Harnessing pooch power Strap on some skis for cold-weather fun with your canine companion
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/01/2021 (788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Quinn will do just about anything for a piece of hot dog; including, it turns out, pull her human down a frozen river on cross-country skis.
Skijoring — a former mode of transportation-turned canine (or equine) winter sport — is something I’ve wanted to try since adopting Quinn back in 2019. I finally got the chance last weekend.
Where to skijor in Manitoba
To protect groomed cross-country ski trails, skijoring and kicksledding are only permitted on select trails in the following areas:
La Barriere Park; Beaudry Provincial Park, Oak Trail; Birds Hill Provincial Park, Spruce Trail and Group Use Area 1; Spruce Woods Provincial Park, Yellow Quill Trail; Whiteshell Provincial Park, Forester’s Footsteps.
Visit snowmotion.ca to learn more about the sports.
I was greeted by a small gaggle of dogs in colourful harnesses and people holding ski gear when I rolled into La Barriere Park on Saturday morning. It’s a common scene at the small municipal greenspace south of the city, where skijoring and kicksledding are welcome activities.
After a quick goodbye in the parking lot, the group scampered back to the warmth of their respective vehicles, having already spent several hours on the trails with Snow Motion, a recreational club for winter dog sport enthusiasts.
I was there to meet club founder Susie Strachan and co-ordinator Lorne Volk, who had kindly agreed to take me out for a skijor crash course. After exchanging pleasantries, Strachan turned her attention to Quinn; “45 lbs?” she asks. A spot on estimate. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” she says, while pulling a tangle of harnesses out of the backseat of her car.
Strachan, a reporter for The Sou’wester, a Free Press community newspaper, has been doing this for 24 years, to be exact. Her interest in skijoring started when she met a local dog musher in the early ‘90s.
“I said this would be really cool, but I only have one dog,” she says. “I started using a pair of skis and a harness and a leash, teaching myself.”
Around the same time, kicksledding — a Nordic sport similar to dog sledding — was experiencing a global renaissance and the sleds, essentially a chair mounted on skis, were becoming available in Manitoba. Strachan formed Snow Motion in 1997 with the goal of teaching and getting more people involved in skijoring and kicksledding.
In a typical winter, the club has about 80 members. This year, owing to the pandemic, the number of returnees has dropped, while newbies are coming out in droves.
“We’re getting a lot of beginners,” Strachan says. “They want to do something that’s outside with their dog.”
The club meets every Sunday at Birds Hill Provincial Park for small group rides in compliance with code-red restrictions and park pandemic protocols. Beginner lessons are currently on hold because Strachan and Volk are unable to keep up with demand for one-on-one workshops.
Volk, a longtime cross-country skier, animal lover and retired high school biology teacher, has been a Snow Motion member for 14 years.
“The winter season becomes what it should be for Canadians,” he says. “I adore winter and we actually have people who join the club and at the end of their first season say, ‘I used to hate winter and know I’ve found myself tearing up because the temperature went over zero.’”
Like most winter sports, skijoring requires plenty of snow and cold temperatures. Manitoba winters are becoming milder as a result of climate change and the club has felt the effect first-hand, with lacklustre snow conditions and shortened seasons in recent years.
“There’s no arguing, over the years we’re seeing our season becoming more and more iffy,” Volk says.
He has trained three of his dogs to skijor and currently hits the trails with his German shepherd-husky cross, Sonsie, which means “beautiful and cheeky” in Gaelic.
“My second dog named Beowulf was kind of locally famous… he could run 15 kilometres,” Volk says. “Sonsie is more of a touring dog, more laid back; at 60 I don’t need a race dog, that’s just gonna get me in trouble.”
The comment makes me wonder how Quinn will stack up.
On Saturday, our lesson starts in the parking lot, with a tutorial on harnessing.
After picking out the right size, Strachan pulls a Ziploc bag from her pocket and passes me a handful of chopped up chicken hot dogs — a much more enticing treat than the dry kibble I brought along. Lured with processed meat, Quinn eagerly sticks her head through the straps and obliges while we fiddle around with the fit.
The harness is an x-back design meant to distribute the pulling weight evenly along the dog’s body. The rest of the kit includes a shock absorbing rope, or gangline, tethered to a belt worn by the skier.
Skijoring equipment is available locally at Canvasback Pet Supplies in Lockport and Prairie Dog Supply near Birds Hill. Rob Wiebe has been making and selling harness kits and dog sled equipment through Prairie Dog Supply for 27 years. This has been a banner season.
“My business has been booming,” he says over the phone. “As soon as the snow hit the ground, people started searching for things to do with their pets.”
He is sold out of kicksleds and his skijoring starter kits have been flying off the shelf. Wiebe also makes custom harnesses for dogs of every size — the sport isn’t limited to traditional sled dog breeds, any pup with a passion for pulling can take part.
“Everything from little tiny house pets to full-grown Newfoundlanders,” he says with a laugh. “Because there (are) so many different shapes of dogs I do 11 different sizes of x-back harnesses.”
Before I can clip into my skis, Quinn needs to learn some new vocabulary. The basic commands include “line-out,” which tells the dog to move to the end of the lead, directly in front of the skier; “hike,” to move forward; “gee,” to turn right; “haw,” to turn left; and “on-by,” to pass other people and interesting objects without stopping. It’s a whole new language and it can take a full season for dogs (and their handlers) to become fluent.
We practice gees and haws around trees near the disc golf course before heading down to the La Salle River — it’s a relatively mild day, but the riverbanks provide welcome shelter from the biting prairie wind.
There’s a small handful of dedicated skijoring and kicksledding trails in Manitoba and, as a matter of good etiquette, dogs should be kept off trails groomed for classic cross-country skiing. Skijoring requires a flat expanse and a good handle on skate skiing (a technique I’ll need a whole other set of lessons to master).
Thankfully, today we’re sticking to the basics: moving forward and trying not to get tangled in the eight-foot gangline.
My partner and I aren’t sure what breed Quinn is– she’s got a curly husky tail and shepherd colouring — but we do know that she’s a natural puller.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit nervous when I step into my bindings. Volk has just finished telling me how fast some of the club members finish the one kilometre loop at La Barriere (very fast) and Strachan has, several times, brought up the fact that her new dog Pippin, an Australian shepherd, enjoys boomeranging her into things while they’re out on the trail.
My instructors run up ahead and Quinn quickly reassures me that I have nothing to worry about. While Volk and Strachan try calling her forward, she stands her ground, giving me and my skis confused sidelong glances. Finally, the shaking of the hot dog bag is enough to send her in the right direction.
My partner and I aren’t sure what breed Quinn is — she’s got a curly husky tail and shepherd colouring — but we do know that she’s a natural puller. Even though we’ve spent a lot of money on no-pull contraptions and done a lot of work trying to curb the behaviour, walks can still result in a sore arm.
Her pulling instinct kicks in after a few failed attempts and as we glide across the snow in tandem, I catch a glimpse of what draws people to this sport. The speed is undoubtedly fun, but the sensation of teamwork is even better.
By the time we wrap up the hour-long lesson, Quinn is sufficiently worn out — a major feat. While she dozes in the passenger seat, I spend the drive home going over the list of commands in my head and looking forward to the next time we can suit up and head out into the cold together.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.