Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Skijoring Fiend: What I like about Skijoring

Skijoring in Canada with T-Bone and Okemo

This blog entry is by guest blogger, chief poop scooper, occasional musher, and T-Bone's dad, Eric Benson. As many of you know, Eric's hobby is photography and Eric is the photographer of nearly all of the stunning photographs on this blog and on the Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC website. Eric has photographed everything from weddings to dog sled races to heavy equipment and machinery. For more information on Eric Benson Photography including rates and availability, email Eric at eric@marylanddogsledding.com. In addition to his duties as photographer, musher and poop scooper, Eric is an Associate Professor in the Bioresources Engineering and Animal and Food Science Departments at the University of Delaware.

Eric R. Benson Photography

Since my wife, Catherine, and I began dog sledding approximately seven years ago, we have tried canicross (running), canicross (hiking), bikjoring, scootering, dryland (wheeled) dog sledding, and, of course, dog sledding on snow.

Catherine skijoring through the trees with Acadia

So which dog powered sport is my favorite?

My favorite option is skijoring with two dogs. Skijoring is cross country skiing while a dog or dogs pull you. I enjoy skijoring because it’s a shared experience between the dog(s) and the skiier and the dogs really seem to enjoy it. Skijoring is also particularly appropriate for small (1-2) dog teams. In skijoring, the skier can easily help to provide additional power to go up hills and help the dogs as they get tired. Catherine and I often skijor as an activity in conjunction with dog sledding to help keep the dogs limber or when a couple of the sled dogs need a rest. Skijoring also allows us to work one on one with one to two dogs refreshing basic commands such as gee, haw, on by, and line out.

For skijoring (as with all other dog powered sports), the dogs wear a harness designed for pulling. Catherine and I use traditional x-back harnesses on the Maryland Sled Dog Adventures sled dogs. The skier wears a padded belt (waist or diaper style) and the dogs are attached by a special one to two dog line of approximately 8-9 feet in length. The line has a built in shock absorber to help to take some of the impact off the dogs and skier during stopping and starting. The skier wears cross country skis, boots and uses ski poles.

Me (Eric) skijoring with Okemo and Sobo in New York

Okemo and Sobo demonstrating line out.

Sled puppy, Acadia, has taken to skijoring like a fish to water

The surprising thing about how much I enjoy skijoring is that until recently, I was not a big downhill or cross country skier. Since I was more of a snowboarder than a skier, I have had to quickly learn to ski. While much of my training has occurred while strapped in behind one of our sled dogs, conventional wisdom is that it is helpful to be an intermediate skier or better before skijoring. In particular, I have spent a lot of time learning the art of stopping, slowing down (aka the “snowplow”), and various aspects of falling with dignity (aka the very important “getting up out of a snow bank” move). Thankfully, given my experiences snowboarding, I was already proficient in the “sit on your butt in the snow” skill. As I have become a better skier and thus a better skijorer and have grown more comfortable with skis strapped to my feet, my style of skijoring has evolved.

Skijoring through the pines on the Excavator trail in New Brunswick with Okemo and T-Bone

When I started skijoring, I wanted to be in control at all times. I wanted the dogs to move at my pace. No easy feat when my pace was snail like slow and our dogs are mostly 10-12 MPH dogs once they reach their cruising speed. And while 10-12 MPH might sound slow on paper, trust me when I say it feels pretty fast on skis. Starts were even more harrowing as the dogs would reach speeds of 17-20 MPH in the first mile or so. As my skills developed, I soon learned that an important part of skijoring was learning to “embrace my inner speed demon” and letting the dogs ride out the sections where they wanted to go faster. It was much more effective and controlled than trying to snowplow the entire way. Occasionally, we joke that skijoring is like water skiing behind a fast boat that chases squirrels.

Skijoring: Exploring new trails

That brings me to another point. For skijoring, the commands on by, whoa and line out are probably three of the most important commands we use. When dog sledding or dryland dog sledding, you can rely on the drag or bar brake on your sled to slow or stop you or the brakes on your rig to slow you down or stop you. When skijoring, your ability to fully stop a determined, hard driving and hard pulling dog, is fairly limited. Thus, the importance of those three basic commands: whoa, on by and line out.

Okemo, our big white Siberian Husky – Akita mix, is one of my favorite skijoring partners. Okemo is one of my favorite partners in everything we do, but that’s a different story. Okemo loves to skijor and you can see it in his facial expressions and his reactions on the trail. He gets into his big loping stride and starts to race down the trail. Okemo has proven to be a hard working dog for dryland dog sledding and dog sledding, but when skijoring, Okemo will race whoever he is next to! Okemo’s favorite time to race the other dogs is when skijoring DOWN HILL! The bigger the hill, the better (and faster) the race.

My favorite skijoring partner, Okemo (looking deceptively calm here)

Catherine skijoring down a hill in Tug Hill with Okemo

Okemo puts a lot of muscle into skijoring

During our trip north to Canada, Okemo and I have gone skijoring several times. Our night skijor in Harmony, Maine, sticks out as a particularly memorable (ok, so possibly a more appropriate word would be terrifying) skijor. At the early stages of the trip, the dogs had spent a lot of time in their dog boxes in the truck. For those of you who are mushers, you know that this results in shall I say, excited dogs. I decided to take Okemo and Acadia out on the trails around Lumberjack Lodges where we were staying one evening after dark. In hindsight, this was possibly not the best idea since the Lumberjack trails were new to us.

Often when dog sledding, we use our headlamps. While both Catherine and I have headlamps, our headlamps are set up for different tasks. Catherine’s headlamp is intended for driving the team and has both LED’s and a brighter main beam. Since I primarily handle (musher jargon for assist) for the team and work with equipment, my headlamp has short rage LED’s. During my “Midnight Run” in Maine, the beam of my headlamp illuminated only a few feet past Acadia and Okemo’s head. As we set out on the trail, we immediately hit a downhill section of the trail. What did Okemo do? Start to race Acadia downhill! So we start going faster and faster downhill in an area where I can’t see what is ahead of me. Talk about trusting your lead dogs! After setting a new two lap NASCAR qualifying time around the Harmony course (including a couple of pit stops where it was more about off loading vs. getting new tires), we arrived back at our cabin, safe and secure. This is why I love skijoring. Tired, we fed the dogs dinner and everyone slept soundly that night.

Catherine skijoring with Acadia in Canada

A week or so later, we had a more sedate (and slightly more illuminated) skijor run at Baisley Lodges in St. Jacques, New Brunswick. This time, Catherine and I set out together. While Catherine skijored with Acadia, I skijored with Okemo and our smallest dog, T-Bone. We traveled approximately four miles, stopping often to enjoy the scenery and take photographs (my other favorite hobby besides dog sledding and skijoring).
A good time was had by all. Again, this is why I love skijoring.

Pulling hard: Acadia and Catherine skijor in Canada

Birch trees along the trail