A Family Tradition
The first year a Skiff man climbed the greased pole in the Tupper Lake Woodsmen’s Days was 1978. Since then, the Greased Pole Climb and the Skiff last name have been synonymous. Jay Skiff climbed in 1978 and now, 39 years later, a team made up of his sons are looking to win their 10th greased pole title in a row.
The Greased Pole Climb has turned into one of the most highly anticipated events of the year. Sure, people love the cotton candy, fried dough, chainsaw carvings, and games, but the pole always seems to create a buzz and excitement. It fills the grandstands and gets the crowd engaged, as everyone loves to see people slipping, sliding, and struggling to reach the top. Some, who do not wear the proper pants or a belt, will even lose their pants on the way up.
Ryan Skiff is the youngest to ever climb the greased pole, tackling it for the first time at 14 years old. It has been a family event for as long as the boys can remember. They would watch their father compete until they were old enough to join. Jay Skiff was the base for his son’s team for many years, until he decided it was time to retire from the competition. His son Rick has taken over that key role on the current Skiff team. Throughout the years there have been a few Tupper Lakers who have had to step in as substitutes if one of the boys can’t participate, or if they need another person for the team. Even though Jay Skiff retired from the event, you can still catch him on the field, coaching his boys to another title.
Keys To Success
There are keys to strategically placing the boys on the greased pole to optimize the success. Obviously, the base man needs to be big and strong enough to hold four other men on his shoulders. If the base gives out, the whole team is going down. Next, the third and fourth men need to have the shoulders and be strong enough to hold people on top of them, but still be able to jump and climb their way up. The third man has to climb up two people, so he especially has to have the athleticism to maneuver his way up. The second and first men are usually the smallest, lightest, and springiest of the team, and they monkey their way up all the guys to the top.
The height of the pole is something that can add to the adventure. There have been years where the pole was too short, and they didn't have to use all of the guys, and there have been years when Ryan Skiff gets to the top and has to jump multiple times in order to ring the bell. Going into it, you never know what you are going to get with the height of the pole.
I always wondered if the boys did some sort of training prior to the Greased Pole Climb every year. Turns out no training is done, but before the youngest of the brothers was allowed on the team he had to climb a tree while the others watched to make sure he had what it takes. He said he was more nervous for his “try-out” than he has ever been for the actual competition.
Travis Skiff talked about how much it means to him that he gets to participate with his brothers.
“Climbing the greased pole is engrained in my family being," Skiff said. "It drives me to do it every year, and knowing how much of my family is usually in the grandstands cheering us on is pretty exciting too. Each year we compete, we create new memories as a family. It’s a unique family bonding experience that not many people are lucky enough to have.”
Travis is absolutely right — the greased pole is unique. I do not think many families climb a pole covered in grease together every year, especially against other teams in a competition. It will be something they talk about for years, and the memories made will last a lifetime.
As Travis put it, “The amount of pressure and adrenaline we feel every year when we climb — and everyone is cheering us on — is more than any other sport or event I have participated in. It is what keeps us coming back.”
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