Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Skijoring becomes big sport

Unique wintertime pursuit turns dogs and owners into racers

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Take a dog or two, skis or a kick sled, leashes, poles and a harness, and what do you have?

For skijoring enthusiasts in Winnipeg, the gear and the dogs add up to a day of whipping through snow and a lot of laughter with their pets.

On Sunday, this unique race brought dozens of families and their dogs together to race on a five-kilometre trail at Birds Hills Provincial Park for the sixth annual Snow Motion Classic.

"You go like a bat out of hell and it's very fast and a lot of fun and there are a lot of people who are dog owners who are looking for exercise," contender Lorne Volk said, explaining the appeal of the event as he timed several heats.

Heat is a good way to describe the sport.

Organizer Susie Strachan spun in on the heels of her two border collies at the finish line, leaned over to unhook her skis, and said, "It was hot out there."

Later she chuckled and confessed her heat called a "dead spot" halfway through their race. "At one point, we called a mutually agreed-upon rest break for half a minute, because the heat was getting to all of us."

Fat flakes turned to steady snow on the mild day as the 49 teams in nine classes raced for bragging rights.

This is a contest that takes a sure foot on the trail and a strong arm to keep the pets in line.

The sport got its start 15 years ago.

"I convinced the Festival du Voyageur organizers to include us in their dogsled races a few years later," Strachan said.

"When the Festival shut down their big dogsled race a number of years ago, Snow Motion decided to host our own race: the Classic," she said.

"It's all about the dogs," yelled out another contender as stopwatches clocked times at the finish line.

For veteran racers such as Steve Diamond, who finished first in one of the heats, the day went down as a personal best in six years of running with his dogs. "I broke my record this time, by a couple of seconds," said a grinning Diamond. At 12:59, that amounts to a winner in this circle.

Askem is a two-year-old Alaskan malamute, and at 125 pounds, he outweighed most of the Labradors, border collies, shepherds and mutts that pulled their owners on skate skis or kick sleds.

Askem's size singled him out; he was easily twice as big as any of the other dogs. But as a relative novice -- some of these dogs have raced for years -- his owners, Chris and Kirsty Kozie, are still training their towering giant.

These dogs streak down trails in relative silence and even at the beginning or at the finish line, pets don't howl, bark, or bay, a quality that's a hidden bonus for the sport. Sometimes that quiet startles wildlife out of their winter dens.

"Sometimes you're rocketing down a trail when a deer runs across," Volk said. When that happens, it's pure joy for the pet owner and sometimes a burst of speed from the dog in hot pursuit of the wild animal.

It's the smaller dogs that can sometimes hit a stride through snow like a cheetah on an African savanna. Ike is an Australian shepherd and the pride and joy of the Hydesmith family. Father Brian and daughter Tannis swore they've clocked their dog at speeds of 45 km/h.

Ike can't keep it up, of course, but those sprints make for fast races. "He's a sprinter," the dad said.

Ike, like many of the dogs, is a rescue animal. In other years, volunteers from the Winnipeg Humane Society have turned up for the race with some of their dogs.

Winnipeg can now boast one of the larger clubs in the region. Kevin Roberts said he made the trek to a recent meet in Minneapolis with the Kozies and their dogs, including the giant Askem. There, Roberts learned the Manitobans can boast about something else: The Minneapolis meet was bigger than the one in Winnipeg, but not by that much.

"We're the biggest one around," Roberts said with a chuckle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2013 A2

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