Skijoring

First a word about the sport itself.  Skijoring is the crazy idea of turning your body into a dog sled by strapping skis to your feet as runners.  It involves tying yourself to a pack of exuberant dogs and allowing them to drag you along slippery woodland trails at high speed.  The primary requirement is at least one dog (which is much better than 4) and a very sound sense of humor.

History and Cast of Characters

These stories were from winter 2002/2003.   They are a series of 3 emails I sent to friends about a week or two apart, documenting my latest insanity.  At the time Sundog and Antares were 9 years old.  They are a Tervuren and a Groenendael.  I had trained them to run in harness together when they were young but neither had even worn a harness since 3 years old.  Cato is my Border Collie, who was 3 at the time.  Dare is my exuberant Groenendael youngster, whose 1st birthday occurred in the middle of these adventures.  Brock, mentioned in the first story,  was a rescue Malinios I had for some time a few years ago.

Christmas Skijoring (aka Suicide attempt, powered by 4 dogs)

I decided to take advantage of the Christmas snow.  I dragged out my skijoring equipment (which has not been used since I got Brock, over 5 years ago) and took them out.  I trained Sundog and Antares when they were young and the two of them ran well together.  Then I got  Brock.  I bought the equipment to add more dogs, but it was too imposing to try to run more than two dogs.  I could not figure out who to put in front of me, and whether Sundog would still lead if he was way up front ahead of the other dogs.  Suddenly today I decided to try it.  I checked my spare harnesses.  I had one slightly too small for Antares that fit Cato, and Sundog's old smaller harness fit Dare.  It took me 1/2 hour just to figure out how to hitch them all in the kitchen.  Cato and Dare have never even worn a harness! 
 
I get to the trail.  I leave the dogs in the car and check to make sure it has been packed by snowmobiles.  Then I bring out my lines and equipment and lay it all out on the ground at the trail head.  All I need to do is clip each dog into the line, step into my skis, clip the line to my skijoring belt, and say "go on" (my version of mush).  Easy, right?   It took 5 or 6 tries to get started.  I'd get them all lined up and somebody (usually Dare) would turn around either while I was hitching them up or as soon as I sent them forward.   One time I sent them on, Dare was up front and turned back to me (and Cato) and the whole mess became a complete tangle, and Sundog and Antares tried to keep moving like good dogs.  They were all tied together in a ball before I got that undone.  Each time we tangled I'd have to take off my skis, unhitch and untangle everyone, and start over again.  Dare knows what "wait" means, but he was too excited to stay put for more than a few seconds.  I would scold him and put him back in place and tell him to wait again.  He looked sad for a moment, stayed put for a few more seconds, then tried to play again.  I started with Dare up front beside Sundog, my only real leader and big enough to not be pulled around by Dare's antics.  After a couple tries I gave up and put good old Antares up front with Sundog, moving Dare back beside Cato.  Cato was COMPLETELY MISERABLE by this time.  I'd been scolding the other dogs to wait.  It was so easy to get them to wait when I hitched them in the kitchen!  On the trail head even the old dogs were squirming.  Every time I gave a warning "wait" to a dog about to move Cato tensed deeper into the trail where he was laying.  He never moved.  Poor Cato.  Surpisingly the old dogs remembered what to do though we have not done this for years.  They have also never been that far out front.  Antares turned back towards me on one start and tangled, but other than that they really did their job. 
 
Eventually Dare stayed put long enough and we got a good start.  I cheered them on  (once I was sure that no one was tangled) and soon we were FLYING down the trail.  Dare LIKED this part.  He was really running, and pulling much of my weight himself.  I had to cheer harder to keep the old dogs running fast enough up in front.   I was quite sure Dare was going to overtake them and tangle in their lines.  The only thing that saved us was that Dare was pulling both Cato and me at this point.  Poor Cato had no idea what was going on, but he was hooked into the line and it was either run or get dragged.  Soon even Cato realized this was good fun and start pulling.
 
We went about a half mile where the trail was flat and straight.  Let me tell you with four dogs pulling one person the pace is pretty exciting!  Then the dogs pulled me up a steep little hill around a corner onto a field where there were lots of little kids sledding.  They all cheered as my "sled team" ran into out of the woods with me in tow.  Thanks to all the power Dare provided the dogs hauled me right up the hill and hardly slowed down.   I should have known Dare'd be good, he's been trying to drag me on a leash for months!    I wish I had a picture of them racing along in front of me.   Their coats were shining in the sun as they galloped along.   The "team" looked rather impressive with the three big Belgians striding through the snow.  Then of course there was Cato. 
 
Once we got to the field I unhitched them and put the lines and harnesses in a back pack and we continued on for a regular walk with them loose.   The young dogs spent the rest of the trip racing up and down steep hills in the deep snow, celebrating their youth.  The old dogs raced along on more conservative paths.  
 
I guess if this will work I need to spend some time training Dare and Cato.   It was quite unfair expecting them to know what to do out there.  Once they all get running it is easy since they have neck lines to keep them straight.  It is hitching up and getting started that creates the challenge.  If I could get the young dogs trained enough to go out front then the old dogs would just need to run along behind them.  I'm sure Cato and Dare would set the pace and do most of the pulling even out front.  I just can't see either of them able to lead any time soon.  I guess I still need good old Sundog.  Though I don't compete with him in any way I am completely dependent on him for variety of services that none of the other dogs can perform.  

Skijoring....Chapter 2 - The Face Plant

It was only a matter of time. 
 
We took advantage of this lovely snow storm today.  I took the dogs out skijoring again.  Now Dare had not been out running in the woods for 2 whole days so I figured he'd be a bit over the top.  Now that he is running in lead with Sundog I expected a lively ride.  I actually skied out a ways to a nice smooth straight stretch, allowing the dogs to frolic until we reached the starting point.  Hitching them up went fairly smoothly despite the tangible tension in the air as I go back to hitch myself up and put my skis on.  I continue to repeat "Wait, wait, wait" ad nauseum.  I clip into the gangline, bend over and snap into one binding, then the next binding.  As the snap sounds for the second binding I feel the release of tension as the dogs start to move.  I'm bent   double in the trail with no gloves and no poles.  "WAIT!".  Well a near disaster is averted, but my lead dogs are tangled.  We unclip, rearrange, and start again.  Now the dogs are even more on edge from the waiting and I hear a warning tone creep into my endless "wait"'s.  Poor Cato assumes that he has committed a grave and unforgivable sin and is about to be tossed to the depths of hell.  He's inconsolable and clutches to the ground in anticipation of even greater misery.  The Belgians are not so impressed.
 
Finally we're off.  We could not have gone more than 100 feet when I catch an inside edge.  I begin my physics lab immediately.  4 dogs tied to your waist is a pretty good imitation of the role played by gravity when downhill skiing.  My chest is yanked into the ground.  I now have 4 eager "gravitational pulls" roughly equivalent to the force of gravity when you fall on one of those slopes clearly marked with a multitude of black diamonds and a dire warning "FOR EXPERTS ONLY".  I am lying on my chest being dragged on flat ground through about 3 inches of fresh snow with my legs turned out to the sides so my ski tips are along the outside edge of the trail.  This was not a position recommended for people over 40.  Fortunately, unlike gravity, the dogs responded to "Whoa" followed by a quick "WAIT".  They actually stood still until I got my skis back under me and we were off again without getting tangled.  On the way back I stopped to see if I was really dragged as far as I thought.  My memory was not accurate.  It felt like almost 10 feet, it was actually about 15 feet.
 
Given the start of my run and the fact that the dogs now seem to understand that faster is better I laid off on cheering them on for the rest of the run.  Actually Dare's puppy hood came out as he began to try to play with Sundog and ran him off the trail.  The first time the antics started I was able to get Dare refocused before my lead team ended up in the woods.  The second time Dare ran Sundog onto the edge and stopped him so I just gave up.  Mind you Sundog's version of the events is something more like "The #$%& little brute keeps biting my face!  I told you to send him back to Sweden on the next plane."   We unhitched and enjoyed a long ski through the snowy woods while I worked on getting Dare to stop pestering the other dogs when asked to "leave it".  He seemed to be getting the idea and was fairly easy to refocus to running on ahead.

Skijoring... Chapter 3 - 101 Ways to Tie up your Dogs

We had taken a break from our skijoring while I worked on teaching Dare to stop harassing Sundog.  On our last outing he brought the whole "team" to a halt by running Sundog off the trail twice.  It's not like we've reached any great level of maturity where he can go 5 minutes without becoming a menace to the other dogs, but now at least I can give him a quick warning and tell him to "go on" and he'll quit and run down the trail. 
 
So we went out again today.  I tried a new trail.  I've been studying the trail where I took the face plant and noticed that it is angled underfoot which no doubt contributed to my already insecure hold on an upright position.  The problem with the new trail is that it is not straight, and there is at least one place where the trail forks and a decision needs to be made.  Well nothing's perfect!  The hitch went very smoothly, until I clipped into one ski and Dare broke.  Then Sundog and Antares also broke.  I could never reproduce this, but within 3 seconds I could not track a single line to a dog.  It was like a ball of yarn with dog parts sticking out.  I took a good look at the mess, accepted total defeat, and just unclipped every harness and neck line. 
 
Finally we get re-hitched and I tell them to "go on".  Dare immediately turns back as the rest move forward.  Somehow he is tangled so that he is set slightly behind Sundog rather than beside.  Being merciless and having no interest in going through the hitching process again I just keep telling them to go on.  Dare, being as clueless as I am merciless, plows into the race.
 
I have come to some conclusions that are relevant to anyone who may want to take up skijoring.
  1. The weight of one human is irrelevant to a 4 dog hitch unless you are going up hill.
  2. You cannot snow plow on a ski mobile trail.  It is not wide enough to flare the tails of your skis.
  3. Neither can you traverse to control your speed.  You must go in the direction the dogs are going, straight down the trail.
  4. Therefore, you have absolutely no control over your own speed.
  5. Though you might have occasionally thought that it would be fun to blast down the trail as fast as the dogs when they are running full out, when you actually find yourself moving that fast, with the complete lack of control explained in 1-4, you are very likely to change your mind.
Now that you have some perspective, let me tell you that the trail was hard packed, rough, and a bit icy.  Through my inelegant style, skis 2 feet apart, I was coping with all this.  Then the trail also began to curve.  Down she goes.  My hip should look quite like a tropical sunset in a couple weeks.  I took advantage of the reset to untangle Dare for the next attempt.  Off we go again.  Now we come to the fork and the decision.  I'm counting on Sundog here to notice which way I'm looking.  Being the only competent member of my sled team, Sundog slows down as we approach the fork to figure out which way to go, sees which way I'm looking, turns correctly, then picks up the pace.  As we navigate the corner I begin to fall again.  For the next hundred feet I look like a slapstick comedy routine.  First I'm leaning back, then off to one side with one foot airborne, then to the other side, then forward.  I know I'm going down, but raw survival instinct keeps me trying to stay up.  Somehow raw survival instinct wins and I regain my balance.  As we continue I notice that Cato has gotten one foot over the gangline, no doubt while we slowed down at the fork.  The poor guy is trying to run with a nylon rope under his arm pit.  My merciless nature comes out again and I let them keep going.  He gets the hang of it. 
 
We just have a short strip left.  I plan to unhitch just before a bend into a short steep uphill section.  As we approach the hill I realize that it would be much easier if the dogs pulled me up.  Part way up they suddenly notice the weight and check.  Dare, being Dare, turns back and tangles again stopping us dead.  I am now halfway up a steep trail with no hope of anything other than sliding fast backwards if I unhitch.  Dare is tangled.  Cato is straddling the gangline.  Sundog is holding the team in place despite Dare's situation.  I look at Sundog and say "go on".  God love him, he turns back into the hill, lowers his head, and leans into the harness to pull me to the top.  I stop at the top for a moment to see if we can get reset.  Seizing the moment as usual, Dare makes some other unpredictable move and actually gets his head through part of Sundog's harness.  This was a sign.  I said "Lie Down" to stop them.  It worked quite well as Cato hit the deck and made an effective anchor as he clutched the earth. 
 
It took me close to a minute just to get Dare's head out of Sundog's harness so that I could get Sundog out of Sundog's harness.  I spent the rest of our trip watching my dogs run through the woods as I contemplated braking techniques.  The parachute seems a good one, but then I would have to re-pack it.  I may just have to learn to manage myself on skis better.  Real downhill skis would be an improvement while the dogs are pulling me, but quite unpleasant once we unhitch. 

2003-2006 Maria Amodei