seven racers each. The races begin when the handlers place a porcupine in a trash can. Dump the trash can over. Tap the trash can gently with a broom to get the racers facing the right way. And away they go. The broom is used to guide them. As is the trash can. After watching one race, I was expecting PETA to descend from the heavens in biodiesel helicopters, rappelling down on hemp ropes, chanting slogans, and snagging the porcupines away to safety. Luckily, PETA knows better than to venture into Council, Idaho. Which turned out to be a good idea. There was a rifle raffle in the middle of all of the excitement.

Three heats later, and no rogue porcupines in the crowd, the finalists were lined up. Everyone knew who was going to win. Poke 'n Go. Everyone knew because the handlers of Poke 'n Go had won three of the last four races. And at some point it stops being luck and starts being some sort of skill in racing porcupines. Sure enough, Poke 'n Go won the race making it four out of the last five for the handlers.
I was emotionally drained. I had lived and died with those porcupines. The adrenaline was pumping. My voice was hoarse. And my internal chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! had damn near driven me to join the Army. As the races wound down, the MC asked us all to pick up the quills afterwards. That eight-man football team doesn't want to compete against porcupine quills when two-a-days come around. They have other concerns. It’s been a couple of years since their last state championship.

After the races most of the locals headed off to watch the lawn mower drag races, but I had had enough excitement for one day. My 4th of July was complete with the World Championship Porcupine Race. And now yours can also be complete. Because I filmed the action. Enjoy heats one and three from the 2009 World Championship Porcupine Race in Council, Idaho:

Welcome to the USA and Council, Idaho. Population 817… once I move there.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden


  1. Awesome! Sounds like an excellent way to celebrate the Fourth. I'm a little disappointed you didn't top it all off with some barbeque, though.

    Living in the South, something like this doesn't suprise me at all. Although I must confess I've never seen a porcupine race, I have seen pig and turtle races. And small towns claiming dubious world championships and populated with folks with bad teeth and lots of tattoos, beer and cigarettes.

    I only stopped by here to mention the new Slate essay on why Scandanavian crime novelists are having such a heyday in the US, in case you hadn't seen it yet. The author rejects the "bleak world view" (or Nordic grimness, as he puts it) theory for the disrupted "sublime tranquilty" theory. He says, "When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness."

    Not sure what your policy is about posting links. Feel free to remove it, if it's not okay.

    Oh, and for the sunburned scalp, Hairy, two words: baseball cap. Even if you can't buy them in Sweden, all Swedes entering the US in the summer should pick one up on their way out of the airport. Not only will they protect themselves from skin cancer, they will blend in better with the locals without having to get a tattoo.

  2. Floridian in FinlandJuly 8, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    The manner in which you wrote this made the event sound very exciting. After watching the video, I think this borders on animal abuse. On a lighthearted note, I didn't realize how big those dang things are! Btw, have you heard of the wife carrying contest?

  3. Oh my god.

    Hahaha. What's wrong with these people? The only reason it's funny is because of how freaking stupid these people come off as. I agree about the animal abuse part someone mentioned earlier.

    Poor porcubines.

  4. apparently porcubines didn't enjoy the race as much as the crowd!
    still,cool nad glad you had a great time after all this hard time you had here! ;)

  5. oh my gosh! That was so funny! But I feel bad for the porcupines! They must have been terrified :(

  6. OMG! Please tell me you didn't just drag your family to that for some blog fodder? It is funny in a twisted sort of way, but I feel bad for the porcupines.

    I actually think Idaho is pretty underrated, too. Coeur d'Alene is probably one of my favorites there, but Idaho has lots of other good stuff. Council, Idaho? Hmmm. Despite your charming description, I'm going to have to go with...not so much.

  7. Very, very amusing post! Only in America :)

  8. Am I wrong to first and foremost associate Idaho with potatoes? A fantastic post hairy, I've been laughing so hard - I love small North American towns! I lived in Mundare, AB (that's Canada, doh!) which had 600 inhabitants, for a year... They have a "sculpture" of the world's largest sausage there. Yes, you read that right - the world's largest Ukrainian sausage ring. Hm. Glad to have you back (?), have missed your posts!

  9. You should head west! It's fair season and we've got pig 'n' ford AND the national jew's harp festival coming up in Oregon in just a few weeks' time... Something about brooming porcupines seems less cruel than dragging a piglet onto an atv. Maybe we can pay a visit to Beaver, population 136, where I used to live and buy some sweets from the shop, Fox's Grocery and Fire Arms. It will make Council look soft.
    P.S. Bringing porcupine quills into your house is a bad omen, so be wary!

  10. i love the way American use the word "world" in the title of everything in US! even if it's a local event they call it "world..."

  11. Belated Happy Independence Day!

    We had ribs for dinner, but then again I'm married to an American :-)

  12. My money is on Poke-n-Go. Welcome back to the USA! USA! Okay. I won't be obnoxious, but I can relate.

  13. Love the race and the post! I don't think we should feel bad for the porcupines at all. There were obviously trapped in humane manner (have to take care of your race entrant) and had a couple of easier days than most porcupines have.....yes they were chased 50 feet by a scary trash can, but I think they'll be none the worse for wear.
    As for this being the world championships, perhaps there are other porcupine races and if someone finds one we should petition the city of Council to change the name of their race, but until then it looks like a World Championship to me.

  14. @Laura – it was amazing. Well, there were some burgers and brats that evening, but I wouldn’t call it a full on barbeque.

    I love the slate essay. Very cool. Especially the part about money and how many of them had started out in less lucrative fields of writing.

    You know, I used to wear a hat damn near every day. I had, well still have, an old baseball cap that is so tattered that I would probably still get a sunburn wearing it. I probably should have broken it out when I was home.

    @Floridian – They are big. And stinky. Kind of a sour smell to them. Imagine if you didn’t shower for a week, then jumped in a bathtub of 4 day old milk, then didn’t shower for another few days. You would smell like a porcupine.

    I have heard about the wife carrying contest. In fact, I knew way too much about it without even reading the Wikipedia entry. Not sure what that says about me.

    @Simon – There’s nothing wrong with them. They are glorious individuals who enjoy watching porcupines race. Just like anyone else would. Right? I mean, it’s completely normal…

    @Mike – Oh I think they did. Didn’t you see the joy in their faces?

    @jlamantia88 – it was funny. And I suggest everyone within a 600 mile radius of Council, Idaho, check it out next 4th of July.

    @E – Well… no. I haven’t quite stooped that low. Not yet at least.

    But come on now E, I think you need to give Council a chance. Plenty of beautiful country to run in.

    @PiNG – agreed. Which is what makes it such a glorious place.

    @terander – not at all. Idaho is all about potatoes. And, strangely enough, gems.

    I think I know where Im going next time I head back to North America. Mundare, AB. Because I have seen the worlds largest Dala horse, but I have yet to see the worlds largest Ukrainian sausage ring.

    @Katherine – wow. Dragging a piglet onto an atv sounds amazing. I think I need to just take a year to travel to all of these little festivals. Because piglet dragging and porcupine racing are right up my alley.

    @anonymous – damn right.

    @RennyBA – thank you and the same to you! Good work on having ribs It seems fitting for the 4th.

    @rednk-n-eurp – With a name like poke ‘n go it should have been obvious he would win. And with the track record of his handlers. Clearly I was a fool.

    @Uncle Sam – A good point, it is in the best interests of the handlers involved to treat the porcupines like kings. If there are other porcupine races out there, I want to see them.

  15. yeah, now i can see how much they are thrilled about whole thing!

  16. all it takes is another look at the film to see they are loving life.

  17. Hairy,

    Excellent piece. I am the editor of the Adams County Record, the local newspaper here in Council. I'm glad you had the occasion to pass through our humble little community (highest unemployment in the state!) and stayed to witness what is certainly our defining event (well, other than 8-man football season).

    You may be interested to read the piece I wrote last year on the history of the porcupine race. I'd link to it, but our website is "under construction" (as it has been for about a year now).

    So I'll just post it here for you and your readers who may be interested:

    The year was 1971 and the Chamber of Commerce was struggling to think of ways to reinvigorate the town’s Fourth of July celebration. Council had a long history of throwing spectacular Independence Day bashes—going all the way back to 1909, when over 3,000 people lined the streets to observe our nation’s birthday--but the recent celebrations had been lacking in pizzazz. Something new was needed, an event that would cause waning interest to spike once again.
    Lynn Pearson, local pharmacist and proprietor of Council Rexall Drug, came forward with a suggestion that must have caused his fellow merchants to curl their eyebrows in skeptical disbelief. His suggestion was to stage a race—a porcupine race! Somehow he convinced his colleagues to sprint forward with the idea, and he jotted down a list of rules for the competition--regulations that are largely still used today.
    Who could have known that 37 years later Pearson’s imaginative invention would still be going strong? Who would have expected an event that would garner worldwide attention and become one of the areas biggest attractions? Could anyone have known, in 1971, that they would soon have the one and only, World Championship Porcupine Race on their hands?
    Anyone who has spent a summer or two in the Council area knows the routine--load a spotlight and a trashcan in a pickup truck and head out into the warm July night. When the bright light intersects with the gaze of the porcupine, the prickled rodent’s eyes are illuminated with an unmistakably bright red, and the first part of the race has begun. The pickup’s doors are flung open, the trashcan is quickly snatched and a mad dash is made to (“humanely”) apprehend the soon-to-be contestant.
    After the handlers are carefully instructed in the art of gentle porcupine husbandry, the barbed critter is ready to make its debut as the centerpiece on a handsomely decorated float. After being paraded through town, it’s off to the racetrack, a 125 ft. long course at the American Legion football field, where the real fun begins.
    But before the starting pistol is fired, there are a few formalities that need be endured. As with any highly regarded competition involving racing animals, there is one element that simply must be present--gambling. A “Calcutta-style” auction is held, giving eager speculators an opportunity to predict the outcome of the race. That bid money is coupled with the modest entry fee that participants pony up, and a generous purse is accumulated that will be split between the winning handlers and the bidder that correctly handicaps the race.
    Finally, the porcupines are unleashed and the race is on. Getting their first sense of freedom after a day or two in captivity, the porcupines each make a frantic dash, but not necessary in the direction of the finish line. In fact, the quilled competitors are just as likely to charge directly out-of-bounds, underneath the plastic fence, as they are to take the proper path. It wouldn’t be the “World Famous Porcupine Race” if a spectator, who moments before had pushed his or her way through the crowd to obtain a front row spot, wasn’t cursing that decision after being on the receiving end of the porcupine’s prickly wrath.

  18. Continued:

    The handlers who are lucky and/or skilled enough to get their porcupine to dart in the right direction are the ones that receive the glory. Sometimes, the race is a blowout, with one porcupine sprinting towards the finish line, while all of its rivals run rampant in every other direction. Other times, several porcupines will have the right idea, and as the jockeys gingerly (if they get too “pushy” they’ll be disqualified) guide their steed with a broom, the crowd roars and the judges prepare to call the photo finish.
    After the race has concluded, the winners celebrate and the losers carefully remove the thorns from their legs, and young children run out onto the track to collect souvenirs, quills that failed to reach the intended target and fell harmlessly to the ground.
    One might guess that successful porcupine handling is all luck and little skill. But several longtime residents, such as the Crossley family or Dan Shumway, would beg to differ. In fact, in glancing at the list of World Champions throughout the years, you notice several handlers who graced the winner’s circle on multiple occasions.
    If there is an art to guiding a porcupine in the right direction, I certainly do not possess it. During my one and only foray into the world of porcupine racing several years ago, my handling abilities directed the little bugger in the exact opposite direction of the finish line. None of the suggestions I made with the broom were received by the porcupine, and I was disgraced. It would have been one thing to simply not have my porcupine make it to the finish line, but it was humiliating to have my racer fail to cross the starting line! This was despite the fact that I was handling alongside Charlie Meyer, who is a two-time champion. I realized on that day that I was better off as an observer than a participant.
    Perhaps Lynn Pearson had a certain amount of handler humiliation in mind when he first conceived the porcupine race 37 years ago. The genesis of his idea was an event put on by loggers in Condon, Oregon. Each participant took a baby porcupine and upon command, dropped the pint-sized porky into the middle of a 30-foot circle. The winning racer was the one who made it to the perimeter of the sphere the fastest. It was impossible to judge which porcupine had hit the finish line first, and the event deteriorated into controversy as several loggers swore their entrant had won. It had been a fascinating spectacle, but Pearson quickly realized that some rules tinkering was necessary and he began formulating the bylaws that would govern this soon-to-be World Famous event.

  19. The resulting version of the Porcupine Race has remained mostly intact, but there has been some evolution throughout the years. Originally developed to be a race in which the handlers were exclusively children and teens, the race was soon expanded to allow for adult competitors; for several years in the 1980s, there were two separate competitions, a junior division and a senior division. Another change was the addition of qualifying races, or “heats”, which became necessary to accommodate the large number of porcupines that entered. No doubt many a handler has been frustrated by the fact that their porcupine strolled easily towards the finish line in the opening heat, only to decide to take a more difficult route in the finals, when the money was on the line.
    One aspect of the race that hasn’t changed is the organizer’s insistence that the porcupines be treated humanely during their brief stint in the spotlight. It’s mandatory that once the porcupine’s moment in the sun is complete, that the handlers return it to the area in which it had been found. Sure, there have been minor grumblings from people within the community and beyond that the porcupine race is a barbaric ritual in which helpless animals are traumatized for the amusement of humanity. Rumors, thus far unfounded, have circulated for years that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is going to swoop in and protest the “World Championships”.
    Arguments that the Porcupine Race is cruel and inhumane are understandable, if not particularly compelling. There’s no doubt that the porcupine is an unwilling participant in the event that brings it fame. And it’s certain that, on occasion throughout the years, porcupines have been mistreated in various ways by handlers who failed to heed the demands that they play nice with the animals. But the vast majority of porcupines are returned to their stomping grounds no-worse-for-the-wear.
    It is this writer’s opinion that the aesthetically displeasing factors of a porcupine’s brief captivity are a small price to pay for the overwhelmingly positive things that result from “Porky’s” temporary discomfort. The shared joy that occurs when a community comes out together to be entertained, that collective human experience that is so often lost in this modern era where we confuse our televisions and the Internet with real human interaction, is priceless; and we can thank our porcupine friends for allowing us to impose upon them once a year so this community can have take part in one of the most unique collective experiences around.

    That Council’s signature event is a unique and remarkable experience is evidenced by the amount of publicity the Porcupine Race has generated for the town over the years. In 1979, Tom Brokaw mentioned the World Championship Porcupine Race during a broadcast of the Today show. A year later, another national news outlet, this time a big-time radio syndicate, discussed the race as one of the uniquely “American” Independence Day events going on throughout the nation. Prominent newspapers have covered the event, including the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and newspapers as far away as Japan.
    Calvin (the cartoon) once said, “It takes an uncommon mind to think of these things”, and perhaps it’s reading too much into it to note that the uncommon mind that thought up the Porcupine Race was that of a druggist. But one thing is certain--the idea that Lynn Pearson cooked up in 1971 has passed the test of time, and has become something that the tiny town of Council can be proud of.
    Whether this is your first Porcupine Race or your thirty-eighth, you are in for a treat. Enjoy!

  20. @Mike – YES!

    @Cody Cahill – Thanks, I had a great time! And I love the history of the porcupine race. Thanks for posting the piece you wrote. I would love to know how Lynn Pearson convinced the Chamber of Commerce to stage the race. Must have been the greatest salesman Idaho has ever seen.

  21. The porcupine race causes no more harm to these critters than it does to pigs, sheep, chickens, etc., seen at any given county or state fair. While it's true that Council is a small town; it is NOT full of hicks with bad teeth and tattoos. We shouldn't hold strong opinions about things we don't understand.

  22. agreed. and I hope you see that my poking fun was done in jest. I had a great time and would love to see the races again.

  23. It's that time of year again!

    I'm stoked!

    It's time to go catch me a porcupine and get on up to Council!

  24. Gonna catch a porcupine and race it this year!

  25. Hi, I too live in Council, Idaho and just to clarify for Anonymous: I can vouch for the fact that lots of us are missing teeth and there are very few women over 18 in Council who are not tatooed.(Tats are cheap, dental work isn't.) The races are tomorrow. Hopefully I will be spending my winnings (Hairy is right, bet on the handlers) from the porcupine race to enter my wife in the arm wrestling contest. If you are there bet on the red head with no tats and all her teeth. She rarely loses.
    Tim Hohs

  26. @anonymous - thats the spirit!

    @Tim - you are the greatest. I hope you got yourself some winnings and that your wife won!

  27. And we're still hanging that same banner!
    As a recent transplant to Council, believe me that's hard to type, I think you learned a lot about this place in a short time.
    It's...unique. And though we have an excellent dentist here, he is obviously not much used. Unfortunately.
    The porcupines filled the parade this morning. We skipped watching the races, as I think once is enough for me.
    It's a very different life here, but I will say the town does live up to its motto. It really is a town that cares. And your comments about PETA were interesting as Council has its own group called PEETA: People Enjoy Eating Tasty Animals. Welcome to Council.

  28. I love that the banner is still the same! I want to go back and experience it all again. My family still talks about this 4th of July with a sense of reverence almost.