Jill Carter can’t remember the exact date she first put on a pair of cross-country skis, harnessed up one of her Siberian Huskies, attached herself to the dog with a special towline before taking off down the trail.
She does, however, remember falling a lot.
That was around six years ago, and Carter has learned a lot about the dog-powered sport known as “skijoring” since then.
Roots in Scandinavia
Popular in Scandinavian countries, skijoring translates into “ski driving” in Norwegian and is a combination of cross-country skiing and dog sledding.
The dog or dogs are outfitted with a traditional dog sledding harness, which is attached by a rope or towline to the skijoring belt worn by the human member of the team.
Over the past decade or so, its popularity has been gaining in the United States.
“I became interested in the world of dog-powered sports years ago,” Carter said. “I’ve always liked being in the outdoors. And let’s face it: If you don’t have an outdoor winter activity in Maine that you enjoy, you might as well move to Florida.”
Carter’s first introduction to dog-powered sports was through volunteering to help a musher with her large kennel of sled dogs at races.
“I loved it, but I also realized I was never going to have a kennel of 30 or 50 dogs to get into mushing,” Carter said. “So skijoring became the natural alternative.”
But first she had to master cross-country skiing.
“I did not grow up cross-country skiing,” she said. “So when I picked it up in my 50s, it was a real challenge.”
Getting the hang of things
Carter, who is now 63, began skiing in the classic style of propelling herself using a striding or running motion with the skis.
For skijoring, she said, you need to ski using the skating method, in which the skier uses a side-to-side motion with the skis to go forward.
“Skating is a faster way to ski and you need to skate-ski to keep up with a running dog,” Carter said. “That was a real challenge, but now I’m better than I used to be.”
Since the human skis along with the dog, rather than the dog actually pulling, in theory, any dog can learn to skijor.
“The key to enjoying skijor is having a dog that is trained,” Carter said. “The better trained your dog is, the better run you will have.”
There are no programs or courses in Maine on how to teach a dog skijor commands. However, many sled dog kennels in the state often have trained huskies for sale. Costs of a sled dog well-versed in trail commands can run into the hundreds of dollars.
For the many, a better option is to work directly with their dog or dogs teaching basic commands through repetition and practice. At the minimum, the dog should follow basic commands for turning right or left, ignoring distractions on the trail and slowing or stopping.
The most popular breeds for skijoring are the huskies.
“Siberian huskies are natural pullers and want to run,” Carter said. “So it was not a problem to convince my dog, Tika, to run. The problem was me learning to stay upright on my skis.”
The trick, Carter said, was working with Tika on a leash during the offseason.
“You can walk with the dog on leash and teach them commands so when you get on skis, they have heard and hopefully respond to those words,” Carter said.
Carter lives near Lily Bay State Park outside of Greenville, and that’s where she headed with Tika for that first run.
“At that time they were not grooming or plowing the main road down to the lake,” Carter said. “On that road, there were a couple of good sized hills. Skiing along the flat part was not too bad, but those hills were a big challenge.”
Going up was not so bad, Carter said, but going down the other side took all of her snowplowing skills to slow herself and Tika down.
“Since I outweigh the dog, when I fall she would just stop and not pull,” Carter said. “She got real tired of that and would just look back at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
And while six years of practice has not made perfect, Carter said she has gotten the hang of it, and the family dog team has grown to five Siberian huskies.
“It’s such a wonderful way to bond with the dogs,” Carter said. “When you skijor, it’s just you and the dog out there.”
In terms of cost of entry, skijoring also not an expensive sport to get into, she said.
“You don’t need to spend a lot of money on equipment,” Carter said.
All that is needed is the padded skijor waist belt or a padded hip belt, which runs around $35; a towline, which costs between $15 and $20; and harnesses for the dogs. Harnesses cost between $15 and $30, depending on size and materials.
“If you are going to spend a ton of money, it would be on the skis,” Carter said. “You can get an inexpensive pair of skate skis at a swap sale or spend hundreds at a ski shop.”
Another piece of essential skijor gear for Carter is a small, plastic beach shovel.
“I do stop to scoop up [dog] poop,” she said. “I don’t carry it out, but I do toss it off the trail and into the woods. We do skijor on groomed cross-country trails, and I don’t want people to complain about seeing poop all over the place.”
Carter, who is now proficient enough to skijor hooked to two of her huskies, said the dogs know when the gear comes out, they get to run.
“We swap out who gets to go from run to run,” Carter said. “Actually, whenever the weather permits, we are taking some dogs out for something — skijoring, walking or hiking.”
The trickiest part, she said, is hooking to dog or dogs up at the start.
“They just want to go,” she said. “Ideally, you can have someone there to hold the dogs while you get organized, get your skis on and are ready to go.”
If a person is alone with their dog or dogs, Carter suggest standing so the skis are perpendicular or sideways to the dog, so they can’t just take off and pull you down the trail.
“When you first take off the dogs are so excited you just have to hold on and go with it until they calm down,” Carter said. “Once they do calm down, you are just skiing along behind them and they are running in front. The dogs are working, and I’m working, too.”
As far as Carter is concerned, the Scandinavians are really onto something with skijoring.
“I’m really surprised more people here don’t do it,” she said. “It’s the most fun you can have with your dog.”
Places in Bangor to skijor: Dogs are allowed to ski on a leash or connected to their humans on the University of Maine Ski Trails in Orono, the Bangor City Forest Trails and the Taylor Road Loop of the Penobscot Valley Ski Club.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s January/February 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.