Cool Running | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Health + Fitness

Cool Running

Where cross-country skiing and dog lovers unite


Published October 10, 2012 at 7:58 a.m.


When I first heard about skijoring, the premise of the sport struck me as the kind of harebrained plan a daredevil teenager might cook up: Take a dog, a lead and a pair of skis — and end up with either a thrilling sprint across a snowy field … or a trip to the emergency room.

In reality, skijoring is a venerable sport, dating back hundreds of years in Scandinavia. Travelers, looking for a more efficient way to cover long distances during harsh winters, strapped on skis and harnessed reindeer or horses; the word itself, “skijoring,” is related to a Norwegian word that means “ski driving.” Today, the snow sport involves a skier being pulled by any number of means — including horses, motorized vehicles or, most commonly, dogs.

With Subarus to do the work of “winter driving,” skijoring in Vermont is typically the province of recreationists or competitive racers — people for whom a love of both dogs and skiing makes skijoring “a perfect pairing,” says Ken Haggett, the owner of Peace Pups Dogsledding in Elmore.

It was skijoring that gave Haggett the sled-dog bug. Eleven years ago he took out his first husky, a rescue dog named Jake, and gave the sport a spin without any experience or training. Jake just “picked it up,” Haggett remembers. Most huskies, he explains, “have an instinct to point down the trail and run.”

Soon Haggett and his wife acquired another dog so the couple could take skijoring outings together. One thing led to another, and now Haggett owns 21 Siberian huskies and makes his living providing dogsled and dogcart tours, primarily to tourists.

Something similar happened to Jim Blair, who runs Eden Dog Sledding in Eden Mills. Blair was already an avid cross-country skier and a competitor in long-distance skiing when he tried skijoring for the first time in the mid-1990s. He heard about the sport while observing a sled-dog race at Lake Elmore, where he says he was “fascinated by the enthusiasm of the dogs.” Blair ordered basic skijoring equipment by catalog, took his two mutts out to a snow-covered lake and “blindly tried to learn.” Self-taught, he admits the process was “pretty rudimentary.”

But eventually he got better, as did his dogs. Blair went on to win the national title for skijoring for three consecutive years, in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Along the way, he found himself plugged into a small community of avid enthusiasts who take the sport seriously and travel long distances on winter weekends to compete.

“It’s really exciting,” Blair says. “Imagine going full throttle, with dogs pulling you, and you’re half out of control.” Sounds like fun, huh?

As winter sports go, skijoring is pretty niche. First, you have to be at least a moderately skilled cross-country skier — otherwise, Blair warns, you’ll crash and burn. His dogs can run close to 30 miles per hour. With the resistance of a skier on a towline, they can expect to hit speeds of about 20 miles per hour. That’s far faster than most cross-country skiers are comfortable flying.

And, while just about any dog over 35 pounds could skijor, the dog has to want to run. “They say you can’t push a dog with a rope,” says Haggett — and he’s right. His first husky, Jake, simply doesn’t have the drive that most of his other dogs do; when he gets tired, Haggett says, Jake will flop down on the trail. So now the 17-year-old is a house dog and leaves the mushing to the more eager pups in the bunch.

And boy, are they eager. When I arrive at the Peace Pups kennel — tucked down a winding dirt road not far from Lake Elmore — the dogs are already in their harnesses. There’s no snow on the ground, of course, but now that daytime temperatures have dropped to a cool, comfortable 50 or 60 degrees, Haggett and his dogs have embarked on fall training. They’re building up strength for the coming winter season, when they’ll run three times a day, six days a week.

Haggett worked as a carpenter and woodworker for nearly 30 years before becoming a musher. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” he jokes, adding that while he can’t pin down exactly why he was so drawn to the dogs, “I can’t imagine my life without these guys.”

Today Haggett will be taking out 18 dogs in two teams of nine. He doesn’t get out to skijor as much as he’d like anymore, but he says it’s a great way to work closely with some of his lead dogs.

The dogs are excited: They know exactly what’s coming next. Sure enough, as soon as Haggett and his employee, Maria Gaffney of Craftsbury, begin hooking the dogs to their tug lines, all 18 huskies start howling and leaping around. “If I asked them to, they’d run all day long,” Haggett says. Today they’ll be pulling wheeled carts, which Haggett and Gaffney man from behind much as they would sleds. Each cart has two seats, and into Haggett’s climbs a mother-and-daughter pair from Pennsylvania who made the trip to Vermont for a long weekend.

I hop in Gaffney’s cart. The brakes are on, and the cart is tethered to a nearby tree, but all the same the cart lurches as the dogs strain against their lines, dig their feet into the dirt and lunge forward.

Haggett starts down the trail first, followed by Gaffney. As soon as we’re under way, the dogs go silent. Every now and then Gaffney calls a word of encouragement to the wheel dogs, Fleche and Hercules, who pull the heaviest load. We rumble down a Class 4 dirt road; before crossing a busier intersection, Haggett jumps out, checks for traffic and places a “Sled Dogs X-ing” sign in the road.

Soon we pull off onto a Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) trail. The dogs splash through muddy puddles and then continue over a bed of freshly fallen orange and red leaves. The cart bounces along behind them, but the ride is smooth and relaxing — for the passenger, that is. Haggett says he doesn’t notice much of the scenery when he’s out working with his dogs, even as he carts or sleds past the picturesque hills of Elmore and Stowe. He’s focused on his team, watching their every move and calling out commands — like “gee” and “haw,” meaning right and left, respectively.

Similar commands are used in skijoring; because there are no reins on the dog, just a lead line hooked from its harness to a rider’s belt, the dogs rely on voice commands from their owners. If a dog and owner get the bug, there’s plenty of other “joring” they can try — bike-joring, scooter-joring, even canicross, a form of cross-country running.

These days, Blair focuses more on sledding, though he’s taught a number of other skiers to skijor. He admits that most people are “priced out” of his skijoring lessons; one lesson starts at $395, and a three-lesson package runs $1000.

Haggett’s rates are lower — $100 for a two-hour lesson with your own dog — but, even so, he’s not weathering a deluge of interest. He hears from just a handful of curious people every year, he says, and he’s frankly baffled as to why skijoring hasn’t caught on more rapidly in Vermont. Not only does it make for great skiing — “You get so much more glide,” he says — but it’s undeniably fun. Haggett admits dog sledding can be a bit scary sometimes; dogs don’t have a “kill switch” like a snowmobile. But he says skijoring is far more relaxing. Plus, it’s a great form of exercise for dog and skier alike.

“It’s like being out there with your best friend,” Haggett says. “It builds a bond between you and your