Park offers good skijor terrain for a few enthusiasts and their friends
By Gillian Scott
In skijoring, a person on skis is towed by another creature—a dog, a horse or, in the case of former Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center owner Olavi Hirvonen, a reindeer.
You can even skijor behind snowmobiles (if you dare).
Many skijoring stories begin with a dog. For Brendan Wiltse, it was Khyber. For Alexander Barrett, it was Ole. For my husband and me, it was Hootch.
Hootch was a black and tan beagle-Shepherd mix with a penchant for pulling. He was pretty terrible on a leash, but worse off it, with a tendency to become distracted by forest scents and fall behind or wander off.
Hootch was 8 or 9 when we decided to put his pulling power to use on the trail. My husband had heard about a woman in Lake Placid who sold skijoring equipment that allowed skiers to be towed by their dogs. We drove up one winter afternoon to try it out on the trails behind her house.
The skijoring equipment we bought that day included an X-back harness for Hootch, a hip harness for the skier, and a bungee that tied the two together. Our bungee is 8 feet long and includes a quick-release clasp, a feature we were grateful for more than once.
In the skijoring harness that first day, Hootch found his inner puppy. I skied in front to give him something to chase, while my husband, Herb, skied behind, attached to the dog. Soon Herb was yelling “Ski faster!” as he and Hootch came charging up the trail behind me, rapidly closing the gap. Laughing, I ended up stepping to the side so they could go tearing past. Hootch looked ecstatic.
It was the first of many happy days in the snow for us. Instead of leaving Hootch at home, we took him with us on backcountry ski adventures.
Stocky of build, Hootch was not what you would call fleet-footed, and he had a beagle’s tendency toward pig-headedness. He would give us a good pull, but sometimes that pull would take us straight off the trail into the powder as he searched out the scent of some critter.
Taking it Seriously
More serious skijorers train their dogs with commands—instructions to stop or start, turn left or right, maybe even go faster or slower. Instead of just exploring trails for a backcountry ski experience, they may enter competitive events, such as the Tug Hill Challenge, held most years at Winona State Forest in Mannsville.
Alexander Barrett, a guidance counselor at Beaver River Central School District in Lewis County, pursued skijoring training more seriously.
Barrett got involved in ski racing in college. He later went on to coach through the New York Ski Education Foundation, based in Lake Placid, where he met Denise Erenstone, the woman who would later sell us our skijoring equipment. But it wasn’t until after he had married and started a family that he finally took up skijoring. He bought a German short-haired pointer with the sport in mind.
“I sort of took it seriously,” Barrett said. “I got some gear and I trained my first dog, named Ole, to do the commands. We worked really hard on that over the summer. And then he just took to it. He was kind of a natural and just loved the pulling and running fast.”
Barrett said Ole was easy to train.
“I did my first race in Massena that next winter and I just fell in love with it,” he said. His son, Harper, attended one of his races and was excited about the sled dog events also taking place. Eventually the family acquired three more dogs to pull Harper’s sled and father and son would head out to train together.
“We are not as competitive anymore, but we still get out,” he said. Ole is now retired with a bum paw. “But the other three are still like champs and we go out and skijor as much as we can.”
“It is a cool sport. And it’s something that a lot of people can relate to because they love dogs and they love skiing,” he said. “And if they put the two together, they would really enjoy it.”
Not for every dog
Not all dogs are cut out for skijoring. After Hootch, the beagle mix, we also skijored with Rocky, a lab-pit bull mix. He has a thick coat and loves the snow, and, importantly, also loves to pull. Our other pit bull mix was less enthused. Her thinner coat meant she often got cold, and she would only pull when Rocky was in front of her… and she felt like it.
“If you’ve got a dog that likes to pull, the reward is that they get to move forward,” Barrett said. “So you really don’t have to do much.”
Barrett said he had a lab mix that didn’t mind the cold but hated to pull. She would deflate “like a balloon” when he tried to skijor with her. Because he wanted to race, he picked later dogs for their speed. His son’s sled dogs are Alaska huskies.
The American Kennel Club says for safety reasons, most skijoring organizations recommend only skijoring with dogs over 35 pounds. Breed is less important than a dog’s energy level and its desire to run and pull.
Keep in mind that a skijoring harness is designed to maximize a dog’s pulling power, not a skier’s control. So it’s important to have a dog that isn’t aggressive to people or other dogs.
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On the job
Brendan Wiltse never competed with his dog, Khyber, but has spent many hours on the trail skijoring.
“I do a lot of backcountry and cross-country skiing,” Wiltse said. “So when I got my dog 10 years ago, naturally I did that with him. And it just seemed logical that I might as well hook him up to a harness and have him pull me down the trail.”
Wiltse, who worked at the time for the Adirondack Mountain Club and is now the water quality director at Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute, knew someone in Lake Placid who skijored, so the concept was not new to him.
As part of his job, he skied into Johns Brook Loj, the ADK’s backcountry lodge in the Johns Brook Valley, once or twice a week, and would take Khyber with him.
“I never did any formal training with him, but he was very receptive to commands,” Wiltse said, though he admitted Khyber was never a strong puller. “Khyber was pretty good about knowing what his job was. He was also really good at not going around a tree or on the wrong side of trees. But we definitely had some pretty funny experiences with the leash going where it shouldn’t.”
Since dogs are required to be leashed while on trails in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, using the skijoring harness and lead were also a practical solution. But mostly the skijoring was just a joyful time together in the woods.
“He was a lot of fun to ski with if you started going down a hill and he could get up to a running pace. You’d just be flying behind him and he loved it.”
Wiltse said Khyber typically went where Wiltse went, but as the dog got older, they leaned toward easier trails, like the Bloomingdale Bog Trail near Saranac Lake. On an old railroad line, the trail is flat, straight and wide—perfect for an easy ski. Wiltse’s other favorites include the Hays Brook Truck Trail near Paul Smith’s College, the trail to Whiteface Landing near Connery Pond and trails in the Floodwood Road area.
Khyber passed away in 2019, but Wiltse added a puppy to his household this spring. He’s hoping to get Nico out in a skijoring harness later this year.
In some parts of the world, skijoring is popular enough to fuel clubs and races. But in the Adirondacks, it’s rare to run into other people who skijor.
Wiltse said he has never run into another skijorer while out on the trails.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone,” he said. “Pretty much everyone that sees you doing it is like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great idea.’ … I’ve had a few friends who’ve tried to do it with their dogs but it’s like not every dog can figure it out unless you’re gonna put a lot of time into training.”
Barrett said there are no skijoring groups locally to support beginners.
“We’ve met lots of people, especially because we like to go to the races and compete,” he said. Barrett and his family mainly meet people involved in the sport through their involvement with races sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association. “We’ve met lots of nice people that all have this common interest, but to be honest, most of them are either in New England or up in Ontario or Quebec.”
He recommends skiers looking to start skijoring try the Ottawa Region Harness Dog Sports Club’s website for more information.
If you plan to try skijoring, you should already be a confident Nordic skier and have the gear needed to keep yourself warm and comfortable outdoors in the winter. Then it’s just a matter of getting your dog ready.
Resist the temptation to try skijoring with a regular leash and collar—the pressure on the dog’s neck can damage vertebrae and hinder breathing. A variety of skijoring harnesses are available online. RuffWear, for instance, offers an Omnijore system that can be used for a variety of pulling sports, but many other options are available. An X-back harness is the standard for skijoring, with the harness starting at around $25. Fit is important. Make sure you do your research (and measure your dog carefully) before buying.
Booties and jackets are also available. Our dogs never needed gear to protect their feet, though we did sometimes use Musher’s Secret, a paw wax designed to prevent snow and ice from clumping, also known as “snowballing.”
Where to go
Wide, flat spaces are the best choice for beginners. Look for local golf courses or open park spaces that allow skiers. Once you’re ready for backcountry adventure, start with old woods trails, like the road into Camp Santanoni in Newcomb, the road to Crane Pond in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, or Floodwood Road near Saranac Lake. You’ll want room to make mistakes safely, and no big hills. As you and your dog gain confidence and skill, you’ll be able to tackle more challenging trails. ■