A Skijoring Medley
There once was a time when a few Middlebury students decided that it would be a good idea if they strapped on some skis, attached a rope to a plane, and held on while the plane took off on the snowy landscape of Lake Champlain. There happens to be a video of it.
The archival footage opens with a title screen: “‘Aero-skijoring’ on Lake Champlain.” Then, a shot of a grounded small, beige-colored plane with orange decal beginning to meander slowly over the snowy lake, cutting fresh tracks in about six inches of fluffy powder. Next, a rope appears, and at the end of the rope, a man, covered head to toe in winter garb and on his feet, two narrow skis. The pace of the following scene rapidly escalates. The plane, previously grounded, is now six feet off the ground and gliding through the air as the skier, struggling to maintain balance, clings to the rope as he hurtles through the frame in less than a second.
I first discovered skijoring two winters ago at an equine-skijoring event in Bozeman, Montana. It was the kind of sunny day that makes everyone squinty, as hundreds of people lined the sidelines of a course through which horses tugged skiers through a series of turns, jumps, and obstacles. It was transfixing – who thought of this? Given that I had never heard of it before, it seemed arcane, yet there were obviously people that were fired up to throw on some skis and let a horse yank them around. And why wouldn’t they? It involved traveling at fast speeds on skis. It looked like pure delight. Like the beginning to many adventures, mine began with a simple thought: I bet I could do that.
Skijoring, I learned, originated in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago, where someone likely came up with the simple yet genius idea to attach a rope to a domesticated animal and have it haul a skier around. In Norwegian, skikjøring means ski driving. Generally speaking, it involves a skier that is pulled behind either a dog or a horse. Yet with the advancement of motorized transportation, some have realized that higher speeds may be reached with vehicles such as motorcycles, cars, and yes, even planes.
A plan was hatched. I would spend a month trying to skijor in all known forms to man. I hoped that by progressing from the smaller, more accessible modes of transportation, I may ultimately get the chance to emulate my Middlebury predecessors, and skijor behind a plane. Expectations were low, but determination wasn’t.
Exhaust from the Tacoma billowed into my face as I careened around a corner with my skis on their edges, clinging tightly to the rope with my mitted hands. It was then that it dawned on me that I should probably be wearing a helmet.
I was in the midst of being pulled on skis behind a pick-up truck in a snowy, albeit less snowy than it should have been, field. I had been hoping to begin my skijoring experiences with the more historical canine or equine skijoring, but I had yet to set a date with any of my dog or horse contacts. So, I decided to use a more modern-day accessible mode of transportation. A friend of mine had graciously offered up his truck to use for the afternoon, and so my skijoring adventure was started on a cold, clear Sunday morning.
My friend, Rowan Shaw-Jones, was a five-foot-tall, scrawny guy with a thick moustache. He had never tried it before, but didn’t think there would be much to it. We tied about a six-footrope to the hitch of his truck, which was shorter than I would have hoped, but the only one we could find that morning.
Without much of a warmup, I was soon whipping around turns while Rowan put his truck’s suspension to the test on the bumpy tundra. Along with the truck’s exhaust, snow kicked up in my face. I heard myself give an unintentional exuberant holler. After making a few laps I discovered that when I situated myself to the side of the truck when I took turns, I would gain extra speed through the increased tension in the rope, a lot like water skiing, except instead of water, an icy hard pack awaited in the event of a fall. I had numerous spectators that had not wanted to miss the chance to see me skijor, or maybe more truthfully, wipe out.
It wasn’t the classiest entrance to skijoring, but it was certainly exhilarating – and tiring. My legs were burning from the exertion of holding myself steady on the many high-speed twists and turns. Though I had not taken any spills, auto-skijoring had made itself onto a new list of mine: sports that you should definitely wear a helmet for.
I had been told that it would take Ed Blechner a bit to warm up to me, so it was with slight apprehension that I pulled into Adirondack Circle where we had arranged to meet. He was easy to spot: parked in the middle of the turnaround was a silver pick-up truck with a gray, metal box on top of the bed which featured four, caged windows in the shape of a dog head on each side of the truck. Secured to the top of the truck sat a wooden sled with two narrow runners and tall handle bar. It was pretty obvious what business he was in, and I noticed students watching, whispering to each other as they walked by on their way to class.
He stayed seated in his Silverado with the engine running as I walked over to introduce myself, while the dogs patiently watched me. Ed didn’t seem like a man of many words.
And thus, we had met. I had been surprised how easily we had set up the meeting. I had been connected to Ed by my professor, and after only a few phone calls, and Ed confirming that I could Nordic ski with at least modest ability, we had arranged a day and time.
Ed had a wide, round face, with a growing gray beard, and tufts of white hair for sideburns that stuck out under his red winter hat which contained little dogs running a sled. He got straight to business, outlining our destination and the plan for the morning. He would be on his sled with five of the six dogs he brought, while I would be using the other to skijor. Historically, canine skijoring involves using one to three dogs. Ed thought that it might be best to start me at the lowest dog-power.
He seemed excited to get out there. I reluctantly informed him we just had to wait for the cameraman, Mac, who was filling up gas. I mentally tried to hurry Mac, a close buddy of mine, as I didn’t want to keep the dogmusher from mushing.
Mac soon answered my mental calls, and we all caravanned out with Ed leading the pack. After a twenty-minute drive a little past Ripton, we took a dirt road that goes behind Rikert Nordic Center and ultimately led to a snowmobile trail wide enough for a dogsled. We began to unload – me with my skis, and Ed with his sled and dogs.
As he unloaded the sled, he began to crack jokes, and ask more personal questions of me and Mac: our year at Middlebury, our area of study, our interests after school. The stiffness with which our conversation began to melt away as he genuinely wanted to learn about both my and Mac’s lives. And I wanted to know about his.
He was a retired teacher and high school track coach who has been mushing Arctic Huskies for over forty years. He had been to races all over Eastern United States and Canada. While he raced his huskies for endurance, other mushers in the Middlebury area had dogs like German Short Hairs that race for speed.
“I’d like to keep doing this as long as I can, you know?”
He soon got me in a harness, and outlined how it would work. The harness was a simple padded strap that circled my waist. In the front of the harness there was a carabiner, which was attached to different, quick-release carabiner, which was attached to a six-foot rope which would hook into the dog’s harness. He made sure that the harness was snug, and showed me how to adjust the tightness with the strap.
Unlike skijoring behind a horse or plane, as I had witnessed before, skijoring behind a dog involved using cross-country rather than alpine skis. It’s an active sport which requires the skier to skate ski behind the dog throughout the expedition – it wasn’t going to be a one-dog show. Additionally, if I got going too fast going down a hill, I would have to slow down so that I didn’t clip the dog. “Whatever you do, don’t run into the dog.” I gulped. I had grown up Nordic skiing with my family, but didn’t consider myself an expert. I was to know two commands: “woah,” to stop the dogs, and “straight ahead,” to keep the dogs on course.
He started to get the dogs out of their cages, helping them to the ground like one would help a kid down too big of a step. He called them tenderly by their names as he took them out individually. These were not young dogs, perhaps between seven and twelve years old. Before attaching them to the sled, he needed to get them all out, so he chained them one by one to a bar on the back of his truck. As they adjusted to the light after being hunkered down in their dark cages, the dogs began to bark, realizing the imminence of their task. Each dog had a different bark – some were low throaty rumbles, others shrill shrieks. It was a deafening chorus. They were aching to run.
Before hitching up the dogs, we first had to decide how Mac would best film the skijoring in action. After some consideration, Ed concluded that his veterans would be able to pull an extra 150 pounds. So, Mac wedged into the sled. I felt slightly guilty about giving the dogs added work just so that I could get my footage, but Ed was on board. Soon, Ed was hooking the dogs up to the sled one by one, beginning with the lead dogs. I lingered next to the sled, waiting to be hooked up myself. I would be pulled by Bravo, one of Ed’s usual lead dogs. Bravo had a multicolored coat and a white face. He has shorter hair than one may anticipate of a husky. And though good-sized, lacked the powerful appearance I had expected of a husky – he didn’t have stockiness or bulging muscles, and nor was he a pup.
The dogs became increasingly agitated as Ed hooked them up to the sled one by one. They sensed that their time had come to do what they had been trained to do, and I sensed that my time had come to try something for the very first time.
Ed hollered, “hike!” and we were off. Starting up a hill, I had to exert my own strength, reminding me of why I preferred the less strenuous alpine skiing. Bravo seemed unaccustomed to being attached to a single human rather than a sled with his friends, as he would run into the other five dogs as if he were running the sled, while I kept having to tug him back – it was his first time skijoring, I later learned.
After a few minutes, when we had reached level ground, Bravo calmed and settled into a rhythm and I could discern the obvious strength of the dog. I stopped skating and let Bravo do his thing. We surged ahead of the sled, and after giving myself a small break, helped Bravo along, soon leaving the sled far behind.
At our first downhill I apprehensively began to slow down, fearing that I would hit Bravo. Yet Bravo began to tug as I slowed down, so I straightened my skis and to my surprise, Bravo kept ahead, kicking up snow as he blistered down the trail. I could feel myself smile.
We stopped at the end of the three mile trail to let the dogs break before starting back. I let Ed take Bravo back to go up the big hill to help out the other dogs who were tiring from the extra load of a cameraman. I immediately missed Bravo’s pull, as I huffed and puffed my way up the steep incline. At the top, I hooked back up to my canine engine, and we raced down the hill, back to cars.
Though a short trip, I could see then why Ed has dog mushed for so long. In our brief thirty-minute trip, I had felt a connection to Bravo, as we had been joined as one while we toiled up hills and raced down declines. He had lugged me across the snowy trail for the sheer pleasure of running and pulling, and for that, I felt a unique and profound sense of gratitude. I could only imagine how Ed felt about a full team of dogs, his winter companions.
Upon conclusion of the run, Ed went through the same initial process in reverse, in taking the dogs off the sled one by one, hooking them to the bar on the back of the truck, and putting them away in the box on the bed of the truck. Yet now they were all hushed, their job complete. I gave Bravo one more pat on the head, shook Ed’s hand, and took off down the bumpy, white road.
After posting about skijoring on the Middlebury Front Porch Forum, an online “community-building service”, a few locals with equine-skijoring experience replied, offering to give me a try. One such woman was Lauren Waite, a Middlebury alum whose three kids also went to Middlebury. She was thrilled to help out a current Middlebury student. “Our set up is not official, but I’ve had some fun in past winters playing around and towing someone on skis.” Given the right conditions, she said we could give it a try.
So, on an unusually warm afternoon after taking a few runs at Sugarbush, my girlfriend (and camerawoman) and I stopped in at Lauren’s farm. There was an enormous barn, and except for the truck in the driveway, we weren’t even sure anyone was there. After some wandering around, we found her finishing up a routine with her horse Phoebe in a massive indoor arena attached to the barn. She greeted us enthusiastically, and began to set up the gear we needed to skijor. A looped rope attached to the breast plate of the horse, and stretched back about ten feet behind the horse. “You do not want to be kicked by Phoebe,” Lauren cautioned.
In high school, Lauren’s daughter had lived in Finland for a few months, where she had witnessed skijoring for the first time.
“I told her, ‘make sure you observe how they do it so we can try it back home!’”
Lauren’s daughter was not the first to bring back home skijoring from Scandinavia. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, introduced equine skijoring at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland as an exhibition event after discovering the sport at the Nordic Games, a precursor to the Winter Olympics. In an oval track race, the Swiss swept the competition in what would become the only skijoring event ever featured in the Olympics. Despite its novelty, it did not gain full Olympic status. Nevertheless, its presence was made known to the world – in the latter half of the 20th century, skijoring began to pop up in the United States, particularly in the west where the competition was altered to be more exciting.
After increasing in popularity, particularly on the streets of Leadville, Colorado, the North American Ski Joring Association (NASJA) was created in 1999 to “serve to promote safety, equality, and sportsmanship for the sport, and to bring all of the existing races together into a circuit where skiers and riders (and eventually horses) could earn points toward a National Championship.” Races were standardized with roughly 1,000-foot long courses, twelve slalom gates, six rings that the skier must snatch, and three varying sized jumps. Soon, skijoring became a winter sensation with events like the one I saw in Bozeman.
My first equine-skijoring experience would not be like that, however.
After Phoebe was fully equipped for the skijor, we walked outside towards an oval field with about a fifty-yard-long straightaway, possibly resembling what the skijorers in St. Moritz may have ran on, though much smaller. It was in the 50s and I wasn’t even wearing a coat. I strolled over with my skis on my shoulder. As I took them down, Phoebe backed up a bit, and pawed at the ground.
“The thing about Phoebe is she can get a bit skittish around skis,” Lauren notified me, which is not what I was expecting to hear about a horse that was about to drag me on skis. Lauren patted her and she soon calmed down. I situated myself behind Phoebe, said I was ready, Lauren clucked, and we were off. On a nice trot. I held on as we listed lazily around the turn. It was not the scorching clip at which the skijorers in Bozeman had raced.
Given the conditions, Lauren had told me that she didn’t want to push her horse too hard for fear of the horse tripping or slipping on a rock or ice underneath the soft snow. Had we had more snow, Phoebe could have been let loose. In addition, the soft snow made my travel over the ground stickier, creating more work for the horse.
Still, after a few turns, Lauren told me she thought that Phoebe was doing well, so we could kick it up a gear.
“How does that sound?” she asked.
“Let’s do it!” I hooted.
With a simple command, Phoebe kicked up the pace. Though not as intense, I felt the familiar sudden jerk that I had felt with the truck. I tightened my grip accordingly, and bent my knees. I felt a whoosh of air as I was yanked wrenched over the wet snow.
After a few more loops, we slowed to a stop. Lauren was beaming, proud of Phoebe, and of her makeshift apparatus that had functioned nicely. We hadn’t reached the speeds I had been envisaging, but I had still gotten a taste – and itch to go faster. Next stop: Bozeman.
The video of the aero-skijorers on Lake Champlain dates back to February, 1948, when Lin Meachem ’50 and a couple other members from the Flying Panther’s club affixed a 100-foot rope to the tail of an Aeronca 7AC Champion and tugged skiers across the snowy, frozen landscape of Lake Champlain. The moment I had first seen the footage, my curiosity was piqued. Could I try something like that? How fast were those skijorers going, anyway?
Middlebury alum Caroline Cating, now a pilot for Vermont Skydiving Adventures, connected me to a guy she knew from the pilot world named Adam Eisel, who had a ski plane in Swanton, VT, right on the Canadian border. After playing some phone tag, he finally texted me. “It shouldn’t be a problem setting it up within the next couple weeks. And as far as I know there’s nothing illegal with it,” the text read. “We’ll have to find a good lake around with some snow and no slush.” Unfortunately, therein lay the issue. We were in the middle of some pretty erratic weather on the east coast, where it would swing from 50˚F to 0˚F in the span of a day. This meant that any snow we had would melt and then freeze, resulting in lakes that were sheer ice. Though this was ideal for skating, it was not for skijoring behind a plane.
A plane, I learned, can only go as slow as its stall speed, which is the slowest velocity at which a plane can travel while maintaining level flight. Therefore, I would not need to travel at the typical speed of hundreds of miles per hour, but rather, more in the fifty to sixty mile per hour range. Still fast. That’s probably around the fastest I have ever traveled on skis, though it was going down a ski hill where a fall would not be as impactful as on a level surface. And on ice, for that matter.
As if sensing my apprehension, Adam texted me a few days later: “I’m gonna call it off. I don’t want to end up in the news if someone gets busted up. Sorry. If we get a foot of snow I’d be more than happy to meet up and do it.” Though a disappointing text to receive, it was simultaneously relieving. I too, did not want to end up in the news for getting “busted up”. Nevertheless, Adam left the door open to the possibility of attempting the feat with better conditions. We would have to wait and see.
When I embarked on my skijoring adventure, I had not anticipated coming nearly as close to actually skijoring behind a plane as I did, yet I was only snow-fall away from accomplishing it. Even more astounding than that was the amount of support I received from all of my skijoring mentors I met and worked with over the month of January. With simple phone calls or emails, my skijoring desires were fulfilled by everyday people who were willing to provide the resources they owned. The very same uniqueness had drawn me into the sport two years ago had drawn in my helpers. They wanted to be part of a sport that only few in the world have done. Though rare, they realized, as did I, that all you need to skijor is some snow, some skis, and transportation.