As a volunteer, I read a book about amphibians to elementary school kids at McFadden Library in Santa Ana, and I was sad to learn none of them had ever seen a frog.
This led to a field trip to Crystal Cove State Park to look for one. I tried to scale back expectations. Even among the green grasses of coastal Orange County, frogs are not exactly croaking in every gully.
But there is one place you’re certain to see frogs this month: San Juan Capistrano. For the fifth year in a row, a frog-jumping competition is being offered as part of the time-honored Swallow’s Day weekend events.
What do frogs have to do with the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano?
As it turns out, nothing. Unless you count the fact that they both eat crickets.
Still, on March 22 at the Mission Grill, hundreds of children will show up to cheer on their favorites at the not-so-celebrated annual frog jump of San Juan Capistrano.
The SJC Fiesta Association supplies the frogs—recent competitors from the Kernville Whiskey Flat frog jump, which conveniently happens in February. It was at Whiskey Flat where the idea began, when Fiesta committee volunteer Jennifer Darling saw how much fun people had jumping frogs in Kern County.
“I brought it up to the Fiesta for years,” she said. “The board laughed at it. They thought it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard.”
Not stupider, of course, than the hairiest man contest, a Fiesta staple, or the Hoos’ Gow day, where people who aren’t wearing Western garb are rounded up and thrown into a fake jail, forced to post bail for charity. And clearly not stupider than sitting around waiting for those fickle swallows to return to begin with.
Darling later served on the Fiesta board and was able to convince her colleagues that the frog jump would add to the feeling of the Old West. Think Mark Twain, who immortalized frog jumps with his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
If a frog jump seems unlikely in Orange County, it wasn’t even a thing in Calaveras County when Twain penned the piece that launched his career and umpteen competitive frog-jumping contests across the nation. Twain published his frog story in 1865. The first actual frog jump in Calaveras County took place 63 years later, in 1928.
In San Juan Capistrano, Darling saw the frog jump as a moneymaker for the association: “In Kernville, they run it like a horse race. You put down a $2 or $3 bet, and it’s a two-day event.” Darling ran it that way until someone decided to take the betting out, because it had turned out to be more of a children’s event.
When Jim Taylor was elected Fiesta president in 2017, Darling told him: “You can’t let this die.” Along with the tradition, Taylor also had to take over the care and feeding of the frogs, which arrive from Kernville in a refrigerated state of hibernation.
“When I first get the frog delivery,” Taylor says, “I place them into a tub. One giant, green sludge pile. I put them on the patio with 250 crickets, put a lid on the tub, and before too long, all those crickets are gone.”
By the time Taylor gets them to the Mission Grill, they’re good to go. Usually.
The kids pick their favorites, often by choosing the color of yarn around the frogs’ legs or taking a fancy to a particular frog name, which is supplied by a sponsor. Since the contest began, there has been a contestant named Tastes Like Chicken, representing the Swallow’s Inn crowd.
Next, everyone forms a circle. The frogs are supposed to jump toward the empty center about 5 feet from where they’re released. But that’s not always what happens.
“We turn the bucket with the frogs upside down, and it’s hilarious. Half the time, they just look around at all of us and sit there,” Taylor says. “Does anyone know how to say ‘go’ in frog?” A programmer by day, Taylor also chairs the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Orange County and the Laguna Niguel holiday parade, and moonlights as a stand-up comic. All of this when he’s not feeding crickets to frogs.
He notes that weather plays a big part in the frogs’ performance. “One year, it was cold and rainy, and the frogs just sat there and didn’t do anything. Those frogs couldn’t figure out if they were supposed to be awake or hibernating. One frog leapt up and landed on his back and just lay there. All the kids watching. He’s nonresponsive. Eyes still open. Kinda creepy. I reached over, picked up the frog, and started breathing hot air on him. Though I held back on the mouth-to-mouth.”
I can’t help but recall Mark Twain’s immobile frog: “He couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil, and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.”
Taylor continues: “The roof leaked, rain blew out the P.A. system, and this lady I know, Leslie Leone, was all dressed up in her cowboy outfit, and she turned out to be a world champion gun spinner. I’m trying to figure out what to do. The kids are crying, the frogs are turning over, and this lady steps out and starts spinning her gun.” It saved the event.
When it’s warm outside, the frogs jump like crazy. Sometimes right into the kids’ laps.
“It’s funny,” says 10-year-old Savannah Erca of San Clemente, who has competed for the past few years. “Everybody screams even if a frog only jumps a few inches.” If the frogs get into the crowd, she says, squeezing her thumb toward her fingers, “everybody catches them like this. And they feel so slimy.”
Taylor early on realized he couldn’t handle all the frogs alone. So he designated a frog wrangler—Paul Lambros, a Laguna Niguel broker.
“The frogs get into the crowd, and that’s when the fun starts,” Lambros says. “Last year, the frogs just squirted out of my hands. I’m a clumsy frog herder. Fortunately, I have an assistant, Betty Voge. Betty’s like a pro—she just grabs them.”
As long as there are frog wranglers and frog feeders and kids to watch them jump, the annual frog jump looks like it’s on its way to becoming a San Juan tradition.
It seems like a good one, too. Because it’s surprising how many kids have never seen a frog. As for our little group from Santa Ana, we finally saw not one but three croakers in a creek in Crystal Cove. The kids squealed. I grinned in relief. Yes, there are frogs in Orange County. And, yes, they do jump.
The frog-jumping contest takes place March 22 at 4 p.m. at Mission Grill
in San Juan Capistrano. More information at swallowsparade.com.