It has been 15 years since Natalie Ireland saw a demonstration of skijoring at the Caribou Country Club and decided “I want to do that.” She checked out a library book on the sport and learned how to train her dog to pull while she skied behind him.
As her sister Beverly Holmes watched the pair glide across the fields of Westmanland, she thought, “If I could do that, maybe I could keep up with Natalie on skis.”
Today, the two sisters never miss an opportunity to ski with their Siberian huskies Cheyenne, Whiskey, Whisper and Winter on the five miles of trails they clear and groom themselves on the family farm in Westmanland, where they live with their mother, Arlene Plourde.
If you have a dog that weighs 30 or more pounds and likes to run, and you like to ski, you have the basic ingredients, Natalie learned from her research. The sport requires a harness for the skier, a sled dog harness for the dog and a towline connecting the person and the dog, a fairly inexpensive outfit at about $100.
Mushers and skijorers use the same directional commands: “Haw” for left, “Gee” for right and “On by” for passing. Natalie and Beverly added “Turn” for reversing direction. They teach their dogs the directions on dry ground before setting out on snow.
“The amount of training required depends on the dogs,” Natalie said, adding that the four dogs they have now are “the best.” Cheyenne is 6 years old and the other three dogs are just over a year.
“It’s a great sport,” Natalie, 59, and Beverly, 62, agreed as we chatted in the kitchen of the farmhouse where their mother grew up. Natalie and her husband, Paul Ireland, own and operate Wreaths by Natalie, a craft shop in Caribou, and Beverly is a billing specialist at Professional Home Nursing in Caribou.
As we talked, the four dogs were harnessed and yipping at the door to get out on the trails.
“The dogs enjoy doing their job,” Natalie said. “Pulling is their job — it makes them happy.”
Beverly described the coordinated energy produced by the skier, who is skiing and poling, and the dogs that are running and pulling.
“We ski as a team. We’re working together,” she said of the rhythm that develops as skier and dogs reach a stride. “And you can go a lot farther with dogs than you can by yourself.”
Natalie added that getting the right wax on your skis is not as important because “you always have wonderful glide.”
Generally, skijoring dogs are easy to control, but Natalie says when they get the scent of a moose, she will sit down on purpose to stop them from pulling her into the woods.
As enthusiasm for the sport grew, Arlene wanted to join her daughters on the trails and got a kick sled, pulled by four dogs. Now she says she doesn’t get out because she doesn’t want to slow them down.
Natalie and Beverly were far ahead in pursuing a sport just now beginning to catch on in Aroostook County. The annual Can-Am sled dog races in Fort Kent introduced skijoring into the weekend schedule for the first time last year.
Held at the Fort Kent Outdoor Center on trails groomed for biathlon and cross-country skiing, skijoring was offered twice this year in conjunction with the Can-Am: in the evening on March 5, with 2.5 kilometer and 5K events under the lights, and midday on March 6 with 15K and 5K events.
Participants ranged from sled-dog mushers, with dogs bred to pull, to skiers who had taught their family pets to ski with them.
“The Fort Kent Outdoor Center welcomes both professional and novice,” Natalie said. “We are very much novice.”
But the sisters were eager to meet other people interested in the sport they had grown to love, so they decided to enter the races this year. And they had an extra incentive.
Natalie’s son, Eric Anderson, challenged his mother to enter the race to celebrate her upcoming 60th birthday. “I’m turning 40, you’re turning 60. We’re going to do this together,” he proclaimed, and drove to Fort Kent from his home in Brewer to ski the 5K race with his mom and aunt. When Natalie hesitated, Eric insisted: “It’s on your bucket list.”
They joined skiers ranging in age from 12 to over 50 who came from Quebec, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and elsewhere in Maine to the trails in Fort Kent. Eric skied with Winter, Bev with Whiskey and Natalie with Cheyenne.
“It was fun and good experience for the dogs, both socializing and training,” Natalie said. “They did really well.”
With a limit of one dog per skier, the 5K race was a new experience, especially for the younger dogs, Winter and Whiskey, who were accustomed to skiing in pairs and following each other on the trails in Westmanland.
“They may have finished 12 and 13 out of 13, but they did really well,” said Natalie, who placed 10th with Cheyenne.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.