Why skiing with dogs is the cat’s meow

A look at skijoring and other unique forms of animal-powered locomotion

Photo: Jill Wilson Bob Wilson skijors with Jezebel at Granby, Colorado.

Photo: Jill Wilson
Bob Wilson skijors with Jezebel at Granby, Colorado.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

Barkie Birkie may sound like the latest tongue twister or look like a mangled version of Barnebirkie, but it is in fact one of the newest additions to the annual American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin, in which dogs and their humans team up for a race featuring the Nordic sport of skijoring.

This canine carnival calls for towing skiers through snow-packed Main Street in downtown Hayward, cheered on by thousands of spectators.

But it’s far from a one-sided effort. Carol Kaynor, co-author of the well-known book Skijor With Your Dog, now in its second edition, says of skijoring, “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 to learn things with your dog and be so closely connected. Willow and I skijored every chance we got.”

Keith Crowley, photographer, says he likes the Barkie Birkie best of all Birkebeiner events because he loves dogs and because “the spectators are there to smile and laugh.” Another plus is the many wagging tails.

What started as a mere demonstration of skijoring on Main Street several years ago has now grown into an annual event limited to 100 teams with a minimum age of 13. Participants may select either a 3K or 5K event. All proceeds support the Northwoods Humane Society.

As for the origins of the Birkebeiner, rooted in the rescue of Norway’s Prince Haakon in 1206 by birch-legged skiers, writer Justin Peters suggested, tongue in cheek, that the escape could have been hastened by the use of skijoring.

Canine Skijoring
Canine skijoring has many facets from recreation to races to rigorous extreme events. It is but one of various dog-powered sports that now include bikejoring, scooterjoring, canicross, carting, and sled-dog racing.

Some of these have evolved as alternate means to train dogs when snow is absent or as a means for people to engage in sports activities with their dogs even though they live in areas that don’t receive snow. Thus many dryland racing events, heavily represented by scooters and carts, take place in climates of all kinds.

Photo: Jill Wilson Even without snow it’s possible to train.

Photo: Jill Wilson
Even without snow it’s possible to train.

Equine Skijoring
For others, skijoring has a totally different complexion that some refer to as “horse-drawn water skiing on snow.” In this version “a skier hangs on to a rope attached to a horse for a course that typically runs 1,000 feet and features 12 slalom gates, 6 ‘jousting rings’ and 3 ramp-like jumps ranging from 2-6 feet in height,” writes Justin Peters in his blog about the Winter Olympics. “So basically, it’s skiing meets the rodeo meets Medieval Times.” Such teams consist of three members: horse, rider, and skier.

This style of skijoring has been featured on and off at the Whitefish Winter Carnival in Montana since the 1960s. Shut down in the mid-70s due to inability to acquire insurance, skijoring with horses was revived in 2003 and continues to be an integral part of their winter event.

It is but one of seven such equine skijoring exhibitions planned for 2017 under the umbrella of Skijor America, including a first annual event at Ridgeway, Colorado, in January.

In 2015 the North American Ski Joring Association (NASJA), another organization sanctioning equine skijoring across the country, merged with Skijor America to strengthen their impact and better promote this sport.

Their championships are scheduled this coming February at Teton Village, Snake River Ranch, Jackson, Wyoming. Presently there are two divisions for the races leading up to the championships: the northern group of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming and the southern set in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Skijoring with horses is a feature in some European circles too, most notably White Turf, which began in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1907. A key difference in the European version is that there is no rider on the horse; the skier is the pilot. Another is the single start of all horses out of the gates. White Turf also features horse racing and chariot racing, drawing over 35,000 spectators per day.

Skijoring with horses was demonstrated at the 1928 Olympics in Switzerland. Seven competitors crossed a flat frozen lake with no jumps or slaloms, stirring no long-lasting interest on the part of Olympic officials. However, organizations that focus on promoting skijoring, whether centered on horses or dogs, continue to hold out hope for some variation of this sport to gain Olympic status.

But skijoring isn’t limited to horses or dogs. Its origins in the Scandinavian nations likely featured reindeer. In E. John B. Allen’s book, The Culture and Sport of Skiing, he noted, “children were pulled by dog and pony, British officers in India tried it behind a yak, Sami behind reindeer and men from the industrial world behind motorcycle, car and even airplane.”

25 years of Canine Skijoring
Bob Wilson, a veteran skijorer for nearly 25 years, actively pursues scooterjoring as a means of training his dogs and competing as well. Though an Idaho resident since 2000, Bob and his wife Jill first got into skijoring in Flagstaff, Arizona, where a co-worker of Jill’s skied with her three malamutes. She knew the Wilsons enjoyed cross-country skiing and suggested they might like skijoring with their Samoyed.

Bob signed up for a local race with eight entries in his category and took second place. His reaction? “This is the sport for me!”

Two weeks later his wife took her turn at a competition. “I just about couldn’t stand it, being on the sidelines. We got a second dog and then a third dog. Our interest grew,” said Bob.

Jill prefers mid-distance runs with a six-dog team; Bob sticks to skijoring in the 4-6 mile range with a pair of dogs. But for dryland events, they switch to cart and scooter respectively.

Ellie, with her one brown eye and one blue, and brown-eyed Kinta are the two Alaskan Huskies comprising Bob’s team. They are relatively small dogs of about 35 pounds each. “I’m in my sixties now,” he acknowledges, “and with smaller dogs, I have more control.”

His two teammates share a dog run, but the others each live alone in a double-sided kennel with multiple runs and shelters on each side plus an enclosed space down the middle for a sink, food storage, training equipment, and more.

McGee. Disco. Cola. Their names are posted on their pens. Shades from beige lace to black velvet grace their faces and bodies in an infinite variety of colors and markings. Each is gorgeous. One has startlingly ice blue eyes that mesmerize. Most are Siberian Huskies. Some are Alaskan Huskies. One Samoyed. Altogether there are 20. Inside there is another Samoyed, age 13, plus a Swedish Vallhund, a short, energetic dog that could probably pull a cat cart.

Earlier that day Bob and Jill loaded up 16 of them and drove the short distance from their country home outside Athol, Idaho, to Farragut State Park in their Chatmac, a dedicated dog truck. “Our third,” noted Bob, adding that huskies are denning animals by nature and are happy to cozy up by pairs in a space that looks tight for one dog. In the back of the truck are rows of harnesses. Each dog requires a slightly different fit.

“We like to train on dirt. It’s better for their joints and feet,” said Jill. Bob noted they don’t like to run the dogs at all if it’s over 50 degrees F.

Asked what he liked best about skijoring, Bob replied, “It keeps me active. To compete, I need to keep in shape.” He prefers the more active participation compared to running a sled-dog team.

Both Wilsons belong to the Inland Empire Sled Dog Association where Bob serves as treasurer as well as race marshal for their upcoming dryland race and timer for the sled-dog race at Priest Lake, Idaho, an event nearing its 50th year.

Skijoring Organizations
Organizations that foster participation in recreational activities with dogs and manage races for those who like to compete are the glue that keeps the process going at local, state, and national levels.

The U.S. Federation of Sledding Sports (USFSS) is the national governing body. It is now developing its 2017 team for competition in sprint (four, six, and eight dogs), skijoring, pulka, and combined for the ski dog classes and mid-distance (eight dogs) and long-distance (unlimited) classes.

Last November U.S. women took home all medals in the Women’s Veteran Bikejor Class for women over 40 at the Dryland World Championships in Bristol, Quebec, Canada. USFSS President Mike Marsch exclaimed, “This is the first time in USA dryland history we took home the most medals (18, nine of them gold). Bristol gave us a good race, good trails, and enabled us to experience the camaraderie that goes with competition.”

The International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) will conduct its 2017 World Championships Races in Haliburton, Ontario, Canada, from January 24 to February 1.

New this year to the IFSS Council is Rebecca Knight, Basalt, Colorado, a photojournalist turned musher and skijorer. She spent many years in Alaska, recently took up skijoring, and has represented the U.S. in Sleddog World Championships in both North America and Europe. She won first place in Women’s Two-dog Skijoring in North America recently.

Many other organizations exist too. An internet search will yield rich resources including videos, trail maps, and more. The Cross-Country Ski Areas Association has compiled information on trails including those that are for dogs. Searching by state for these is available.

The Northwest Sled Dog Association and K9 Scooters Northwest are but two examples of local groups. The former is conducting the Pacific Northwest Dryland Championships near Cle Elum, Washington, October 22-23, 2016.

Practice Makes Perfect
Skijoring, like any sport, has its risks and requires specific training for both dogs and humans to assure success without serious injury. Voice commands are even more important in canine skijoring than in dog sledding. In addition to the book mentioned throughout this article, Skijor With Your Dog, many online sites are available with training tips.

On their website, Skijor USA refers to skijoring as “a cooperative sport that employs the athletic ability of both dog and skier.” Creating such a team requires both patience and practice.

Triple Play Tip
Either skijoring or Nordic-style mushing can easily become a family activity by using a pulk for younger children and by teaching older ones to skijor.

“The powerful therapeutic force of animals” is referred to by Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor as a key advantage of a dog team over a motorized vehicle like a snowmobile for bringing outdoor activities to persons with disabilities.

But pets are proven stress-reducers for everyone. So is exercise and connecting with nature. Such a triple play can benefit most of us.

Norwegian Threads
Through all these variations on skijoring and its offshoots run Norwegian threads. It starts, of course, with Norwegian language: ski is a Norwegian word as are its derivatives such as skijoring, obtained from ski kjøring, i.e. ski driving. Several of these threads are recounted in Skijor With Your Dog by Mari Hoe-Raitto and Carol Kaynor, 2nd Ed., 2010, University of Alaska Press.

For instance, skiing itself is at least 4,000 years old. So is the Norwegian Elkhound, one of the oldest breeds in existence. Dogs have been faithful hunters, guards, and herders in Scandinavian countries for centuries, probably as far back as 12,000 years to the Stone Age. Pulks—often pulled by reindeer—have been on the scene in Norway for centuries too, carrying assorted freight.

Just over a century ago, Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor note, polar explorers and trappers brought Alaskan-style mushing to Norway, which led to the development of Nordic-style dog mushing, i.e. a small dog team and skier.

Amundsen’s expedition with dogs to the South Pole in 1911 and the Norwegians who returned from the Alaskan Gold Rush both contributed to the growth in Norway of both kinds of dog mushing. The Nansen sled, named after explorer Fridtjof Nansen, was a hybrid similar to the Alaskan dog sled, but it was designed for use by a skier and had a hand-operated brake.

In this same time period, the winner of the first All-Alaskan Sweepstakes in 1908 was Norwegian John Hegness. Another Norwegian, Lenhard Seppala, won the same race three years in a row. In 1925 Seppala gained fame for his role in the historic Nome Serum Run to help stem the diphtheria epidemic.

The following decade, Norway’s first Nordic-style dog-mushing club started. Nordic-style races continue today to outnumber Alaskan-style competitions, the latter involving larger sleds with three to 20 dogs, usually in pairs.

Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor note that, “skijoring is a hybrid sport combining the principles of skiing and dog mushing. Its history encompasses both the arctic coasts, where dog mushing evolved, and Scandinavia, the birthplace of skiing.” (1991, p. 2).

They go on to elaborate four major aspects of Nordic-style mushing in Norway: “competition, touring, rescue work and transportation of persons with disabilities” (1991, p. 3). Since motorized vehicles are not allowed in many Norwegian parks, emergency response by a dog team is a key option.

All these dimensions are present in the U.S. today in some form, including rescue efforts. When Ski For Light was brought to the United States in 1975 as a version of Norway’s Ridderrenn, a program of cross-country skiing for people with visual or mobility impairments, pulks were used for the mobility-challenged. Both USFSS and IFSS have a race division for pulks.

So how exactly does skijoring differ from dog mushing? First is the skijoring’s belt. The other major difference, as described by Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor, is that a dog musher “stands on the runners of a dog sled, steers and uses a brake and snow hook to stop the team” (1991, p. 5-6).

Skijoring and mushing each have advantages and disadvantages. Nordic-style mushing is a hybrid. “Skijoring requires as little as a single dog, a pair of skis, a harness, a belt, and a line. This makes it a great introduction to the joy of running dogs” (1991, p. 5). Continuing this theme, the authors point out, “Words can’t adequately describe the pleasure of seeing your canine friend dance in excitement whenever he sees his harness or the thrill of four-legged power when your dog charges off the starting line in a race” (1991, p. 5).

The 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, featured an exhibition of Norwegian-style mushing. Like the 1928 equine exhibition, this also failed to gain support as an Olympic sport.

In the mid-80s, the rise in popularity of cross-country skiing, in dog mushing, and in pet ownership converged to bring about a growth in U.S. skijoring, explain the two authors. These trends continue today. Some dog lovers learn to cross-country ski just so they can skijor.

Skijoring continues to be reinvented all over the world and other derivatives also continue to expand, such as the dryland forms using all manner of wheeled vehicles, some even motorized. Other variations include snowboarding while hitched to a dog and grassjoring on grassy fields instead of snow.

And woven throughout this crazy quilt of skijoring and its offshoots are numerous Norwegian threads. A recent example is the 2011 IFSS Championships hosted in Norway at Hamar and Holmenkollen. Where there is snow and a Norwegian, something special happens, and we are all the beneficiaries.

Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Iditarod, died a decade ago but her quote on skijoring sums up its appeal. In the foreword to Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor’s 1991 edition, she writes, “Even now, with 130 dogs in my kennel, I still go out and hook up a couple of dogs to skijor with for the pure enjoyment of the sport.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.