Carol Kaynor has been lashing herself to a dog or two, then traversing the snow-covered hills and trails of Alaska, since 1977. That’s when a friend introduced her to the sport of skijoring – or cross-country skiing with the assistance of canine power.
That very first time, a “big fluffy guy” named Banner pulled her as if she were a feather, she says. “I can’t explain how cool it was.” Nonetheless, she tries: “I kind of like speed. When I’m in amusement parks, I like roller coasters. What’s way more thrilling to me is that you have a dog pulling you. It’s at least equally as thrilling as going fast” in downhill skiing, she says.
Doing anything other than playing fetch with a dog or petting it was a whole new experience for Kaynor. “I grew up loving dogs and thinking they were just part of the family. I never did agility or obedience or flyball or any of the other things you can do with dogs. All I knew of dogs was hanging out.”
A Thrill that Lasts
For the next five years, Kaynor skijored “off and on” with Banner, exploring the ski trail behind her friend’s house. “Then when I got my own dog in ’82, I really got into it in a big way.”
The sport of skijoring had long been popular in Scandinavia and Europe. It was in the 1980s that it took hold in Canada and the U.S., not only in Fairbanks, where Kaynor lives, and all around Alaska, but also in states with plenty of winter snow such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Cross-country skiers who also have dogs share in the thrill Kaynor felt upon her first outing, and some dog lovers learn to cross-country ski just so they can skijor.
A dog need learn only a few specialized commands to start skijoring, and minimal equipment is needed. The skier needs a skijoring belt, worn around the waist, to which an 11-foot towline is attached. Most include bungee-like material to minimize jolting. The dog needs a harness and a desire to pull. However, it’s not like dog sledding where the dogs provide all of the power. Although a dog may run for a period of time while the skijorer is literally pulled, the skijorer also projects him- or herself by striding in cross-country fashion.
Hike (go), Gee (turn right), Haw (turn left) and Whoa (you guessed it – stop) are the basic instructions a dog needs to skijor safely. Most newbies begin teaching these before it snows with the dog on a regular leash, then move to a longer lead or a towline. A regular harness can be used for early training, however a pulling harness will be needed when it’s time to hitch dog and person together. Some dogs may need booties depending on the snow condition and temperature. Other commands for efficient skijoring are Easy to slow down and On By to pass a distraction or another skijoring team.
It doesn’t take a Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute or any other Nordic breed to skijor. In fact, competitive skijorers today use Pointer mixes, along with Husky mixes and Alaskan Huskies, a breed specific to racing. “When the sport began [in Scandinavia], it was all Pointers,” says Rebecca Knight, secretary of Mushing USA. People began mixing in Alaskan Husky there in the ‘80s, she says. At that time, in the U.S., most skijoring dogs were some type of Husky. Her top race dog today is three-fourths German Shorthaired Pointer and one-fourth Husky. Sometimes skijorers use English Pointers and a bit of Greyhound, she adds. “In Norway, Sweden and other places, you’ll see the purebred Pointers and some mixes with the Husky bred in.”
For recreational purposes, however, she says that if a dog is motivated, it can be an Australian Shepherd or a Labrador Retriever. “If you have a dog that’s 35 pounds or more, you can skijor with them.”
Kaynor adds: “Some pet dogs are born to it. We find Labrador Retrievers are generally good skijor dogs. A lot of Aussies skijor really well. But you never know; there are Beagles that skijor.”
A Different Route
Knight, who lives in Wasilla, Alaska, was a recreational distance sled dog musher for years before she got into skijoring. “I started skiing when I was like 7 years old. At the age of 47, I’d been running distance dogs and I hadn’t been doing any skiing. In the back of my mind, I thought when I retired my distance dogs, I’d like to do some skiing.”
Knight decided that if she was going to skijor, she should look for a fast dog that could do both sprint mushing and skijoring. “A sprint musher in Anchorage was downsizing her kennel a bit and wanted to get a couple of dogs into good homes.” She took in Gypsy, who as 6 at the time. “She had run in a sprint team for several years and had done a little bit of skijoring. She was great at it.” Knight points out, however, that you don’t need to have a racing dog to have fun skijoring.
The first time Knight and Gypsy went out, Knight says it was as if the dog said, “I’m going to show you what we can do together.” She was hooked. “I just ran a couple of races my first season. Then it was like ‘wow.’ I realized I needed to get another dog to do two-dog.” So Clyde, then 18 months, joined the team. “In the season of ’09-’10, we were a pretty amazing team. They were just great together.”
Single dog skijoring is the norm in Scandinavia, Knight says, with two-dog skijoring a “North American invention.”
Racing for the Sport
Although small purses, or prize money, are offered in many skijoring races, competitors don’t do it for the money. “A very, very small amount of the purse goes to skijorers,” Knight says. Most skijoring races are in conjunction with sled dog races, which offer much larger purses. The biggest purse she’s seen for a skijorer was $200, she says. “It’s something I can look at when I’m 80 years old and say, ‘Look what I did.’” Any prize money is quickly used up on expenses, she says, adding that the drive to a race can be seven hours or more.
Competitors skijor in a number of classes, divided between men and women, including: 1 Dog Skijor; 1 Dog Pulka, which means sled-like equipment called a pulk is pulled along the snow between the dog and handler; 2 Dog Skijor; and Nordic Combined, in which you do a number of miles with a pulk, then you do a number without it.
Both women compete with the Alaska Dog Mushers Association in Fairbanks.
To support their sporting lives, both Knight and Kaynor have regular jobs. Knight works for a birch syrup producer, mostly in late spring, summer and early fall, and Kaynor is a web and data base coordinator.
There’s no need to race to enjoy skijoring, though. “Competitive racers in skijoring are just the top section of the iceberg,” Kaynor says. “Most people who skijor skijor for fun and a handful race. You can do it at any level. It’s such a flexible sport. Dogs can pull – I know a lot of dogs just think that’s the cat’s meow.”
That describes her first skijoring dog to a “T.”
“Willow loved to pull. We learned the sport together, and I felt so much closer to her because we figured it out as a team. It’s one thing to hang out with your dog, it’s another thing to learn things with your dog and be so closely connected. Willow and I skijored every chance we got.”
The pair did “fun skijoring races” in the early ‘80s, Kaynor says. Then in 1986, she met Mari Hoe-Raitto, “who was a revelation. She was doing a form of skijoring that none of us were doing. She was really good on skis. Her dogs were really fast. It was a huge leap in level.” Together, they organized a competitive race in Fairbanks and pushed to have the sport included in the local mushing club’s events.
In the interim, though, she says, “there was so much interest” that she and Hoe-Raitto decided to write a book on skijoring, “Skijor With Your Dog,” first published in 1991. A “really comprehensive update,” labeled “Second Edition,” came out in June 2012 from University of Alaska Press, Kaynor says, pointing out that the book now includes a chapter on dryland skijoring, for which no snow is required, and you wear inline skates, or use a scooter or bike. Knight recommends Kaynor’s book to anyone interested in the sport. “It’s really geared toward beginners or immediate, but I’m a racer and I’m re-reading it,” she says. “It’s full of all kinds of great information.”
Soon after that first race in 1991, “It moved from being a backyard thing to a much more competitive race,” Kaynor says. When it got really competitive, she went back to doing it just for fun. “I still do it, and I still love it,” she says, after 35 years in the sport.
Part of what keeps it interesting, she says, is that every dog is different. “I have a new Willow, and she’s totally different. There are new challenges, new fun to be had.”
Think skijoring sounds fun? Two good online resources are Skijor USA and Skijor Now. You may want to check out two videos that show dogs and skijorers in action. Find a shorter one and a longer one on YouTube. If you’re not up for spending winter outdoors in the snow, you might like to try some new sports that you can do inside.