Cross-country skiers are harnessing their dogs’ pent-up winter enthusiasm in a fast-growing sport that’s finding a niche in the Inland Northwest.
Skijoring – derived from a Norwegian word that means ski driving – involves being pulled on skis by various means including horses or motor vehicles.
The canine-powered version is like dog-sledding without the sled.
“It’s not just for the arctic breeds people typically associate with dog-sledding,” said Kate Burns, a Spokane nordic skier who’s caught the skijoring bug 15 years ago during a family stint in Alaska.
“We moved to Anchorage during the middle of winter and the first thing I did was go to the pound for a dog,” she recalled. “I came home with two 90-pounders and was turned on to skijoring because so many people do it there. I immediately fell in love with the exhilaration.”
Most dogs that love to run and pull, regardless of size, can adapt to skijoring, she said.
“We see lots of Labs and goldens, but last year a man showed up almost every Sunday at Mount Spokane with a Mexican hairless that just happened to be born with hair. It was a little, tiny thing that loved to run ahead and keep the rope tight as the man skied behind.”
Race-oriented skijorers look for athletic endurance dogs that pull hard. Popular breeds on the racing circuits include German wirehaired pointers and mixed breeds involving greyhounds and huskies.
But in recreational skijoring, anything goes, Burns said.
You might be pulled the whole time if you have a bigger dog or you might be skiing all the time with a smaller dog. “You’re a team,” she said.
Burns is among a core of dog-powered sports enthusiasts trying to make sure skijoring gets off on the right paw in this region.
The group, which is loosely organized through Spokane Nordic and on Facebook under Skijor Spokane, has worked for years to gradually get skijoring allowed on a portion of the Mount Spokane groomed trail system.
During a clinic Sunday at the Spokane Nordic Winterfest activities, Burns emphasized to beginners that etiquette is critical to the future of the sport on groomed trails.
Skijoring won’t survive the my-dog-is-special attitude used around town as an excuse for letting dogs run off leash and not picking up droppings.
“Every year we are on a trial basis at Mount Spokane,” she told the group of a dozen people signed up for an introduction to skijoring.
“Dogs off-leash are the leading source of complaints to park rangers year round.”
Skijoring gear includes a well-fitting pulling harness for the dog, a belt or harness for the skier and an 8- to 12-foot, shock-corded tug line that joins them.
Diana Roberts, another local skijoring organizer, taught the newbies how to pull up on the tug line and shorten the distance between the skier and the dog when encountering other skiers on the trail.
“That gives you better control,” she said. “We want to avoid conflicts.”
Other essential gear includes a stash of poop bags. Pick up all droppings, double bag it and carry it with you in a pack, the instructors emphasized.
“Don’t leave it by the trail to pick up later,” Burns told her students, noting that public opinion can have a big impact on the sport.
Versed in the basics, the clinic participants quickly got into the fun, keeping the atmosphere relaxed with a lot of positive reinforcement to benefit the dogs. Some time was set aside to let them sniff and become acquainted before spreading out for harnessing.
Bob Hyslop was off in a flash behind his Labrador retriever. “This is going to be an adventure,” he said, as the dog took naturally to towing him down the trail – both staying on the same side of the trail as instructed.
Tom Schaff said his dog loves to pull on his leash when they run, but the dog wanted to bite and play with the tug line when he first got harnessed for skijoring.
“That’s common with some dogs,” Burns said. “They usually get over it fast.”
Kate Painter of Colfax got extra attention from instructors as she rigged up with Van, her Burnese mountain dog. “He’s just a pup,” she said, noting that she and the dog each weigh about 120 pounds.
With an instructor on each side of Van to keep him focused on going straight down the groomed ski trail, Painter was soon off, albeit in a full snowplow position with her skis.
“You want to avoid tangles,” Roberts told another skier. “If two dogs get their lines tangled, there can be issues.”
Mia McGinnity, a seventh grader at Mountainside Middle School, found herself in a tangle. Within seconds of starting, the tug line was around her leg and under one of her skis as her dog, Millie, tested the boundaries of the sport.
But she, too, was soon off, teamed with her mom, on a debut skijoring trek that carried on for miles of fun.
“We had a blast,” Robyn McGinnity said afterwards. “Millie is a 3-year-old rescue puppy that we adopted at 8 weeks old.” A blood test indicated Millie, 45 pounds, is part Lab, Swiss shepherd, Corgi, Shih Tzu and Basenji.
“She’s our first dog so it’s all been an adventure, but skijoring has to have been the best so far.
“I take her running a fair amount and we knew she loved to pull and loves snow, so we hoped this activity would be a good fit for her. And, as it turns out, it really showcased what she enjoys.”
McGinnity said it helped that they had good skiing skills before trying skijoring.
“I would also definitely recommend having two people for one dog, at least to start,” she said.
“One of us was able to guide Millie as the other was being pulled. I think our dog would have been uncertain of where to go had we not done that.”
Was it a perfect first run for the McGinnitys? No and Yes.
“My daughter and I spent almost the entire time laughing,” Robyn said, “whether at the pure glee of Millie zipping us through the forest, or the times Millie managed to pull my daughter over, or the times we all ended up down in the snow after they gained on me with Millie running to my left, Mia staying to the right and me getting roped in the middle.
“That may be the best summary of how we felt about our adventure,” she said.
The day after the clinic, McGinnity started ordering the gear she’ll need to get out skijoring with Millie again.
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