Cabin fever strikes humans and canines alike in the dog days of winter, but the classic sport of skijoring is one way for Minnesotans and their furry friends to fight the winter blues together.
Like a fusion between dogsledding and cross-country skiing, skijoring involves a partnership of dog and human, attached to each other by a tow line. Skijoring is an ancient activity, named from the Norwegian word for “ski driving.” This old-fashioned sport has been among the rise in Minnesota parks in the last few years.
For Lino Lakes resident Kevin Murphy, it provides both a way to bond with his dog partner, and to appreciate the Minnesota winter landscape in a new way. He began skijoring more than 25 years ago, when the Twin Cities had few opportunities for people interested in the sport. Murphy and a few others banded together as The Midwest Skijorers Club in order to create partnerships with local parks and winter sports events.
Breed isn’t important- – almost any type of dog can be used in the sport, although larger, high-energy dogs such as huskies are usually the most adept.
“Dogs naturally love to run, and you’re giving them an opportunity to do something they want to do every moment of every day,” Murphy said. “We’re always telling them heel, stay. In skijoring we say ‘let’s go,’ and off they go.”
In addition to a well-trained dog and basic skiing ability, skijoring requires a few items of special equipment: a pulling harness for the dog, a comfortable skijor belt and a tug line in between.
The Midwest Skijorers Club has grown phenomenally, and now hosts a five-part race series across the Midwest. However, not everyone skijors for the thrill of outracing the competitors.
“One of the most important things is for people to figure out is, what is the skijoring experience they’re looking for? Some want to go whipping down the trail at 20 miles an hour; some, all they want to do is walk their dog on their skis. It has that range of capability. You don’t have to go flying down the trail,” Murphy said.
This year, SkijorUSA organized a partnership with the Twin Cities Obedience Training Club. The series of workshops, held in December, included a humans-only informational overview, and a hands-on workshop with dogs. The earliest part of starting to train a dog to skijor is trying on the belt and harness and seeing whether or not the skier and dog are working well as a team.
“It’s kind of a checkpoint for the dog to make sure it has interest and capability before they make any kind of investment,” Murphy said.
Washington County Parks Manager Alex McKinney knows the joys of skijoring firsthand. He picked up the sport when he worked for Three Rivers Park District. Working with Skijor USA and other partners, he helped to organize the first ever dryland skijor clinic in Washington County this past September. The event took place at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and focused on skills that dogs and trainers could work on before snow season.
Many skijorers practice commands with their dogs on their usual walks--skijor dogs are usually taught the same words as traditional sled dogs (“gee” means right; “haw” means left, and “whoa” means slow down). Some skijorers also keep in practice with canicross: running with a dog lead attached to the runner’s belt.
McKinney hopes to host a dryland clinic in Washington County at least once a year to help skijorers hone some of these off-season skills.
“It’s a good opportunity for people to practice,” he said. “It’s one thing when you’re running behind a dog, and starting to learn commands. You don’t wanna just strap on skis and get behind your dog and go.”
Now that the snowy season has arrived, there are ample opportunities to explore Washington County Parks via skijoring. All regional park trails marked multi-use are available for skijoring; Lake Elmo Park Reserve has the longest network of trails, but McKinney recommended St. Croix Bluffs and Pine Point Park as great places for beginners to try it out.
Multi-use trails do not require a Minnesota Ski Pass, but all Washington County Parks require a vehicle permit ($7/day, $30/year). Maps can always be obtained at the park’s front office or online. McKinney encourages park visitors to download the smartphone app Avenza, which allows you to download maps and see exactly where you are on a trail.
Common courtesy is an essential part of the sport, he added. “Make sure your dog is trained enough that you have control over it,” he said. “And bring a poop bag.”
If you’re looking for skijoring trails outside Washington County, Three Rivers Park District maintains skijoring trails at six different parks throughout the metro area. Visit www.threeriversparks.org/activity/skijoring-dog-sledding to learn more.
A skijor group meets every Saturday at 8 a.m. at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis. Those who wish to join should let event organizers know by creating an account on MeetUp.com and signing up. This group learning environment can be beneficial to skijoring enthusiasts of all skill levels.
“It’s so much easier for dogs to learn from other dogs and people to learn from other people,” Murphy said.
Learn more about the sport of skijoring at the Midwest Skijorers Club website: skijor.org.