By Indrek Kongats
Before the time of the snowmobile, which wasn’t that long ago by the way, my family did a lot of cross country skiing and snowshoeing to get around during the winters at our lodge. Another method of transportation, if we happened to be in a hurry, needed to cover a long distance or just wanted to have some fun, was to have our family pet Tex, a very large black and tan Shepherd, pull us. The Norwegians called this “Skijoring”, to be pulled on skis by a dog(s).
Ice fishing was very good at that time, in the mid-sixties as I remember, and my dad was a very avid ice fisherman. Surrounding our lodge were a dozen lakes that had no access roads in the winter, or even the summer, for that matter. These secluded lakes were teaming with Lake and Speckled Trout. The problem was how to get to them. The snowmobile was around, but we didn’t own one and besides, they were so big, clumsy and expensive that unless you where a professional trapper or logger, they didn’t make much sense.
Dog power was what we called it and if anyone has ever tried walking a dog without a training collar then you’ll know that the natural instinct for a dog on a lead is to pull. Yes, dogs love to pull and run! A combination that works well for the owner that has the ability to follow along without getting an arm yanked off or getting dragged on the ground. The Norwegians must have had a lot of dogs to have come up with such an ingenious method of transportation, such a cost effective way to harness all that energy and make it work for them.
The Skijor harness fits around the dog’s body in a way that it doesn’t hamper the dog’s ability to run freely and pull a load with the least amount of effort. The harness is then attached to a long lead, which in turn is attached to another harness around the mid- section of the skier. The equipment is basic: skis, poles and the Skijor harness assembly.
Our cross country skis where nothing like what you see being used today; they were more like the ones found hanging over your fireplace for decoration. Those wide old boards with the leather harnesses were excellent for what we needed them for— “groomed x-country trails,” what are those?!
Today’s neat little skinny XC skis would have been totally useless back then, not a good mix with heavy packs and deep snow, although today Skijoring has evolved into a popular sport where modern day XC skis are used on groomed trails.
For the ice fisherman that wants to explore some virgin water without a snowmobile, Skijoring is just the ticket. Traveling over flat ice-covered lakes will be a snap, but unfortunately, to get from lake to lake, you’ll encounter several miles of overland travel where the snow can be waist deep. Skijoring will no longer work, but those long wide skis will, just like snowshoes, to keep you afloat. Once back on the surface of a frozen lake, hook the lead back onto the dog and off you go.
Skijoring is an ever-evolving sport and as with most, sports competitions eventually begin to take place. Skijor competitions associated with sprint races are often 3 to 10 miles in length, but in recent years there has been interest in longer, distance events. If your skijoring takes you down this path, you’ll have to think seriously about training and conditioning yourself and your dog.
Before you put skis on your feet, take your dog for a little run while attached onto your skijor harness to see what it’s like to be hooked together. The lead line, or tug as it is properly referred to, can be swapped out for a long bungee cord to take the strain off your dog and yourself. In any type of dog training, stop frequently and praise your animal and offer the occasional treat; remember, this is supposed to be fun! Practice your commands by using common terminology used by mushers in sled dog training: “hike” get moving “gee” turn right, “haw” turn left, “easy” slow and the all-important “whoa” stop.
Start on a well-defined trail so that the dog will go in the right direction, a cross country ski trail off-season is the ideal training area. Also remember your dog is always on a leash, so public parks that enforce the leash law are OK to practice in. Call out the appropriate command and when your dog responds correctly, praise him. Be careful to limit your conversation with your dog to just the commands and praising so as not to confuse them.
The health of both you and your dog should be your number one priority, so don’t work either of you too hard. Athletic dogs are healthier and live longer. Dogs and skis are a natural combination and the satisfaction of working together with them will bring you closer together. Here is some helpful information and questions to ask yourself before you start skijoring with your dog as outlined on the USA Skijoring website: www.skijorusa.org
Does your dog like to run?
Are they leash pullers? (not required, but it helps)
Any size of dog can skijor, but 35 pounds and larger will be more successful in pulling you.
Harness: A pulling harness is very important. Using a neck collar can injure your dog!
Tether: A line from the harness to your waist should include a bungee. Running can use a 6-feet line, skiing needs 9-feet to account for the speed and ski tips.
Waist Belt: A proper skijoring belt is nice, but you can start with a simple fanny pack or rock climbing harness. Just ensure the belt is wide enough to cover several of your vertebrae on your back.
Standard skate ski equipment is used for racing, but touring skis work just fine for recreational skijoring. Never skijor with metal edge skis.
A dog is a great companion, especially when you are traveling into isolated territory where it is essential to be prepared for the worst. Falling through the ice or getting lost in a blizzard, your dog maybe your only chance for survival. Most people wouldn’t think that their family pet would be up to the task of pulling you on skis over some frozen tundra, but you’d be surprised.