Leave it to Minnesotans to take a summer toy like a kite and turn it into a winter sport.
Snow Kiting started in Minnesota in the late 1990s and has grown to over 600 riders in the state. In the same tundra spirit that gave us pond hockey, skiing, skating, snowmobiling and ice fishing, Snow Kiting gets hardy souls out of the house and into the frigid air, under a massive kite that pulls you, quite rapidly, on ski’s or a snowboard.
One of the state’s top Snow Kiters is White Bear Lake businessman Michael Kratochwill, who also makes this sport a big part of his business, Lakawa Board Shop.
“It costs a few thousand dollars,” Kratchowill, slipping into salesman mode, “but you can kite race in the summer, too, on the water, so I think it is a great return on your investment, compared to, say, owning a boat, or a snowmobile, because you can kite year-round.”
Kratchowill is a four-time winner of state’s biggest race, the Mille Lacs Kite Crossing, held March 1-3 this year with 65 participants in four events. His event Is a grueling 28-mile trek out and back.
“I fly the ‘High Aspect Ratio’ kites,” he explained. “There are a lot of types of kites and High Aspect Ratio is the most competitive category for this race.”
He didn’t win this year, placing fourth. “I’m getting older and other guys are getting better,” he grinned. “I was glad to take fourth.”
The 50-year-old native of Elbow Lake was a basketball and track athlete in high school and college. His best track event was high-jumping. He still airs it out as a Snow Kiter; you can hoist yourself several feet in the air if you want to show off.
Two riders from White Bear Lake were among the leaders at Mille Lacs. Patrick Levins, a freshman, won Juniors for the second time. Mark Dunsworth, also very active in sailing, placed third in the Foil division.
Kratchowill, who lives in Maple Grove, has also won a race in Quebec, and travels to Montana, Utah and Wyoming to race. Snow Kiting is not limited to frozen lakes. Mountains are fun also. Kratchowill has traveled to Norway the past two years for an endurance event where they “scale seven mountain tops.”
As a businessman, he has hosted a race at Lake Waconia each year since 2015. “Last year I adopted style of race that I prefer, which is more tactical and less physical,” he said.
The St. Thomas graduate was in corporate marketing, with a firm called Learn to Swim, before deciding to cast his fate to the winds with Lakawa Board Shop, across Highway 61 from Kowalski’s. “We focus on kiting, snow kiting, and kite surfing,” he said. He bought the company name, a database, and website in 2009 from Tighe Belden, in 2009 and added a physical and online store in 2010.
Kiteboarding, he explains, is a parent term which encapsulates Snow-kiting, Kite-surfing, and Land-kiting. “Snow” designates one of the 10 disciplines in kiting. There’s Snowkite (snow skis, snowboard, ice skates, ice buggy), Land kiting (buggy with wheels, skateboard and Landboards), Kitesurfing (twin tips — kite specific board, looks like a wakesurf board), surfboard, and foil boards (hydrofoiling).
“All of these disciplines are used with the same skill-set of kiting — all year-round, anywhere on the planet, and gear all packs on a plane splendidly.
Kratchowill also teaches Snow Kiting. He wants to stress that, unlike a lot of sports, being big and tough is not much of an advantage; what’s important is learning technique.
“Kids and women are better students of kite racing,” he said, “because, unlike athletic men, they don’t rely on strength. It is a fitness sport but does not require athleticism.”