Maggie, my 2-year-old golden retriever, is about 10 yards ahead of me on a wide, freshly groomed cross-country trail. Gliding alongside her on skis is Jane Carpenter, a quintessential lover of dogs and skiing, who keeps telling Maggie she’s a good girl and encouraging her to go.
Maggie loves to go — on car rides, on hikes, on runs around the neighborhood, and on ski treks through the woods. But this is the first time either of us has tried skijoring. Maggie is wearing something akin to a dogsledding harness, which is attached to a long, stretchy blue leash, which is clipped into a belt around my waist.
I’d heard about skijoring and seen photos of racing dogs with their Lycra-clad, fast-skiing human counterparts. I wasn’t looking for speed, necessarily — although going fast on skis is something I love to do. I was just looking for another type of adventuring Maggie and I could do together.
When I learned Gunstock Mountain Resort offers skijoring lessons at its Outdoor Center, we headed to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region to check it out. By the end of our hourlong lesson with Carpenter, Maggie and I were hooked on this sport. Turns out we aren’t alone.
Norwegian in origin, the word “skijoring” translates to “ski driving” and indicates a skiing partnership between human and animals ranging from reindeer to horses to, of course, dogs. The first account of a human strapping himself to a dog and gliding across the snow, according to www.Skijor.com, comes from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia and dates back “thousands of years.”
Some things remain thrilling despite the passage of time, and for snow-loving humans and their canine pals, skijoring is a fabulous way to glide through winter.
It’s all about the dog
Both Carpenter and her skijoring teaching partner at Gunstock, Sarah Capello, stress that skijoring is completely dog-focused — and that the sport is a collaborative effort between dog and human.
“It’s not about your dog dragging you around, but about the partnership. It’s really about being out on skis and working with your dog,” said Capello. “You get to ski, they get to run. It brings your relationship to a whole different level. The nice thing about this sport is anyone with any dog can do it.”
That’s right. You don’t need a husky or a sled dog to get into skijoring (although those dogs will work just fine). Carpenter has given lessons to human-dog pairings including everything from Labs to beagles. And she’s skijored with her own yellow Lab, but also with her Jack Russell terrier.
Any dog who loves to run, can learn a few basic commands and likes to be in the snow can become a skijoring companion.
“I haven’t yet met a dog who didn’t enjoy it once they get the hang of it,” she said. “A dog likes to have a job. This is working. It’s fun work, but it’s work.”
Capello’s dogs include two border collies and a German shepherd. Jay Nutting, a member of the Down East Sled Dog Club in Maine who competes in skijoring races, skis with German shorthair pointer crosses.
“I love working with my dogs and, quite frankly, the speed of skijoring,” said Nutting. “I have some fairly fast dogs, and it is exciting and challenging to skijor with them. They love doing it, and that makes it even better. Skijoring allows me to race and work with my dogs and stay in shape without having to ski 100 kilometers a week.”
Skijoring instruction can be tough to come by, and Gunstock seems to have found a niche market. Carpenter has been teaching nordic skiing for more than 30 years and has been sharing the joy of skijoring with students for the past 15 years or so. Capello joined the skijoring instruction team last year, and between January and March, she said, the two of them gave some 45 skijoring lessons.
As Nutting points out, even for casual skijorers, solid skiing experience is a must.
“My first advice would be to strengthen your skiing ability first,” he said. “Depending on your dog, you can reach some pretty impressive speeds. If you are not confident in your skiing, it can turn into a frustrating experience for you and your dog.”
For people who aren’t sure they’re ready to be tethered to their dog while wearing skis, Carpenter and Capello often will have them start off on snowshoes. That allows both human and dog to become familiar with the harness and leash system, learn some of the basic skijoring commands, and start working together without the fear of sliding out of control.
At the start of my lesson, Carpenter presented me with a list of commands. These included “gee” for right turns, “haw” for left, “on by” to ignore the other people and dogs on the trail and keep trotting along. Perhaps the most important, though, was “Leave it,” which translates roughly to, “Don’t chase the squirrel!”
She also set out with a pocket full of treats, which she doled out at important moments. At first, Maggie was a little confused about the line connecting her harness to my waist belt — it kept hitting her tail when she tried to wag — but once she got used to that, she was perfectly happy to lope along the groomed trail.
When we got the hang of working together, Carpenter sent Maggie and I off, and we picked up some speed. It was a blast, and I would have kept going, but part of learning is pacing both dog and human. Lessons at Gunstock are just over an hour, and Carpenter and Capello stress it’s important to start small — adjusting to the harness and learning commands and a new way of running or skiing can tire out both dog and person quickly.
“The dog is your partner and teammate,” Capello said. “So everything is about the dog, as without him, there is no skijoring! The training is all positive and encouragement based — lots of rewards and treats, because this is a fun thing they should be excited about.”
As Capello noted, the dog is not pulling the skier, but dog and human are working together to travel at a pace that works for both dog and person. When Maggie and I are out together, she often has to slow her pace on the uphills, because I can’t keep up with her — and she refuses to drag me. I have to hit the brakes on the steeper downhills to avoid running her over.
For faster skiers who will be traveling mostly on groomed trails, skate skis are generally a better option. For those who will be on ungroomed terrain, classic skis work fine. It’s important, however, that whatever ski you select does not have metal edges, which could cause serious injury to your dog if they get clipped by the ski.
Where to go
Gunstock is upping its skijoring instruction this year to offer both beginner and more advanced classes. The resort is rolling out a SKIJOR4 package, which for a total of $200 includes four progressive lessons throughout the winter, each 75 minutes long.
“We’re trying to encourage people to come back and advance through,” Capello said. “We’re hoping we can get more people out there and having fun with their dog.”
The Outdoor Center has a full range of harnesses for dogs and humans to try out. And this year, the entire nordic trail network at Gunstock will allow dogs. Several other nordic centers around New England allow dogs on some or all of their trails. These include Bretton Woods, Bear Notch Ski Touring, Jackson Ski Touring Foundation and Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring in New Hampshire. Dog-friendly trails in Vermont can be found at Jay Peak Resort, Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Blueberry Lakes and Okemo Valley Nordic Center. In Maine, Carter’s XC Ski Centers, Five Fields Farm, Harris Farm XC Ski Center, Mahoosuc Pathways and the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center allow dogs on some or all ski trails.
Dog policies vary from place to place, including some that allow dogs on the trails only mid-week and during certain conditions, so always check before heading out to make sure dogs are allowed and to figure out which trails are dog-friendly.
Other options for skijoring away from maintained trails are snowmobile corridors and trails that follow old railroad beds, which offer a wide pathway and are generally relatively level. Capello said she also loves skijoring with her dogs through fresh, untracked powder.
Wherever you end up skiing with your dog, make sure to bring a “doggie bag” to pick up after your pup. Nobody wants to ski through dog doo.
To book a lesson or learn more about skijoring instruction at Gunstock, visit www.gunstock.com/winter/outdoor-center or call 603-293-4341. In Maine, Jessica Carter Person offers lessons at Carter XC Centers. Call 207-824-3880.
For gear, check out Nooksack Racing Supply of Oxford, Maine: www.nooksackracingsupply.com, 207-539-4324; or Non-Stop Dogwear (for rent or purchase at the Gunstock Outdoor Center): www.non-stopdogwear.com.
The New England Sled Dog Club hosts an annual skijor race in Tamworth, N.H.; info at nesdc.org. Maine’s Fort Kent Outdoor Center sometimes hosts skijor races; info on the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/FortKentOutdoorCenter.