Wow! So much for promising to write more often!
The last few months have been a whirlwind of activities, events, and holiday gatherings. I can’t believe I haven’t updated since September! Nevertheless, I’m back again to share with you my new favorite winter activity: Skijoring.
Skijoring is a winter sport in which 1-3 dogs are used to assist a cross county skier. The sport originates from the Nordic Region of the World and was even included in the 1928 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland! I first heard about skijoring a few years ago when I was beginning to consider getting a Service Dog and someone mentioned that it would be a fun activity to do with a dog in Lake Placid (boy were they right!). The sport is gaining popularity among recreational skiers and dog enthusiasts, and there are a few skijor races throughout the US each year (Kaya and I will actually be participating in a race together in 2 weeks in Western New York).
Before I get into skijoring, I want to quickly share the background story of my pup, Kaya. Anyone who knows me knows that I have wanted a dog for as long as I have known what dogs are. I first heard about Diabetes Alert Dogs in high school, and the idea of having my own was always in the back of my mind. After graduating from college, and moving into an apartment by myself 2 hours away from home, I made the decision to actively pursue getting a Service Dog. I have very good control over my blood sugar, and can still feel when it is dropping, but living alone as a Type 1 Diabetic is dangerous, especially when you are active and low blood sugars can come on quickly (and in the middle of the night). Although having a DAD does not guarantee that nothing bad will happen to me, it does widen my safety net and provide reassurance for my family, knowing that someone is keeping tabs on me.
Kaya was born on June 12, 2014 to Ezri, a Diabetes Alert Dog living in Alabama. Several months later, I learned that Kaya would be mine as long as her training progressed well. Unfortunately for Kaya and I, the trainer who I trusted and selected ran into some personal difficulties, and as a result Kaya was not trained to par, and was neglected as a puppy. I believe that she was also abused by someone, although I really have no way of telling what was going on with her while she was at the trainer. I am saddened by what happened to her, especially since I was kept in the dark on the whole situation by a trainer who I respected and trusted. Fortunately, I was able to rescue Kaya in August of 2015, just after finishing my first Ironman. She was timid, terrified, skittish, underweight, and sad. We had a long road ahead of us. Ultimately, I think it made us a better team. The trust, love, and understanding that Kaya and I have for one another has made us into an incredible working pair. She is my absolute best friend, and with a lot of hard work, I have been able to rehab her into a happy, loving dog, who miraculously is still able to perform her Service Dog work. She has already saved me from life-threatening low blood sugars several times, and a lot of the time, I think she knows what I’m feeling and thinking before I do!
One of the things that I think was the most crucial and beneficial to Kaya’s rehab was getting out and enjoying the Adirondacks and Lake Placid with me. I realized that the more I took her out running, the less afraid she was of strangers, cars, noises, and other dogs. She LOVES running, and I think that her being able to actively see and run past the things that she was afraid of (while still enjoying herself) really helped her to gain confidence, and lose that fear. We spent our first months together running, hiking, swimming, people watching, and EATING (Kaya was 15lbs underweight when I took her from the trainer).
As the fall rolled into winter, I started to consider skijoring with Kaya. We both love to be outside; she loves to run, and I love to ski, so it just seemed right. I waited and waited for snow, and when it FINALLY came, I took her out to the golf course in town to run around while I skied. She had an absolute blast romping through the snow and running about every which way.
With our running experience and her enthusiasm, I knew immediately that she would be the perfect skijor partner. She is trained to run directly in front of me, attached to a hip belt with a bungee leash. She knows not to stop unless I tell her to, and she knows not to pull on her lead while running. I thought that this might provide a challenge, since skijor dogs are supposed to pull, and pull hard. However, Kaya is INCREDIBLY smart and intuitive. She is trained to present different behaviors in accordance with what equipment she is wearing. Red Service Vest = best behavior; this is Service Dog mode. Black Hiking/Running Vest = Go crazy and have fun, but no pulling on the lead. Collar + Leash = no rules, but still no pulling on the lead (we usually just use this for casual walks outside). I was lucky enough to have some local friends who used to be involved in skijor racing and they loaned me some skijor gear, including a skijor specific harness that is made for pulling. As soon as I put it on Kaya it was like she instinctively knew what to do. She pulled on the lead right away, and I encouraged and praised her for it. And thus our new adventure began!
I took Kaya to Charlie’s Inn in Lake Clear for her first skijor. I was told that there were good trails in the area with not a lot of people on them. We went after a night of snowfall, so there was about 3-4 inches of fresh, untouched powder on all of the trails. These are not ideal conditions for skijoring, but they are PERFECT conditions for introducing a dog to skijor. With the fresh powder, we were not able to go fast, and I could not glide on the skis. This allowed Kaya to understand that the harder she pulled, the faster we would go, but it also allowed me to have some control. I used our trip to start teaching her the basic skijor commands: “Gee” (right), “Haw” (left), “Woah” (stop), “Hike” (go), “On By” (continue running past distractions on the trail), and “Easy” (Slow down – a command she already knew from running with me). We had an absolute blast on our first trip, and from that moment on, I think we were both addicted (Kaya began to bring me her skijor harness in the mornings while whining).
Our next few skijor trips were on one of my favorite trails in the Adirondacks – Whiteface Landing. The trail gently climbs for 3 miles from Route 86 to an area called Whiteface Landing on Lake Placid. The trail is beautiful in all seasons, and snowshoes or skis are REQUIRED in the winter (some folks ahead of us bare-booted down the whole trail and ruined some sections of it, which is really inconsiderate, and very unfortunate). Despite the bare-booters, the trail was in the best skiing shape I have ever seen it. The snow was packed down and fast! My cheap back-country touring classic skis were perfect, and Kaya and I were able to really skijor with some speed for the first time. I don’t think I have ever had so much fun on skis in my life, and I could tell that Kaya was loving it too. Whiteface Landing was the perfect trail for us to really go fast for the first time, because there are no side trails or offshoots. Kaya had not yet mastered the turn commands, so it was great to be able to go fast, but not have to worry about quick direction changes or having her run in between trees. Once we made it out to the landing, we skied on the frozen parts of Lake Placid for a bit, I snapped a few pictures, and we headed back. The trip back down to Route 86 from Whiteface Landing was even more exhilarating than the trip out on account of the downhills, and I had to force myself not to turn around and do it all over again immediately (We went back 3 days in a row).
Like most activities I participate in, I immediately wanted to get better and faster at skijor. I poured through videos on YouTube, looked for information online, and badgered my former skijor racing friends with questions. I quickly realized that real skijoring (like the racing kind) is done on groomed trails with skate skis. Having never skated on real skate skis before, I went to High Peaks Cyclery on Main Street, where owner Brian Delaney was nice enough to lend me a brand new pair of skis, poles, boots, and bindings (they even waxed them for me!) to try out. As an employee at the Olympic Training Center, I have the privilege of using the trails at Mt. Van Hovenberg, and the staff there was nice enough to give me a free lesson in skating. I’ve been cross country skiing since I could walk, so I was able to pick up on the skating technique fairly quickly. Unfortunately, Van Ho doesnt allow dogs on their trails during the regular ski season, so Kaya and I skied Whiteface Landing again after my lesson. The following day, I purchased the ski gear that Brian had lent me, and headed out to the Paul Smith’s College VIC, where skijoring is allowed on their groomed trails 2 mornings each week. Each time Kaya and I go out skiing, I have more fun than the last time, and this was certainly no exception. With groomed trails, skate skis, and Kayas ever increasing skijor prowess, we were FLYING!!! I had to try really hard to keep myself from screaming with joy the whole time we skied! I immediately bought a season pass to the VIC and we have gone there to skijor on every possible occasion since. Both of us are addicted for sure!
With our first (of hopefully many) races quickly approaching, Kaya and I are keeping our fingers crossed for cold weather and snow. Lake Placid has had a rough winter season, with unseasonably warm temperatures and several big thaws, so the skiing hasn’t been great. When we can’t ski, we run around town or play outside the OTC. If our wish comes true and the cold and snow stick around, be sure to keep an eye out for a blur of color on the ski trails as we fly past!
For anyone considering getting into skijoring, here are a few tips:
- Start slow – It is a learning process for both the skier and the dog, and some dogs will pick up on it more quickly than others. Deeper snow or powder is the best place to start. Some teams even start with dryland training just walking around. Kaya picked up on it quickly, but patience is definitely a big part of a successful team.
- Make sure your dog understands “Woah” or “Stop” before skijoring in fast conditions. Stopping on cross country skis is not easy, and when you have a dog joyously pulling you as fast as it can, it might not end well…
- Learn to ski on your own before trying to skijor. I made sure I had some time on my skate skis before I even attempted skating while attached to Kaya.
- Realize that skijoring is a team effort and not just the dog pulling you around. I ski hard when we skijor, and Kaya runs fast, but if I expected her to just pull me without me putting in any effort, we wouldn’t make it too far, and she certainly would not enjoy it.
- Make sure to wait at least an hour to skijor after feeding your dog. Dogs can die easily if they get wound up or exercise immediately after eating, as their stomachs can turn. You wouldn’t go out and sprint as fast as possible right after a big meal, so don’t expect your dog to either. Also, make sure your dog is hydrated before and after skijoring. Some skiers bait the dog’s water with tuna or chicken broth so that they will drink more.
- Make sure your dog is comfortable in the equipment, and its feet are protected in the snow. Kaya didnt like the skijor harness at first, so I put it on her while we played fetch. Kaya loves fetch and by having her wear the harness while playing, she then began to associate the harness with fun, and positive experiences. Now she loves it when I get the harness out!
Here are a few resources/FAQ for anyone interested in beginning skijoring:
- Equipment: http://www.nooksackracing.com – All of Kaya’s gear came from here. It is good, quality gear at a much lower price than you would find from some of the brand name companies, and is made by a company that specifically caters to mushers and sled dogs. This stuff is the real dogsled stuff.
- What breed of dog’s can skijor? Generally, any dog that weighs over 30 lbs and is healthy enough to run can skijor. Kaya is a British Lab and she weighs about 50lbs. The most common dogs for skijor are German Short Haired Pointers and Huskies.
- Protect your dogs feet! I always apply Mushers Wax to Kaya’s pads and in between her toes before we go out to ski. This keeps the snow from clumping up, and keeps ice balls from forming between her toes. It also protects from salt on the road and sidewalks. If the snow is crusty, or we are going to go through deep snow, I put on Pawz disposable booties. They are cheap, and they stay on better than any other boot I have tried.
- Ski Gear: In Lake Placid, High Peaks Cyclery is the best. The staff there is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. They even showed me how to wax my new skis properly today!
- Learn to Ski: The staff over at Mt. Van Hovenberg is really knowledgeable and they give great lessons in both the skating and classic technique. They have an incredible trail system groomed for both techniques, and they offer great rentals. You can also take a lesson in Biathlon over there!! (skiing and target shooting)
- Ski Trails: Generally, any of the backcountry trails are great for skijor. Whiteface Landing, The Jackrabbit Trail, and the Lake Placid Club Gold Course are all great. Be aware that there will be other skiers and off-leash dogs on many of these trails. I am really not a fan of off-leash dogs whose owners don’t have voice control over the dogs, as they can be really dangerous to someone who is skiing or running. I’ve had several instances where off leash dogs have bowled Kaya and I over as we try to ski by, or cut in front of me while I was skiing or running, causing me to fall. I don’t trust other dogs, and unfortunately it is VERY popular to just let your dogs run free on trails in the Adirondacks (maybe I’ll write a blog post on that someday). Kaya and I are always on high alert because of this. The VIC at Paul Smiths is the only groomed trail that allows skijoring (Wednesday and Sunday mornings, and only on certain trails). I love the VIC trails, and I am hugely appreciative of them for allowing skijoring on their trails. Definitely worth the season pass and the 40 minute drive from Lake Placid!
Well, that’s all for now! I’ll try to update after our first race! Here’s a bonus video of Kaya experiencing pure joy on Lake Placid: