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Posted: December 30, 2015

The lowdown on Skijoring, your new favorite winter sport

Written by: mainetoday freelancer
Betsy McGettigan of Norway heads for the finish line while competing in the one-dog skijor class at the fifth annual sled dog races at Herbert “Bussy” York’s farm on U.S. Route 2 in Farmington.

Betsy McGettigan of Norway heads for the finish line while competing in the one-dog skijor class at the fifth annual sled dog races at Herbert “Bussy” York’s farm on U.S. Route 2 in Farmington.

Thanks to an activity known as skijoring, you and your dog can answer the call of the winter wild.

It’s that time of year again, when snow conspires with holiday events to keep us indoors and out of shape. Unfortunately for our canine companions, the demands of the holiday season often show up on their waistlines as well, making winter poundage a problem for owner and pup alike. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks to skijoring, you can now exercise alongside your dog.

Although we have the perfect climate for this cold-weather activity, many Mainers are unfamiliar with the Nordic sport. “Skijoring has always been much more popular in Scandinavia,” said Steve Crone, owner, musher and sled dog trainer at New England Dogsledding in Mason Township. “For a long time, the sport was practiced primarily by Swedish military and used for running supplies, but after it was introduced to Alaska, it caught on fire.”

Skijoring combines cross-country skiing with the basics of dog sledding to create a winter workout that benefits owner and dog alike. “Any dog who enjoys long runs will most likely enjoy skijoring,” Crone said. “Running sports allow a dog to do what they instinctively want to do all the time – they want to run out in front of you and be the wild one on the forest’s edge.” Skijoring allows you to indulge their animal needs while getting a workout of your own.

And don’t worry if you don’t have a blue-eyed husky. Many breeds can participate in skijoring, as long as they are strong enough and capable of leading. (Crone recommends skijoring for dogs over 30 pounds). Since the dog is attached to the skier by a harness and a long bungee leash, they must be able to run out ahead of their master for extended periods of time without coming back and tangling the leash. Furthermore, in order to skijor, you have to be a competent skier. “Skijoring is not about a dog pulling a human being,” Crone said. “It is a human being skiing with the dog as they’re pulling. The skier has to put in half the effort.”

While there are many books on skijoring, most professional mushers suggest that you first train with an expert, or at least educate yourself on proper etiquette. One way is to attend a race, where you can observe entire dog teams in action. You also can work with a musher and his dogs to help prepare your furry friends for life on the trail.

Peggy Dwyer of Livermore skijors with her standard poodles Peach, Brie and Diva at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway.

Peggy Dwyer of Livermore skijors with her standard poodles Peach, Brie and Diva at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway.

Have we piqued your interest yet? If so, here are a few ways you can learn more.

WHERE TO WATCH

Perhaps you’re not ready to strap on your skis and harness up your dogs – that’s OK. Races happen nearly every weekend throughout Maine and New England, and you can find more details on specific races through the New England Dog Sled Club or the Down East Sled Dog Club. On Jan. 16 and 17, Sunset Ridge Golf Course in Westbrook will welcome mushers and skijorers for two days of racing. One- and two-dog skijor teams will participate, as well as junior mushers.

Or you can head to Tamworth, New Hampshire, for its Sled & Skijor Race. Lake Chocorua is the site of the oldest continuous dog sled race in the Northeast. See the historic race for yourself on Jan. 30 and 31. Another popular event is the annual Musher’s Bowl, which takes place in late January in Bridgton. Racers will compete in several categories, from one-dog skijoring to six-dog speed racing.

If you’re a first-time visitor to a dog sledding event, there are few things to keep in mind. The New England Dog Sled Club asks spectators to leave their dogs at home, since having that many canines in one area can lead to chaos. Parents are also advised to be careful – even a well-trained dog can get excited and topple a toddler with sloppy kisses. Don’t feed the dogs, and keep your hands to yourself. And, of course, dress warmly. But you already knew that.

Tim McMahon of Harrison, an accomplished skijorer, tests the course of Maine’s Musher’s Bowl at Five Fields Farm in South Bridgton with his dogs Irish and Java.

Tim McMahon of Harrison, an accomplished skijorer, tests the course of Maine’s Musher’s Bowl at Five Fields Farm in South Bridgton with his dogs Irish and Java.

WHERE TO LEARN

Once you have a feel for the sport, you can bring your dog to Steve Crone for lessons. “Most people who train animals know that other animals can train each other faster than a human can,” Crone said. “I often take an untrained dog and attach them to a well-trained lead dog. The lead dog acts as an anchor for the neophyte dog, helping them learn commands.” If you have a well-behaved dog that loves to run, this may be the perfect way to keep him in shape. Lessons from Crone run around $100 for two hours. (He can be reached at 731-6888.)

Another benefit of training with a professional is that you don’t have to bring your own dogs. Most companies that offer sled dog adventures have teams of trained dogs at the ready, Crone included.) Wannabe-skijorers can take classes at Hill Town Wilderness Adventures in West Chesterfield, Massachusetts, for $100 per hour of private instruction. Hill Town Wilderness also offers group mushing lessons for a discounted rate.

Finally, you can head to Vermont for a weekend away at Eden Dog Sledding, where you can rent a private cabin on the 140-acre mountain location. Eden also offers stay-and-sled adventure packages and even weeklong stays. Call 802-635-9070.

Josh Maillett of Fryeburg, seen competing during the Mushers Bowl with Tico, his brother’s dog, took up skijoring this year. He now plans to get a dog of his own, a German shorthaired pointer.

Josh Maillett of Fryeburg, seen competing during the Mushers Bowl with Tico, his brother’s dog, took up skijoring this year. He now plans to get a dog of his own, a German shorthaired pointer.

WHAT TO BUY

Once you’ve watched a few races and sampled the sport, it’s time to get your dog properly outfitted so you can practice at home. Most cross-country skis will do, but never use metal skis because the sharp edges can be dangerous for dogs.

For harnesses and leads, experts recommend either Mountain Ridge or Nooksack Racing Supply. Harness, belts and bungee lines can cost less than $100, making skijoring a far more affordable option than other winter sports (we’re looking at you, overpriced lift tickets).

When it comes to practicing, Crone suggests a level surface. “Frozen lakes are great for beginners,” he said. “Or snowmobile trails can be a nice option, too.”

Just make sure you stay safe and start out slow. Most dogs take a little while to get up to speed. But the good news is that if you catch the skijoring bug, you can train year-round. Once mud season comes, just lace up your bike shoes and head out on two wheels.

Happy trails!

Katy Kelleher is a writer, teacher and editor who lives in Portland with two overexcited dogs and her fiance, Garrett.

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