About twelve years ago, Kristine Zellmer’s rescued Norwegian elkhound always ran away off leash. At her sister’s advice, Zellmer reluctantly hitched the dog to herself while skiing. Soon, they were dashing across a snowy lake for “the time of our lives.”Zellmer recounted, “[I] was so excited because I thought I’d invented a new sport.”
It turns out her discovery was skijoring (ski driving), a Nordic spin-off of dog sledding more than a hundred years old. Over the last decade, this sport’s popularity has grown.
Zellmer said skijoring at high speeds is “like waterskiing on snow.” Dogs thirty pounds or more can skijor, especially if they like to pull. It takes about two weeks to teach them skijoring commands on short walks. Praise is important.
The six basic commands are Gee (right), Haw (left), On-By (don’t stop for distractions), Line Out (stay still while towline straightens), Hike (go), and Whoa (stop). Weight training comes next, with dogs pulling a two-pound bag of birdseed or small kids in a sled. Actual skijoring shares work between dog and skier.
Zellmer skijors several times a week with her Alaskan husky, Sir James Caird. They average four to six miles a trip at nearby Highland Park Nine Hole Golf Course, though Zellmer likes to vary routes to keep Caird fresh.
Zellmer lives out her skijoring passion by teaching classes and doing public relations for Skijor Now. Caird literally earns his dog food by working with her.
In 2009, Caird placed third in the City of Lakes Loppet, which circles Lake of the Isles and ends in Uptown Minneapolis. Zellmer called it one of her proudest moments, since they usually just miss the winner’s circle. She recalled nearing the finish line: “I didn’t know if he had enough. . . energy in him to push hard and pass someone at the very end, and he did.”
Zellmer recommended a number of Twin Cities skijoring venues: Theodore Wirth (Front-9 area), Baker and Elm Creek Parks, and Fort Snelling’s Mendota Trail. Zellmer typically skate skis with Caird but said, “Fort Snelling is fabulous for classic skiing. You can just go and it’s so quiet.” For those up north, Zellmer has heard that Duluth’s Snowflake Trail is beautiful.
In the winter of 2010-11, Zellmer and Caird began seeing how many new trails they could skijor. Pointing out Minnesota’s “miles and miles of ski trails,” she commented, “to go around and start trying these new trails is just a lot of fun.”
Before visiting a new park or ski trail, it’s best to call ahead to check skijoring usage and ski pass requirements.
A basic skijoring harness, towline, and belt set costs about $250 at Skijor Now (skijornow.com).