By Kate Crowley
Sigurd's ears are flapping up and down, his tawny tail is waving like a bushy flag, and the dog and I both have big grins plastered across our faces. We are tearing down a wide winter trail in General C.C. Andrews State Forest, and the sun is fracturing the snow into a crystalline wonderland. YEEEEH-HAW!
Sigurd is a yellow lab/golden retriever mix, not a typical winter ski sports breed, but you wouldn't know it as he kicks into high gear when he sees my husband, Mike, waiting at the end of the trail. Flying with my feet on the ground, I am reminded of windsurfing, being connected to an elemental force of nature, one that has agreed to share its spirit and strength with me.
Mentally, I thank that early northerner who first thought of strapping on skis, then strapping one's self to a dog to be pulled through the woods. The Arctic people have been using dogs for 12,000 years to pull sleds carrying their goods and meat gathered on hunts. In Scandinavia, people put a small sled, or pulk, behind the dogs and trailed behind as part of the load, tied to a line. At some point, someone decided to get rid of the pulk and just hook directly to the dogs. Scandinavian settlers brought skijoring to the United States. Occasionally, they hooked themselves to horses, an even more extreme form of the sport.
The word skijor, translated from Norwegian, literally means to "ski drive," which makes sense in dog sledding, because you are sort of "driving" a sled. But when you are connected directly to one or more dogs with a single line, you are more accurately directing or cooperating with the animals. Our friend Bjorn, who lives in Tromsø, Norway, says they use the term hundekjøring, which translates to "dog-driving."
My husband and I have been skijoring for 18 years and have hooked ourselves to one, two, and even three dogs. In the early years, we saw no one else enjoying this winter sport. We live in a rural area near Willow River and use our own trails, and those of neighbors, as well as state forest trails (not designated as ski trails). While we still see few skijorers in our neck of the woods, the sport has boomed in the Twin Cities metro area, as well as in Duluth and the Boundary Waters. It's easy to see why -- for dog lovers, skijoring is an ideal way to get some winter exercise and have fun with your dog.
Minnesotan John Thompson is one of the founders of the Midwest Skijorers Club, which offers new converts a chance to meet other skijorers and puts on clinics to teach the basics. The club also sponsors skijoring races.
Thompson came to skijoring more than a decade ago, when a neighbor who had a small sled-dog team invited him to go dogsledding. Thompson said, "It was one of those eureka moments; I knew I had to do it. I loved the sport, loved watching the dogs run."
He was sure his wife wouldn't go for the idea of a full dog team, but then the neighbor told him about skijoring. "It has the elements of mushing," Thompson said, "but you get to exercise yourself and your dog."
He had found a new passion and soon a new business, called Skijor Now. Thompson wasn't satisfied with the equipment available at that time, so he started experimenting with bungee lengths. One thing led to another, and soon he was making equipment for himself and friends, and today for hundreds of people who are getting into the sport.
With a minimal amount of equipment and skill, you and your dog can begin skijoring together. To teach yourself and your dog to skijor, you need two critical qualities: patience and a positive attitude. Your dog wants to please you, and you want your dog to enjoy this new activity. Offering treats after a successful session is good reinforcement. Start with small outings and quit early if things aren't going well, so that neither of you become angry or frustrated.
To train my dog for skijoring, I started by teaching him a minimum of commands: hup or hike for go, gee means go right, and haw means go left. The more often you use these commands, whether walking the dog or skijoring, the quicker the dog learns the meaning.
To get your dog used to pulling something, you can attach the towline to a sled, a tire, or something else that will provide resistance and not run into the dog. It's best to work with another person in the beginning, so that one of you can be at the starting point and another waiting a short distance away. In the beginning, Mike would ski ahead and I would follow with our dog Kishka pulling me. This works well, as long as the dog doesn't become accustomed to pulling only when following a human. You can also have a partner trot beside the dog, with a leash attached, the first few times you start out. The fastest way for a dog to learn to pull is to hook it to another, already trained dog. This is how we trained two of our dogs, and it took very little time for them to catch on to the routine.
According to Thompson, "the main thing with dogs is that they have a strong desire to run. I'd say approximately 90 percent take to pulling. If on a walk it's hard to get them to heel -- those are good skijoring candidates."
Any dog that weighs over 30 pounds is a candidate for skijoring. In our family we have had mixed and purebred huskies, a yellow Lab/golden retriever mix, and a mixed breed black Lab -- the best of all in terms of spirit and speed.
Thompson recommends skijoring for people "who have a genuine concern for their dogs and want another avenue to deepen their relationship with their dogs."
It's truly wonderful to see your dog's excitement when you pull out the harness and he or she develops springs on all four feet, quivering with delight, barely able to stand still long enough for you to put on the harness. That kind of joy means you're doing something very right. Hitched together, you are part of a trail that stretches far back in time, and is ahead waiting to be discovered.
Equipment: Dog and skier are connected by a simple system of belt, harness, and towline. Made of webbing with a fleece lining, the harness goes around the dog. The tug line, which connects skier to dog, has bungee cords within a polyester webbing, which means that on starting there is less of a jerk to pull the skier off balance. The skier wears a waist belt, with leg loops, so the belt doesn't ride up around the waist. From the front of the belt there is a quick release device, which is critical for safety purposes. This is where you hook the towline to your waist belt.
Trails: Any one of our 15,000 lakes is a good place to start skijoring. Public golf courses are another good spot -- wide open spaces, with few trees.
At this time skijoring is not allowed on most ski trails in state parks, state forests, and state trails; this is related to damage it may cause to groomed ski tracks, leash length requirements, and safety issues. According to Grant Scholen, DNR state trail coordinator, skijoring is most appropriate on dogsled trails or winter trails that are not designated, groomed, or posted as "ski trails."
Events: The Midwest Skijorers Club offers new converts to the sport clinics that teach the basics and a chance to meet others with years of experience. Find more information about skijoring.