Most dogs don't have a clue at first. But put them near seasoned pullers, and eager canines learn the sport of "skijoring" in the blink of a frozen eyelash, exploding from a starting line in a cloud of snow, owners in tow.
Picture Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur in the famous scene of the Roman chariot races. That's how enthusiast Kevin Murphy describes skijoring, a Norwegian word that means ski-driving.
The Lino Lakes resident, whom friends chidingly call ‘Mr. Skijoring,' took to cross-country skiing behind his dog over a decade ago, when few had ever heard of the century-old Nordic sport.
That's changing. On Feb. 2. Murphy is expecting 100 entries in a skijoring race on Lake Calhoun. The race is part of the City of Lakes Loppet, a major cross-country ski event that draws thousands to Minneapolis.
As coordinator of the Saturday skijoring race, Murphy stays deeply involved in the winter pastime that he said got him off the couch and into the cold.
His dog, a 13-year-old Siberian/Alaskan Husky mix is getting too old to race, but still thrives in the harness. When Murphy and his wife, Maureen, were ready to get a dog, he knew he wanted a traditional sled-dog breed for one purpose — to pull him on skis.
"My first experience was standing out in the field telling my dog to go," Murphy recalled. "He had no idea what to do. I thought he was supposed to be pre-programmed to do this."
Murphy's solution was to put one of his kids on the back of a snowmobile and get the dog to chase it. It wasn't long until his dog got the feel for pulling in a harness, oblivious that someone was behind on skis.
Teaching a dog the commands to run straight and pull hard is "sort of the magic of skijoring," noted Murphy. "The sport can be complicated and time-consuming and people may not understand the complexities. But that's why we started a club."
The Midwest Skijorers Club, see www.skijor.org, is a great resource for people who want to learn more about the dog-powered sport and how to start. Murphy is one of the founders.
The equipment requires about a $200 investment, assuming you already own skis. Murphy started with the classic style, but has since become proficient on skating skis, which are faster. A well-fitting harness is very important and costs about $40. The umbilical-like bungee cord and skijoring belt connecting skier to dog is about $150. The tow line should be equipped with a quick release clasp in case the skier needs to bail for whatever reason and the elastic bungee is important if you fall.
A friend of Murphy's who is also active in the club, John Thompson, sells skijoring equipment online (www.skijornow.com). The site also contains good, basic information on the sport.
One thing all skijorers share, besides the gift of supreme coordination, is a bond with their dogs.
Those with a need for speed can have up to three rocket-propelled dogs that are bred to run and bred to pull — the No. 1 premise for skijoring.
But any breed will work, said Murphy. "Of course, the larger the dog, the more torque involved. Obviously, a 25-pound dog won't pull you much, but they'll have a great time."
Dogs need to have good energy and be fit — participants can't expect a dog to go out and run five miles if it's been inactive. Murphy calls skijoring a means of helping people and their dogs get into better condition.
In fact, it's a perfect pastime for hyper canines with a lot of energy.
"Many dogs, especially working breeds, need to exercise. This is a mechanism for doing that," Murphy said. "It gives dogs with too much energy a whole new lease on life."
Like most sports, enthusiasts come with a broad range of experience.
"There are casual skijorers who just want to have fun, to the other end of the scale — people who are excellent skiers with fast dogs. They fly. It's impressive how fast they can get," said Murphy.
As an active club member, one of Murphy's goals is gaining trail access for skijorers. Bunker Hills park in Anoka County currently has a groomed, four-mile trail specifically for skijorers, and skier-dog teams are allowed on Baker Park Preserve multi-use trails in Hennepin County. Several Minneapolis golf courses also allow skijoring. Gross golf course is a favorite of Murphy because it is fairly close to his house and has a wonderful trail.
Many weekday evenings, Murphy, 49, heads out with his dog after getting home from a job as technology manager for Wells Fargo. If the evening is dark, he lights their way with a high-powered headlamp.
On a personal level, the Lino resident said he suffered from SAD (seasonal affective disorder), also called winter depression from inadequate sunlight, before he started skijoring. But no more.
"One of the most wonderful things I've ever experienced is being on a trail when it was 15 (degrees) below zero," recalled Murphy. "There was a full moon and ice crystals in the air. It was magical."
The sport's appeal, he feels, is that people can enjoy the same feeling of mushing through the woods as a competitor in the Alaskan Iditarod — only with a single teammate.
"With skijoring," said Murphy, "you can get into the romance of dog sledding with just one dog."
And if dog-powered skiing isn't enough, there is also the strange sport of "bikejoring." But that's another story.
Debra Neutkens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-407-1230
Upcoming skijoring events
The City of Lakes Loppet skijoring event is scheduled for 2 p.m. Feb. 2 on Lake Calhoun. For more information, go to www.cityoflakesloppet.com.
A skijoring demonstration is set for Jan. 26 at 1 p.m., at the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes.
Free fun-run sessions are also held at area parks through the skijor club. Dog owners who wish to try the sport should monitor the club's event page at its Web site, www.skijor.org, for times and locations. Demo equipment is available.