Skijouring — likely an activity most have never heard of — that combines the thrill of dog sledding with the peace of cross country skiing.
This Nordic skiing sport is not for beginner skiers or lazy large dogs. It is, however, a perfect sport for active dogs and owners that can provide an amazing bonding experience, said skijourer Tracy Snow-Cormier.
“When you glide along behind your dogs, it’s a great feeling of oneness,” Snow-Cormier said. “Everything is going well and you’re not falling down and then getting your face licked by your dogs.”
A resident of the Aroostook County town of Portage Lake, Snow-Cormier was introduced to the sport by friends as a fun winter activity to share with her dogs, Haley and Maggie. In turn, she introduced the sport to other dog-loving friends, including Tracy Haskell of Trenton.
“I decided to give skijoring a try as friends had spoken about the fun they had doing it, and I wanted something new to teach [my dog] Simon,” Haskell said. “He thrives in mental exercise, sort of Border Collie-ish in that regard. I had also not skied very much for years and wanted to start back in some cross-country skiing, but do more backcountry touring. [Combining] Simon time and my desire to be on my skis again also played a role in getting us interested in the sport.”
Outdoorsy dog people trained on experiencing skijouring should start by getting the proper equipment, said Kathy Pickett, co-owner of Nooksack Racing Supply in Oxford. Pickett’s business started in 1975 when her family moved back to Maine from Oregon.
“I needed to have my snow,” she said. “We wanted to do a sport that combined our love of snow and of dogs.”
That first sport was dogsledding and Pickett was making her own equipment. “I had been employed in shoe industry,” she said. “As the business grew, we gradually added products. Then in 1995 our daughter, Sara Vanderwood, moved home from attending [college] in Alaska and took over the active dog end of our kennel and really brought the sport of skijouring to Maine.” Vanderwood attend the University of Fairbanks in Alaska on a cross-county scholarship. Today, she is a senior government affairs consultant for Maine Street Solutions in Augusta.
Skijouring, Pickett said, is a sport lacking a big ticket tag to get started in. A new skijourer should invest in a skijouring hip belt, a standard x-back harness for the dog, and a bungie line for one or two dogs. Dogs prone to developing “snowballs” between their toes also should be fitted with special booties to make running in the snow fun, Pickett said. Humans should also be equipped with Nordic skis and poles sans metal rims.
Properly fitting harnesses for both human and canine are important not only for safety, but for comfort.
Skijouring is recommended for dogs 30 pounds or heavier. “We’ve seen [breeds such as] Border Collies and husky types to standard poodles who actually love the snow,” Pickett said. “This sport is a good way to spend time with your furry friend and form the bond of companionship while being out in the snow.”
Once the appropriate gear has been located and your pooch is ready for some time in the snow, its time to start training. To be successful, Snow-Cormier said, the dog needs to be able to run ahead and pull. That takes lots of practice and a little encouragement. During training, having another dog or a friend who will ski ahead and encourage the skijouring dog to chase is helpful, she said.
“I remember on one of our first skijoring when Simon sort of ‘got it,’” Haskell said. “We were going along and he was not really pulling at that point. He sort of turned his head to look back at me a couple of times and it was almost as if he thought ‘wow, she is keeping up with me. I better run faster’ and then he just started to fly. It was a rush and he seemed to have a smile on his face in the way that dogs do sometimes when they are just plain having fun.”
Pickett recommended that for skijourers who do hit the trails this winter, to be aware of their surroundings. “If you’re doing [skijouring] on snowmobile trails, do it in a timeframe that won’t have lot of snowmobile traffic as a precaution,” she said. “Some cross country areas have dog-friendly areas and may charge a trail fee for the dog.” The best trails to skijour on, she said, are those groomed for winter recreation, especially nordic or skate skiing.
For in-depth training recommendations and information on skijouring, visit skijornow.com/skijornowhome.html.
Where to find more information about Maine skijouring:
• Nooksack Racing Supplies, 63 French Road, Oxford. Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday and 3-9 p.m.Tuesday-Saturday. The best way to ensure an appointment is to call 539-4324. Visit online at nooksackracing.com.
• North Country Mush & Skijor Club, Presque Isle. For information, email NorthCountryMushSkijorClub@Hotmail.com.
• The Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club. For information, visit mainesleddogclub.com.
• Want to vacation and take skijouring lessons? Check out the Telemark Inn, located in Mason Township, at newenglanddogsledding.com/skijoring.html.