The Stone Skipping Philosopher
Kurt Steiner is an off-the-grid, Appalachian mountain man. He calls himself a deep end of the pool social philosopher. He also holds the world record for stone skipping.
“I don't like, lead with it,” said Steiner. “If there's an organic hook into the subject, I will obviously jump on it.”
Steiner is obsessed with the skipping stones because it makes him happy. And because he views it as a protest.
“When you go out and you skip rocks in my abstract way, I consider that kind of a middle finger at the technological capitalist system," he said.
Kurt blew out his shoulder from throwing so many rocks. But as he works back from surgery, he’s setting his sights on another world record: skipping a rock 400 feet.
Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Music: Lounge Party Mayer and First Steps by Lobo Loco | Forgotten Sweetheart and Self-indulgent Is Not An Insult by One Man Book
Photographer: George Terrizzi
DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: It’s the Fourth of July on Mackinac Island. This island in Lake Huron is famous for its fudge and horse-drawn carriages. Today, the smell of both – the real fudge and the horse's version of it – fills the air.
I’m not here for the fudge though. I’m here for stone skipping.
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER: This, here on Mackinac Island, is the stone skipping capital of the United States.
WANSCHURA: Tournament organizers say this is the oldest stone skipping competition in the country. It’s been happening for 55 years.
PA ANNOUNCER: This is the trophy that everyone wants to win. This is the Stanley Cup of stone skipping. This is the bragging rights across the country.
WANSCHURA: I’m hoping to meet a guy with the ultimate bragging rights. Kurt Steiner is his name.
He once threw a stone that skipped on the water 88 times. Yeah, 88 skips. That’s the Guinness World Record.
I spot Kurt down by the water. He’s warming up – whipping stones across the lake. Bugsy Sailor, another stone skipper, introduces me.
WANSCHURA: Kurt, nice to meet you.
BUGSY SAILOR: Current record holder.
KURT STEINER: Sorry, my…
SAILOR: He might want to snag you for an interview at some point and get some audio.
STEINER: Yeah, I much prefer afterward.
WANSCHURA: Yeah, definitely.
SAILOR: Just to make the intro.
STEINER: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, man.
(sound of waves, boat horn)
SAILOR: Kurt’s a very serious – takes…
WANSCHURA: Got that vibe.
SAILOR: Some people are much looser about it. Kurt’s very, ‘in it to win it,’ every year.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North. A podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today, The Stone Skipping Philosopher. That’s coming up right after this.
WANSCHURA: Kurt ‘Mountain Man’ Steiner. That's you.
STEINER: Is it, oh, are we good? Is it, are we on here? Okay, yeah, it is – this is the guy.
WANSCHURA: If you were to introduce yourself to somebody, what, how would you do that?
STEINER: Hahahaha. Run away! Hahahaha. Actually, honestly, I know where you're going, but I don't talk about this. I don't like, lead with it.
If there's an organic hook into the subject, I will obviously jump on it. Otherwise, I'm just, you could just consider me kind of an off grid, kind of progressive economic guy. Hahahaha, if you want to be honest, yeah.
WANSCHURA: A lot of stone skippers have nicknames. Kinda like how hikers have trail names.
‘Mountain Man’ is a good one for Kurt Steiner because he is one. He’s 58 and has a long, gray, scraggly beard. He lives off-grid in a cabin he built in the Appalachian mountains.
Even though Kurt is considered a professional stone skipper, it’s not an occupation that pays the bills. So, he does just enough odd jobs to get by.
STEINER: So, like, scrapping, auto repair, and like, minor construction, contracting kind of stuff. You know, if I can get 10, 15 grand a year. I can coast on that, given the way I live.
WANSCHURA: Kurt says one of his biggest expenses is actually driving around for stone skipping competitions.
(sound of waves crashing)
WANSCHURA: Like most people, Kurt doesn’t exactly remember the first time he skipped a rock.
STEINER: Grew up right on Lake Erie, I should say, where rocks are plentiful, and they're suggestive and tempting toward, you know, some kind of archaic switch flips in the head, you know, and you just do it.
And I kind of started probably getting into it because I was, I was kind of ASD somewhere in there, you know, in my youth and…
WANSCHURA: What's ASD?
STEINER: Autism Spectrum. And so, skipping rocks was just kind of a way to quiet my head and, you know, I was very introverted and I like to study the whole process.
WANSCHURA: Sometime after college, Kurt heard about a nearby tournament in Pennsylvania.
STEINER: And then when the tournament happened, I won, I squeaked it, but I won just on, like, old knowledge. And then I just started trying to maximize that. And that was 2000.
WANSCHURA: In 2013, Kurt was in what he describes as peak physical fitness for stone skipping. He'd been throwing between two and three hundred rocks a week.
On top of that, he’d been diligent with his rigorous workout regimen that includes squats, curls, sit ups, and push ups.
One day, on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, Kurt Steiner threw a stone that skipped 88 times. That’s still the world record.
WANSCHURA: What does that record mean to you?
STEINER: I mean, see, I know people like answers like that, but for me, it means that I, I tested myself to what I considered my, like my maximal limits, you know, without going like 95% of my hyper-potential, right? As much as I could do by myself – so that I know. It's that simple, right? I like to know my boundaries and my abilities so that I'm not being a hypocrite and talking out my ass when I say that I can do this or that.
WANSCHURA: How does stone skipping fit into all of that for you?
STEINER: My point is, my point is…when you go out and you skip rocks in my abstract way, I consider that kind of a middle finger at the technological capitalist system. Right? It's saying I don't need money to be happy. I don't need to look down and distort my whole brain into this narrow focus of attention and self importance and, and social addiction.
WANSCHURA: Kurt’s a thoughtful guy, and he’s got a lot of heady ideas like this. He calls himself a “deep end of the pool social philosopher.” Sometimes it's hard to keep up.
(montage of Steiner talking about philosophy)
All that to say, skipping rocks makes Kurt happy.
STEINER: That's where I'm now just myself as an organism, getting off on that primal process of, I've said it before, you know, creating your own awe.
WANSCHURA: Stone skipping does that. It’s throwing a rock so fast at the right angle that when it hits the water, it makes a small wave which pushes it back up into the air.
Again, and again, and again. Or in Kurt’s case – again, and again – 88 times. It’s like the stone defies gravity.
STEINER: You make a law of physics get violated, like stones that float, by interposing yourself as an active agent. And then you get to make your effort with skill you've learned through this material process, and then you step back, and then you amaze yourself with your biological potential to be amazed by what you've done. And then, at the very end of it, you go, ‘Oh, and I did that!’
(sound of Mackinac stone skipping competition)
WANSCHURA: There are a handful of well-known stone skipping competitions around the country, including ones in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. In those tournaments, the water is typically pretty flat.
But here on Lake Huron, skippers have to work around unpredictable waves.
STEINER: So to me it's the difference, I say, between like the French Open and like Wimbledon, right? Pennsylvania is like Wimbledon, right? It is fast and you gotta have that kind of that skill. Here, it’s you got to kind of grind it out.
This is all about reading the water, controlling your power, and picking your target really carefully.
WANSCHURA: Today, the ‘Mountain Man’ is having a rough go of all three.
His first three official throws top out at just two skips each.
PA ANNOUNCER: Kurt the ‘Mountain Man’ Steiner. Skipped a two, a two, and a two. Can he get over the twos? He is the current Guinness Book record holder – everybody comes to see him. Let’s see what he’s skipping today!
WANSCHURA: Kurt studies the water carefully, looking for a calm spot on the lake. Then he winds up like a baseball pitcher, cocks his arm into the shape of an L, and slings his stone so that it smacks the water at about a 20 degree angle.
ANNOUNCER: Kurt at least beat the two on that one. Let’s see what the judges give him.
PA ANNOUNCER: A thirteen.
(sound of applause)
WANSCHURA: Thirteen skips is a decent throw in these conditions, but Kurt can’t build off it. The world record holder’s last two skips are two and three, respectively.
Instead, the winner is a newcomer, Jon ‘The Green Giant’ Jennings from Kentucky.
PA ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the newest member of the pro division, Jon Jennings from Kentucky.
WANSCHURA: He wins by throwing a rock that skips 22 times. Still way short of Kurt’s world record, but enough to win on rough, Lake Huron water.
Jon Jennings says he idolizes the ‘Mountain Man.’ He studies Kurt’s technique to try to incorporate elements into his own game.
JON JENNINGS: So, it’s definitely very humbling to not only be in a competition against him, but also to win against him. It’s crazy. But I don't know if he told you about his shoulder, but I mean, I think if his shoulder isn’t the way it is, he woulda been out here throwing like crazy.
WANSCHURA: Kurt is recovering from a shoulder surgery a little over a year ago. It repaired a torn labrum. Repetitive stone skipping the likely culprit. Kurt says throwing hard still hurts.
STEINER: I have no excuse. I should have really hit my marks and I blew it. I should say that, you know, I'm two years out of practice, but I'm not going to make any excuses like I just did. Sorry about that.
Fact is, I don't know. Can I say, maybe because I got a little high? Hahaha. You might want to cut that out. And I overshot my mark. And I'm a little dehydrated from drinking last night. So, yeah, welcome to me. You know, I can do that now. I'm allowed.
You know, you got six rocks to throw, I probably threw…the worst rocks in my life today. So, please don't judge me by that.
WANSCHURA: Despite Kurt’s performance today, he’s not done. He actually thinks he has more power after the surgery. He just needs to adjust to it. And he’s already got his sights set on his next goal.
STEINER: Once I dial myself in, I think, I actually think I might go for the natural stone distance record. Which is to say, if you can throw 400 feet with a natural rock, you have a world record.
WANSCHURA: So you're trying to throw it...400 feet? Just in the air, right?
STEINER: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
You have to throw a rock that skips and travels at least 400 feet before it sinks.
WANSCHURA: I see.
STEINER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know the guy who's got the current record at 399. And I'm getting old and the clock is ticking. But I'm thinking if I'm gonna take a shot at it, you know, next two years, I'll give it a whack.