Take to the Snow with SkijoringDec 09, 2016 07:57PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
By Jenna Danyew
Skijoring, a Norwegian word that translates to “ski driving,” is a combination of dog sledding and cross country skiing, and it’s making its way towards central PA. The sport started popping up in Colorado and Montana 30 years ago. Now, thousands of people are getting involved with the growing activity and, in the process, creating strong bonds with their dogs. Coaches and training classes have brought skiers closer to their pets.
Mary Beth Logue, a board member of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Association, traveled to Alaska, the place you might think of first when imagining a team of northern dog breeds—think Siberian Husky, Samoyeds, Akita, Alaskan Malamute, German Spitz, Keeshond—racing through the snow together. She watched a sled dog demonstration and saw the unique fun the dogs were having. She thought of Scout, her blue-eyed mutt the veterinarian had labeled “part-husky” and said to herself, “Oh, I could do that too.” With Scout in a harness and Mary Beth on skis, the team taught each other the unique sport of skijoring.
Edwin Atwood, 74, has been a skijorer for more years than he can count. He works with Warren County Winterfest, an annual event celebrating various winter sports. Winterfest (warrencountywinterfest.com) will be held January 20-22 this year and Edwin couldn’t be more excited to see new faces.
“It’s just amazing to see them try [the sport],” he says. “I like to see the way they take to it, the people and the dogs.”
Edwin has watched many people find success on the trails of Pennsylvania. “That’s where I met Rocky, a happy mutt who proves any dog can be turned into a champion,” he said.
What about my dog?
The northern breeds are known for their love of skijoring and dogsledding, aptly suited with their thick winter coats and love of cold weather. However, any breed can participate. If a dog loves to run, he will probably love to pull. Once training begins, skijorers love to watch their dogs take to the sport.
“My huskies go wild the second I take out their harnesses,” Mary Beth said. Initially, some dogs may be fearful of the skis seemingly chase them as they run. But once they learn to pull and understand your verbal commands, the world of skijoring is at your fingertips—literally.
Starting in PA
The Pennsylvania Sled Dog club has spent years creating an environment for dogs and their owners to enjoy the winter weather in safe, exciting and well-maintained ways. They hold events throughout the year, including the Fall Camp Out, a mix of socializing and training, that bring dogs and mushers together to learn more. Teaching dogs and humans the art of racing brings participants one step closer to the formation of a skijoring team.
It turns out the best teacher for your dogs is another dog. One well behaved and experienced animal can guide a new dog as they learn the sport. With a little follow-the-leader, it becomes much easier to get new dogs to pull and race well in a team.
Why I stopped
Skijoring has its limits and, for Mary Beth, it was the addition of a second dog that ended her run. She had started racing with Scout, the blue-eyed mutt she owned even before skijoring had piqued her interest. Scout got a handle on pulling and quickly learned verbal commands through repetition. Once the two got comfortable, Mary Beth bought Ember, her first purebred Alaskan husky. With both Scout and Ember racing through the hard-packed snow, she made a critical realization.
“If the [two dogs] didn’t want to stop, I wasn’t going to be able to make them,” she said. “I guess I just wasn’t a good enough skier.”
Recognizing her limits as a skijorer, Mary Beth continued her love of winter racing, but traded in her skis for a sled.
If you want to start racing through the woods, the right equipment is critical. A strong collar with the proper identification tags, a well-fitting harness and a “line” are important for racing or pulling. The quick-release line will attach to the dog’s harness and tether to a belt around your waist. Some skijorers invest in booties to keep their dog’s feet comfortable and dry while they run.
Skijoring is hard work physically. The dogs may be pulling in front, but the skier is contributing to the forward momentum. Steering through the trails and maintaining control must be the priority as you zip through frost-covered Pennsylvania landscape together. Most people aren’t used to traveling so quickly through the woods. Mary Beth describes it as “being shot out of a cannon.” Edwin Atwood concurs. “It’s not just taking them for a walk, it’s [more like] flying,” he added.
Skijoring isn’t just for dogs; horses can hurtle skiers through gates and jump, allowing the skier to catch rings as they go. This more competitive side of skijoring is popular in the Midwest, attracting semi-professional racers from all over the country to compete for large sums of money. Running on hard-packed snow, with special shoes and a skilled rider, these horses allow skijoring to move from casual recreation to a dangerous and daring sport. Rider, skiers and spectators are there for the thrill.
Skijoring can take many forms, from the adrenaline races on horseback to the backyard fun with your dogs. No matter who you take with you on this adventure, make sure you are safe and well prepared for this unique winter fun.
“It’s like stepping back in time to travel by a dog team, no motor, no sound but the dogs on the snow,” compared Mary Beth.
Second skijoring run on a beautiful winter day
Skijoring with a Golden Retriever