The stone wizard

NORTH EAST, Pa. — Rough edges are rounded smoother here on the shore of Lake Erie. Wind races across its shallow waters from Canada, pushing waves that can punch the rocky beach like a boxer on a speed bag. An introverted boy with idle hands used to roam along its edge, alone with a head full of thoughts, and one day he held a rock flattened by time and found he could do one thing, almost perfectly.

Kurt Steiner is 54 now, his long, gray hair whipping in that familiar wind on a summer Saturday morning. He crouched down on a spit of land between Lake Erie and Twelve Mile Creek, sorting through the endless Devonian shale. He felt each rock’s weight in his palm, rubbed his thumb along its surface, then tossed a few in an orange milk crate. He stood with one rock and faced the creek, digging in with muscular legs. He cocked back his right arm and pivoted as if he were drawing power from the ground. Then his arm came around like a whip, sending the rock skipping across the surface until it spun into a muddy bank 75 yards away.

Steiner is known as “The Mountain Man,” one of the greatest stone skippers who ever lived. He was alone again on this beach, his childhood refuge, meditating through physics, raw power, and endless waves.

“When I started skipping rocks, it was a private thing for me,” he said. “But when I got good, people started sticking cameras in front of me and wanted me to stand up and talk to people and yeah, that was really hard for a while. It’s kind of a personality thing, I guess. It’s been kind of a good thing and a bad thing all my life.”

Steiner has the look of a Yogi, lean and wiry thanks to a spare diet and the hundreds of squats and push-ups he does each day at his home atop a mountain in rural Cameron County. Steiner gives off a California vibe, but he grew up in nearby Erie, and his hands, burned from welding and callused from woodcutting, are very much Pennsylvania. For someone who grew up socially anxious, retreating inward or to the rocks, Steiner is revered among the small cadre of stone skippers who’ve turned this primordial act into a competitive hobby.

“He’s just a bearded old soul pursuing something marvelous,” Erie stone skipper Dave Ohmer said.

On Sept. 6, 2013, Steiner was poised to make his greatest throw at the Allegheny Reservoir in the state’s northwest. He’d trained for nearly a year, bulking up and studying the water. As his wife, Paula, filmed from a bridge above him, Steiner skipped one stone a mind-boggling 88 times, with one throw. Ohmer said the throw was “part physics, part magic,” and The Guinness Book of World Records later confirmed Steiner had made “the most consecutive skips of a stone on water” ever. The previous record was 65.

“That was hard, man,” he said. “I can’t throw anymore the way that I did for that throw. I trained so specifically and so hard for that throw and contorted my body so bad, and that’s why I don’t think anybody’s going to hit it for a long time. Nobody understands what you have to do to get there. They think if you just throw harder, you’ll get there.”

Steiner wonders if he could do it again, but says his wife would “stick a knife” in him if he spent that much time focused on stones again.

Steiner wasn’t on Lake Erie that recent Saturday to reminisce. He needed rocks, thousands of them. Stone-skipping competitions were approaching in Michigan and in Franklin, Pa., the Rock in River Festival he’s won multiple times. Last year, he finished third behind Ohmer and a Japanese man who flew in and claimed the crown. Often, there are a dozen or so competitors, with separate events for women and children.

Steiner also traveled to Scotland and Salt Lake City last year to throw, and in Wales, he finished second in the stone distance throw. The winner, Dougie Isaacs, set the record at 400 feet. Steiner threw 373 feet and finished second. Stone skipping, he said, torques the shoulder, elbow, and wrist because getting the stone to spin, to speed across the water like a racing powerboat, is paramount.

“Distance throwing doesn’t hurt as much, so I might focus on that a little more,” he said.

Oddly, Steiner said he hadn’t picked up a rock since September. He lives off the grid, in a cabin with his wife in Emporium, and spent most of the fall cutting wood and insulating the house. Plus, he needed to take a breather.

“I like to shift gears, mentally, you know. Rotate the crops,” he said.

Steiner said his childhood was spent outdoors, a “prankster, not a thief,” mostly with his grandfather Dixie, a South Carolina transplant. They ice-fished together on Lake Erie’s bays. Eating fresh-caught smelt, fried in peanut oil, was “like heaven,” he said.

Stone skipping fell away when Steiner turned 18 and went to study English and philosophy at Penn State Behrend in Erie. He loved sci-fi, Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and Dostoevsky and Thomas Pynchon. He’s currently tackling David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He said he was interested in evolutionary psychology in college, before it really had a name.

“Everything in society is an expression of an archaic, primal instinct,” he said.

After college, with the hope of making metal sculptures, Steiner enrolled in welding school, where he met his wife. He makes money today by metal scrapping and other odd jobs. He said he doesn’t need a lot.

Steiner returned to stone skipping when he was around 30, after seeing an ad for the competition in Franklin. His first move was to go to Lake Erie to get rocks, then he threw them, breaking habits and building form until he became consistent.

“I think I threw probably a quarter-million rocks, you know, to build up an experiential database,” he said. “I threw every stone I could, every way I could.”

At Franklin, Steiner went back and forth on the podium with Russ “Rock Bottom” Byars, a one-time record-holder for the most skips. Byars, a Marine, didn’t read Scientific American, like Steiner, and insisted he never practiced throwing rocks. It all came natural. Byars was standoffish at first, too competitive for Steiner. But they somehow became close friends before Byars died in 2017.

Neither one had an easy life, Steiner said.

“A lot of people skip stones to deal with something else. We’re all self-medicating a bit” was all he wanted to say about it.

Ohmer, 36, described the first time he saw Steiner throw at Franklin as a “masterful piece of momentary art.” He’s a single father who found stone skipping on a whim, and now it’s something he does as much as he can with his sons. Like Steiner, he isn’t just throwing stones.

“It’s hard to describe, but I have to admit, I’m basically self-medicating my way through a crippling case of sadness and depression when I skip stones,” he wrote in an e-mail.

When it comes to the physics of stone throwing, Steiner said he has a “whole complicated theory he’s been sitting on for 10 years.” Stone skipping has been studied for naval applications, boating design, even weaponry. Steiner met “fluid dynamicists” from Utah State University’s Splash Lab, which studies “the physical mechanisms of fluid behaviors.” He said academics often just want him to throw stones, to be their mule, more than they want to listen to his theories.

“I have a natural sense of physics,” he said.

Asked if he could try to explain it, Steiner sat on the tailgate of his truck and put on a pair of glasses. He grabbed a stone from the crate, more cone-shaped than round, and began talking about the Z dimension and radio waves. It was, indeed, a complicated theory.

After a granola bar, Steiner went to search for more rocks. He dropped some in a crate and skipped a few, each one spinning madly, even as gravity pulled them into the creek. The white noise of Lake Erie’s waves looped behind.

Steiner looked for rocks that weighed anywhere from three to eight ounces, flat but not perfect, because he needs those imperfections to hold on to, before he lets go.

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