Dog is my Co-pilot

By Beacon Staff

Harness a household mutt, throw on a waxed pair of cross-country skis, strap yourself to Spot, and fly. It’s a quick recipe for speed – inducing thrill-screams like a roller coaster. With natural pulling instincts, Spot tows you up hills and down suddenly surging placid Nordic skiing with adrenaline.

Much like Laplanders who for centuries used reindeer-power for traveling fast on skis, doggie skijoring harnesses pooches for winter speed. For recreation and exercise, cross-country skiers are clipping on to Fido to sail down trails. Doggie skijoring may just be the Flathead’s hottest new winter sport.

“Over the past two years, it’s really picked up in popularity,” says Pam Beckstrom, owner of Adanac Dog Sleds. “People are tending to get out and exercise more, making both healthier dogs and healthier people.” The 30-year-old company in Olney that makes dog sledding equipment also manufactures skijoring gear. “This time of year, it’s a royal zoo,” adds Beckstrom, noting that the company has sold 50 skijoring belts in the past two weeks.

Karsten Carlson places a harness around his dog, Jocko, before heading out on the cross-country ski trails behind Glacier Outdoor Center.

The gear, which costs less than $70, is simple to use. Webbing harnesses – the same type used for dog sledding – come in all sizes to fit hounds from 35-120 pounds. Adanac’s Zima X-back harnesses cushion the webbing with fleece and closed cell foam. To prevent snow balling up in pooch pads, you can buy booties to protect their feet. The gear’s human portion consists of a 4-inch-wide hip belt clipped to a bungee that acts as a shock absorber and a 6-foot-long tug line that attaches to the dog. For beginners, a panic clip adds safety. “If your pet inquires about a squirrel, the panic clip prevents you from flying over an embankment,” explains Beckstrom. The quick-flip device releases the skier from the dog.

Many skijorers take their dogs to snowmobile tracks or logging roads, since most groomed Nordic centers do not welcome canines. However, Glacier Outdoor Center in West Glacier does. The new cross-country ski center permits dogs after noon and rents the skijoring gear at $10 for a half day. “Taking dogs for walks in winter isn’t easy,” says Karsten Carlson, who works at the center and is training his Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Jocko to skijor. “We decided to fill a niche with dog-friendly trails, and skijoring is a fun, interactive thing to do with your dog.” With daily grooming, afternoon pockmarks left in the trails are erased for morning skiers.

While skiers can click in to traditional touring or classic skis, most skijorers on groomed tracks prefer skate skis. They’re just faster. But with either type of ski, the harness frees the hands. “You’re still able to use your poles, so you have control,” explains Carlson. Skiers looking for more speed can hook up two or three pooches. “You’ll go 30 m.p.h. with three good pulling dogs,” he says.

As a light snow sprinkles down over West Glacier, Jocko, a 3-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, sprints forward pulling his owner, Karsten Carlson, on skis behind Glacier Outdoor Center.

To introduce skiers to doggie skijoring, Glacier Outdoor Center plans to host two recreational races on Saturday, Jan. 19. Those who want the 30-second elbow room of a staggered start may join the doggie-cross, a short-distance timed race. Those yearning to be in the thick of a mass start barking frenzy should opt for the short sprint doggie drag race. Both races should provide prime onlooker entertainment.

Contrary to competitive dog sled racing where Alaskan huskies are the breed of choice, skijorers can use any breed – black labs, golden retrievers, malamutes, border collies and even pit bulls. But owners must train the dog to skijor. Most canines are taught as pups to avoid pulling on the leash. With skijoring, they need to learn the opposite – that pulling is good when they are harnessed. Beckstrom also recommends teaching basic commands, such as “easy” and “stop.”

Adanac sells their skijoring products online (www.adanacsleds.com), shipping equipment worldwide – Europe, South Africa, South America, Japan, and Russia. “We’ve even shipped skijor gear to Florida,” laughs Beckstrom. For non-snow climates and seasons, skijoring gear converts to bike joring. Aussies transform it to popular dog scootering. Adanac’s skijoring gear is also carried in valley outlets – Glacier Outdoor Center, Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, and Tailwaggers in Whitefish and Kalispell.

Skijoring is pumping new adrenaline into Nordic skiing. “This year, there’s a huge increase in interest. Everybody is wanting a skijoring setup,” says Janey Robertson, owner of Tailwaggers. “It’s the hot new sport in the valley.”

Glacier Outdoor Center’s doggie skijoring races start at noon, Jan. 19. The $10 entry fee includes the trail pass for the day and skijoring gear rental. Call 888-5454 for more information.

Jocko gets excited as Karsten Carlson retreives his skis and harnesses from his vihicle outside Glacier Outdoor Center in West Glacier.