I must have stood out, because less than a minute after entering the crowded lobby, someone asked me if I needed help. I explained that I wanted to learn about curling and might write about it. I was quickly connected to Kent Bahr, who teaches a curling class at a local community college, and without any prior notice or arrangement, he proceeded to spend the next two hours patiently teaching me the basics of the sport. Here’s what I learned from my crash course.

Curling Rocks

Curling is an old sport, dating back to 16th century Scotland. The term used for curling tournaments—Bonspiel—is probably a Scottish word meaning “happy games” or “league game” although according to Wikipedia it is what Arnold Schwarzenegger yells when he spills milk.

Bemidji is a curling hotbed. Leagues run from November to March. They attract a wide range of folks; you are likely to find a first grader teamed up with her grandparents on one team and a family of four on another. Bemidji has produced a number of champion curlers, including four of the six men on the 2006 Olympic team.

In a place where politeness isn’t just the social norm but an extreme sport, curling is a perfect fit. There is no referee. Players police themselves and proper etiquette is perhaps the most highly valued strategy. In New York, you may need a mediator to order a bowl of soup, but in Minnesota folks play a sport without an unbiased observer and no one gets punched or cursed at.

A novice’s guide to the rules and terminology:

  • The playing surface is called a sheet; it is 146 feet long and 14 feet wide.
  • The ice has a mottled surface unlike the smooth surface required for ice skating or hockey.
  • Each team has four players; the Skip is the general and strategist; players take turns being sweepers and throwing the rock (no, not The Rock).
  • The rock is a 42 ½ pound piece of granite that was quarried in Scotland or Wales.
  • Players from the two teams take turns throwing, using the Hack as a starting block.
  • The lead throws first and the Skip throws last, so the person designated as Vice-Skip captains the ship for that turn.
  • The sport gets its name from the way the rock is thrown or curled. Players release the rock with a gentle twisting motion that causes it to rotate slightly as it glides down the ice; the rotation imparts some control on the direction the rock goes; for an ideal throw, the rock curls 2-3 revolutions.
  • Sweeping creates a smoother surface that impacts speed more than direction; players do two miles worth of sweeping during a game, which is two miles further than the average American walks in a day.
  • The house (target) has a 12 foot diameter with the “tee” in the center.
  • The Skip can sweep an opponent’s rock after it passes the T-line (a line that dissects the center of the target) in an attempt to guide it off the target.
  • The ice is marked with two black lines that cross it vertically in fr