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On The Fly

The latest in snow going is wind-powered


Published January 28, 2004 at 8:16 p.m.

A rude wind blows across my driveway on a recent Monday morning, howling through the trees and scattering my recyclables around the neighborhood. Just when I've managed to retrieve the airborne pages of The New York Times, the Filene's flyer and the empty envelopes, another nasty gust rears up and I'm flapping around like a crazed chicken in a barnyard.

But two hours later, when I'm taking a kite-flying lesson at South Burlington's Dorset Park, the wind has become an ally. Buttery chunks of sunlight smear across the soccer fields as I grasp two handles at the end of 20-foot lines linked to the yellow-and-white kite. "Ready?" instructor Rachael Miller yells, lifting the pillowy sack into the air and running back toward me. "Now use the punch-pull method to turn the kite."

Once I get the hang of it, I'm able to move the kite -- which looks like a fat croissant -- out of the gentle neutral area above my head and into the power zone, where it dances wildly across the sky. A tug sends it soaring right and left, harnessing the 10- to 20-knot breezes blowing from behind me. The next step in the process is strapping on skis and a helmet and taking off across the snow.

Snowkiting is one of the newest sports to arrive in Vermont -- and anywhere in America, for that matter. In an age when the word "extreme" has been tacked onto everything from deodorant to candy-colored sodas, this wind-powered sport offers adrenaline junkies a new fix. "The kite is the engine, but we have a lot more control over it than, say, on a snowmobile," says Miller. One of the country's first certified snowkiting instructors, she has just launched a snowkiting business from her home in Warren. "I like the physical act and the thinking element," she says. "I like that balance."

As early as the fifth century B.C., Chinese generals sent kites of bamboo and silk into the sky; in Indonesian and Polynesian cultures, fishermen used leaves and airy pouches of fabric to fly their lures long distances into the sea. The introduction of multiple lines, around 1825, allowed humans to control the kite in the sky, but beyond Ben Franklin, nothing much exciting happened with kiting until the 1970s.

That's when folks began tying kites to catamarans, canoes, roller skates -- pretty much anything that moved. Success was marginal at best. By the 1990s, New Zealander Peter Lynn had popularized kite-buggying, in which participants reach speeds of 75 miles an hour, while others in the U.S. and France worked on the water, developing kiteskiing and kiteboarding. Today, kiteboarders, also known as kitesurfers, can be seen everywhere from the United Arab Emirates to the beaches of Brazil.

Why should winter freeze out the fun? For about three years, kite-powered pioneers riding snowboards and skis have been sweeping through Scandinavia and the French Alps, competing in big air and high-speed events. Now, snowkiting is catching on in Wyoming, Montana, Utah and the Midwest, both in the hills and on the flatlands.

"In Minnesota, they can't go shredding mountains, really, but they've got plenty of frozen lakes and fields and winds and snow," says Miller, 33. A former sailboat racer and director of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center in Burlington, she's turning Vermont into the next hotspot for the cold-weather sport.

After returning last April from New Zealand -- where her husband, James Lyne, competed in the America's Cup -- Miller began "landkiting," which involves flying across fields with a kite and a sturdy skateboard called a "mountain board." "There wasn't enough wind to windsurf last summer," she says. "And I wanted to get really good flying skills on land. Plus, there aren't many spots in Vermont to safely kiteboard."

Late last year, Miller founded Stormboarding, the state's first, and only, snowkiting operation. This month, she attended a weeklong clinic near Butte, Montana, and became one of only half a dozen snowkiting instructors in the country to be certified by the Professional Air Sports Association; she and a Northwest instructor are the first women to make the grade. When it's cold, she offers lessons and gear for snowkiting, and when it's warm, she'll switch to helping landkiters and windsurfers. (New, fat boards are revolutionizing windsurfing just as shaped skis have changed the sport of skiing.)

"I want to be full-service," says Miller. "Teach people how to do it, set them up with the right equipment and find safe places around here to do it."

Miller has selected an apt name for her business: She works much like a storm chaser, driving all over the state to find the best wind and snow. In the Mad River Valley, drivers along East Warren Road slow down to watch her zip alongside them; on Lake Dunmore, ice fishermen scratch their heads and ask her where she got that fancy parachute.

Miller has already planned a snowkiting program with Champlain College, and she hopes to spread the word through discounted classes and kites. Then there's the Vermont Kite Storm on February 28, a day of demos and races in the Burlington area. Seeing, and experiencing, the sport is the best way to grasp its beauty, power and potential.

"Sailing has a high element of the land drills, the chalk talk, the breaking skills down, but in snowkiting, it's a lot more just doing it, it's a much more ‘feel' sport," Miller explains. "I'm able to ride with someone on the second lesson, say ‘OK, hold your kite here, and edge like this,' and you go zhoop! upwind."

Even someone who has never been on skis or a snowboard can pick up snowkiting after just a few hours of instruction. It helps to have some wind awareness -- knowing its direction and velocity are prerequisites for cruising comfortably. Snowkiters start with the wind at their backs, figuring out where the kite is safest (above, in neutral) and strongest (to the front and sides, in the "power zone").

Once you've mastered basic flying on a trainer, you move onto a bigger kite, which has a bar and a wrist leash. If the thing flies out of control, you drop the bar and the kite falls but doesn't blow off to the next county. Even without skis on, you feel the mighty pull of the sensitive kite and understand the wisdom of such a precaution.

That's in stark contrast to kitesurfing, which has earned a reputation as a dangerous, even deadly, pursuit. Some kiters have become "lofted" while still on land, bouncing along a beach and into a parking lot, where they sometimes crash into windshields. One kitesurfer in Tasmania got tangled in the trees; last November, a Kiwi blew straight over the trees and onto the roof of his own house, giving local residents a bit of a shock. In 2002, a German professional kitesurfer was killed when her equipment snagged the rig of another kiter and she was swept head-first into a sea wall.

But nearly all of the kitesurfing horror stories can be attributed to the absence of safety leashes or inadequate launching space. Because snowkiters practice on wide-open bowls, frozen lakes and fields -- with the latest technology in safety releases -- the activity is less risky than its watery counterpart. Only one serious injury has been reported: a Frenchman who smashed up his face, heels and wrist in the Alps.

Snowkiting risks are similar to those in skiing -- "falling and hurting yourself," says Miller, demonstrating a "chicken loop" and other assorted devices on one of her bigger kites. "Let's say you're Supermanned, splayed out across the ground; you just drag under the kite and then squiggle around to get back up. If you don't have control of the kite, there are lots of ways to get out."

Despite such ungraceful images, snowkiting is among the most elegant and exhilarating sports in the world. There's not enough snow on the fields to actually ski with the rig during my first lesson. Instead, Miller and I step inside the Dorset park skating rink to warm up and watch her laptop, which is playing a film of some recent European freestyle snowkiting competitions.

On the tiny screen, dozens of multi-colored kites flutter against a powder-blue sky while the skiers and riders below carve through glaciers and perform tricks. Because the kites pull vertically and laterally at the same time, athletes can fly hundreds of feet into the air, controlling their hang time by shifting the kite's position. The flips and twists seem to be in slow motion. And there are no lifts, no liftlines, no crowded halfpipes -- just sliding and soaring with the wind.

"The kite makes this incredible sound," says Miller. "In Montana, we went out in the evening with just a little bit of moonlight and glowsticks, and zipped back and forth across this lake all night. It was amazing, no sound, just the kites making a little whoosh as they flew through the air."

Snowkiting lessons range from $65 to $150; Stormboarding also sells gear. For more info, on snow- kiting or the Vermont Kite Storm, see http://www.stormboarding.com or call 496-9691.