Skijoring: Wisconsin's Dog-Powered Winter Sport
Last Updated: 12/8/2016
By Laura Kearney
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
Falling is fun. At least when it involves being leashed to two gorgeous Alaskan huskies that pull you along a trail of freshly groomed snow that’s edged with white spruce, balsam and white birch. When Ely and Dart make the turn I’ve seen coming, have even been preparing for, I find myself unable to complete it with a trace of grace and instead fall on my butt. Didn’t bother to snowplow; I just fell. And it is surprisingly, breathlessly exhilarating, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and a thousand times better than an amusement-park ride.
“It” is skijoring, from the Norwegian word for “ski driving,” a blend of cross-country skiing and dog sledding believed to have been created by enterprising—that’s right, not lazy—Scandinavians who hitched their skis first to horses as a means of faster transport. Today, it’s a winter sport that’s growing in popularity, with races locally in Merrill, and Land O’Lakes.
M.J. Sloan, an avid skijor racer, and her husband, Chad McGrath, also a racer and author of several cross-country skiing guidebooks, initiate me into the sport with a one-hour lesson offered through Two Moons, the company they operate on their 80-acre property outside Mercer near the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Sloan also mushes, but says she prefers skijoring because the sport offers a workout for both her and the dogs. “I like the proximity between me and the dogs. And I love all the communication with the dogs,” she says of skijoring. “It always feels like more of a partnership, a team.”
Sloan doesn’t recommend skijoring for those who’ve never been on skis before and describes the sport as “sort of like water-skiing.” I can still count the number of times I’ve cross-county skied, and I haven’t yet water-skied. Sloan takes this into account as she approaches the kennel where their 10 Alaskan huskies bark the canine version of “pick me.”
She knows which dogs work well together, which lean to the right, and gauges my comfort level with what, at that point, I still consider to be a bizarre activity. She normally runs two together because, she says, “They keep each other on track.” Race teams, however, can consist of one to three dogs pulling a racer.
My maiden voyage will be with Ely and Dart. Both are lead dogs and Ely is said to be especially good at following directions, a skill I welcome. These huskies each weigh about 45 pounds, but Sloan notes that any dog weighing at least 30 pounds can be trained to pull you—“if they’re interested in pulling.” Working dogs seem to be the best pullers; long-haired dogs are often slower since snow balls up between their toes.
While Sloan fits the dogs into racing harnesses that run under their front legs, crisscross over their backs and end at the base of their tails (one should never attach the towline to a dog’s collar), I’m gearing up—figuratively and literally. McGrath instructs me on the right way to get up, because it’s inevitable that this venture will involve falling. I step into the leg loops of a belt—designed wide enough to prevent a back injury that an unexpectedly jerky start could cause—then into my skis. (McGrath recommends skate skis, but says that even downhill skis can be used.) My belt connects to 6 feet of towline via a carabiner I can open should a dangerous situation—something blocking the trail or tangled lines—require a release from the dogs.
Rather than worry about poles hitting Ely and Dart after a wipeout, I go without and instead hold the lines that extend from my belt to the towline. Thanks to the cushioning provided by the bungee on the towline, it’s a fairly smooth start. As the chorus of howling dogs not chosen for this run fades, a silence surrounds me while I try to calculate the narrowing distance to approaching curves and trees. But realizing the dogs are focused, I become aware of the wind angling across my skin, a sensation fit for a York Peppermint Pattie commercial. I must be exceeding the speed limit, but Sloan estimates it as 13 mph—not quite the 25 mph she and the dogs can hit during a race.
To urge the dogs forward, I shout “hike!” which is followed by what the dogs can only interpret as a more convincing version of the same from McGrath, who watches our progress from a snowmobile farther back. “Hike” is interspersed with “whoa”—the verbal brake applied after a fall. “Gee” and “haw”—for right and left, respectively—are the other commands I’m armed with, but the dogs know this course and don’t need direction from a beginner like me.
It’s 14 degrees out, and I’m warm. I’m concentrating on bending my knees before the curves and enveloping the towline with white-knuckles hidden by gloves—in fact, my arms are shaking a bit from the effort. At the end of this 1K loop, I call a final “whoa!” to halt the dogs’ progress. They’re rewarded with a treat.
My reward is the unexpected connection that I—someone whose only pet has been a goldfish—felt with the dogs. I’d also expected skijoring to feel physically awkward, but it was quite the opposite: natural, fluid—when I wasn’t falling, that is.
As I take more loops behind the dogs, I progress from five falls, to two falls and finally just one. This controlled coast has an undercurrent of uncertainty: It’s the recognition that the dogs, as trained as they are, still might find a mink or a scent fascinating and veer off the trail, taking me with them.
Such unpredictability keeps my stomach dropping and the excitement rising. But as this particular human-and-dog roller coaster stays on track, I know that even when I fall again, I’ll get back up, hold on tightly and enjoy the wild ride.
Laura Kearney is the former managing editor of Wisconsin Trails.
Harness the fun:
Besides skis and boots, equipment needs are minimal: skijor belt for the skier, racing harness for each dog, towline and a brass snap to attach it to the harness, and a carabiner, which hooks the towline to your belt and serves as a release when needed. Equipment is relatively inexpensive and sold at many ski shops.
Where to Hit the Trail
Many skijorers bemoan the lack of trails open to the sport. Some suggest snowmobile trails as an option—with hesitation, given the obvious associated risks. Here are some they recommend: the Bridal Mountain bike trails of Lapham Peak near Waukesha; Minocqua Winter Park; Justin Trails B&B Resort in Sparta.