If you've ever seen a sled dog in harness, you have some idea of just how much they love to run. And they're not the only ones. You only have to look as far as the nearest multi-use trail to see local skijorers holding their own little Iditarods -- one or two dogs racing for all they're worth, towing a human on skis as the "sled."
Just like mushing involves more than standing on a sled's runners and shouting "Hike!" at your team, there's more to skijoring than it looks. But it's also relatively accessible. All you need is some basic gear, some skate-skiing ability and an athletic, playful dog that weighs at least 30 pounds.
Oh, and you might need some patience, too -- at least at first. Here's what Clare Ross, board president of the Anchorage Skijor Club, had to say about that in an email interview: "Your dog is likely to drive you crazy and cause falls when you begin skijoring. It's up to you to keep your cool and make sure that they have a good time and feel good about themselves, so they want to go back out again."
A matter of skill
OK, so your dog has the potential to become a hard-core athlete. Now, what about you? You don't have to be an expert skier to hold your own while skijoring, but you should be able to handle the terrain you're tackling under your own power. "Falls are inevitable in skijoring," Ross explains. "But the more you can minimize them, the better it is for keeping the dog calm and focused."
The key, Ross says, is to think ahead and prepare for obstacles like hills and turns in advance. That'll help you avoid conflict with other trail users too -- especially critical because, except for special events, skijorers are limited to multi-use trails.
Good skijoring manners include calling out and slowing down before passing other trail users, and being able to pull your dog in beside you to help you both avoid obstacles. Getting there -- and building the sort of focus and enthusiasm that characterizes the dog half of a good skijoring pair -- starts with how you introduce your dog to skijoring in the first place.
"If they have a bad first experience, they might be too afraid to try it again. ... There's nothing worse than having a dog run beside or behind you because they're afraid of you," Ross warns. But if you give him a good experience -- short sessions with lots of treats, positive feedback, and ideally a chance to "chase" another skijor team so he can see how it's done -- your dog will most likely catch on fast.
Keeping those first sessions short may be just as important for your sanity. Remember, you're the brains of the outfit, and you're going to be juggling yourself and your dog, while prepping you both in advance to avoid trail obstacles and give other trail users plenty of space.
Skijoring works best with skate skis, Ross says, although you should never skijor with metal-edged skis; you risk cutting your dog's legs and creating a lifelong injury. You also need a skijor or mushing harness for your dog, a skijor belt for you (a rock climbing harness can work in a pinch) and a long line to connect the two.
The most important thing about the line, Ross says, is that it has a bungee in it. The bungee absorbs the shock when your dog starts running so you don't get jerked around as much. As far as length, you need enough room between you and the dog to account for your reaction time and stopping ability; Skijor USA recommends a 9-foot line for skijoring.
(All of this, Ross says, can be purchased at Alaska Mill and Feed; various components are available in other shops around town.)
Join the club
If skijoring sounds like a lot to manage all at once, that's because it is -- but like any other skill set, it gets much easier after some practice. It's also an exciting way to hone the athlete in both you and your dog.
The Anchorage Skijor Club offers beginner clinics, casual tours and "show and go" opportunities for beginners every winter, with tours and races for skijorers who already have their basics down. Although the classes for beginners are already over for this season, Ross says skijor club members are still happy to help beginners get started: "Our more experienced members love to team up with new skijorers to give your dog a chase and set an example of how it's done."
If you have some skijoring ability already, you can participate in the skijor club's tour of the Eklutna Lakeside Trail on March 23 -- details are at skijoring.org.
Events like the tour aren't for those in the very early stages of learning, Ross warns. The extra speed and excitement can cause accidents. But once you have a basic idea of what you're doing, she says, you should come on out, even if you're still kind of new or think you have a slow dog.
"We usually have 20-30 teams for our 5-K races and lots of handlers and volunteers to help you get set up. If you are slow or a beginner, you can go toward the end of the pack and chasing the fast dogs might inspire your dog to pull a little harder than usual. We love to help show newbies the ropes."
If you go
Get detailed information on gear and etiquette, plus an interactive trail map, from the Anchorage Skijor Club's website: skijoring.org. You can also reach out for help at email@example.com, or get their latest updates on Facebook or via their electronic newsletter.
Get a list of basic skijoring commands -- and tips on how to train your dog to respond to them them -- under the "About Skijoring" tab at skijorusa.org.