There is a swell of nervous energy in the air, the sort that
threads the body and speeds the heart. Then there's the raucous
din of 400 dogs: barks, yelps, pinched cries, beseeching whines,
run-on yaps, an anxiety-soaked yowling unmuted by the snow lying
across ice-capped Chena Lake. Haunches twitch. Steaming noses
jerk about, picking at the sting of cold air under the wide,
blue Alaska sky.
George Salmon nods. "The dogs know exactly what's going on," he
says. "They're ready to fly."
Salmon plunges his head into the camper shell of his red Toyota
pickup and rummages around. Meanwhile, in the vicinity of his
knees, the other two members of Team Salmon work to remove the
truck's bumper. When they first arrived at the Chena Lakes
Recreation Area, 17 miles east of Fairbanks, Benny and Jets sat
impassively at the ends of their chains, blinking slowly through
eyes of blue stone. They are working dogs--Alaskan huskies,
55-plus pounds each--and so they possess the stoic reserve of
animals attuned to receiving demands, not making them. But with
several hundred dogs this close and the prospect of a breakaway
flight looming, Benny and Jets have started padding back and
forth, taking periodic pulls at the bumper.
Other dogs are pinwheeling toward berserk. Two trucks away from
Benny and Jets, another husky abruptly turns kangaroo, leaping
three times straight up in the air. Its disregard for gravity is
impressive--but worrisome if you're going to put on skis and
attach yourself to such a dog.
From the back of his truck Salmon pulls out skis and a long
cord. "Skijoring," he says, grinning, "is a trip."
Skijoring is Norwegian for "ski driving," though driving implies
more control than the skijorer often has. Done correctly,
skijoring works like this: Dog (usually one or two; more than
that and there's even less control) and trailing skier are
connected by seven to 12 feet of cord running from the dog's
harness to a hook on the skier's belt. Skier gives the command
to go. Dog lunges forward, cord jerks taut. If the skijorer
remains upright, off they go, the dog's body bunching and
unbunching in fluid surges of power, the skier sliding behind.
Lacking a brake or any kind of steering device, skijorers rely
on verbal commands, but dogs can be selective listeners. So
comparing skijoring to waterskiing is a reasonable analogy,
except that boats don't leap into embankments to roll in the
snow, and boats don't stop abruptly to pee.
Skijoring's roots are in Scandinavia. There, mushing teams of up
to four dogs pulling a small sled (called a pulk) with the skier
trailing behind while holding a line have long been popular. But
the pulk can be heavy and difficult to maneuver, so in skijoring
one simply gets rid of it. Scandinavian immigrants introduced
skijoring to the U.S. more than 100 years ago. But in that early
version, hardy souls schussed along behind galloping horses.
Salmon, a 47-year-old Fairbanks physical therapist, is a
boisterous fellow with a handlebar mustache. His is one of 17
skijoring teams competing on this March weekend in 1996 at the
annual North Pole Winter Carnival Championship Sled Dog Race.
(The 1997 race will be held on March 1-2.) The one- and two-dog
skijoring races are more of a sideshow to the marquee six- and
10-dog sled races. Fairbanks bills itself as the mushing capital
of the world, and sled-dog racing is taken with appropriate
seriousness here. At the Winter Carnival the mushers are
competing for $6,500 in prize money. The skijorers will race a
4.5-mile loop around pine-and-birch-fringed Chena Lake--once on
Saturday, once on Sunday (fastest cumulative time wins)--for a
Seventeen might seem a paltry number of teams, but as Salmon
points out, most skijorers don't race. "They don't like the
pressure," he says. But nearly 200 skijorers belong to the
Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association in Fairbanks--North
America's first skijoring club, founded in 1987. Then there are
the hundreds of other skijorers in and around Fairbanks who
prefer to operate without a club banner. They skijor about town
or into the backcountry. (A competent skier and dog can easily
cover 30 miles in a day.) In Anchorage skijorers have their own
hot line (907-349-WOOF), and there are still more skijorers
scattered across the Lower 48.
If skijoring has an epicenter, it might be the Salcha, Alaska,
home of Mari Hoe-Raitto. Soft-spoken and direct, the 37-year-old
Hoe-Raitto possesses the quiet competence necessary to manage
her own sled-dog kennel and the firmness of character required
to have once run off an angry moose that dashed into the midst
of a mushing team. Growing up in the tiny town of Fagernes,
Norway, Hoe-Raitto was steeped in the Nordic passions of dogs
She came to Alaska in 1980 to race dogs and later earned a B.A.
in phys ed at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. It wasn't
long before she inadvertently introduced skijoring to her Salcha
neighbors. One day Hoe-Raitto, a certified Nordic ski
instructor, was out skijoring with two dogs when she decided to
tail a surprised musher and his 20-dog team for five miles. "He
kept looking back, expecting me to be gone," she says.
Since then she has organized skijor exhibitions, conducted
clinics and, along with friend and fellow skijorer Carol Kaynor,
written Skijor with Your Dog, a thorough book filled with sound
advice such as, "Take the line off your belt and hold it in your
hands when going down steep hills."
According to Hoe-Raitto and Kaynor, skijoring is growing for
simple reasons. It's fun, easy, fairly safe ("Only slightly more
dangerous than cross-country skiing," says Kaynor) and cheap. A
skijoring belt, line and dog harness cost less than $70.
Finding a skijor dog isn't hard, either. Hoe-Raitto rattles off
the possibilities: "Golden retrievers. Border collies. There's
lots of Australian shepherds. Labs, Chesapeake Bay retrievers,
Great Danes, beagles. Giant schnauzers! Poodles. They can pull
Competing in his first skijor race, Ken Zaklukiewicz, a
fit-looking fellow who has shown up at Chena Lake wearing
glasses with Day-Glo yellow frames, finds himself skiing for his
life. The skijorers have drawn lots and then launched themselves
in order, at two-minute intervals, from atop a small hill at the
edge of the lake. Zaklukiewicz had gone off just before Salmon,
but with 200 yards to the finish Salmon has gobbled up all but
20 yards of the gap. Tossing frantic looks over his shoulder,
Zaklukiewicz can see the fast-closing, furiously skating,
ski-pole-stabbing Salmon, bent low and exhorting Benny and Jets,
whose steaming pink tongues are swinging in sync. Salmon
exhibits not only impressive lungs but also confidence in his
dogs. (Some dogs, upon passing, have been known to stop, sniff
each other and sometimes fight.)
Zak holds on. "Jeez," he says later, wheezing. "These guys can
"Most people think if you skijor, you're just sitting back
there," Salmon says from behind his spittle-spattered mustache.
"But we race hard."
They go fast, too. A skijor team on the fly can reach 22 miles
an hour. That kind of speed gives the skijorer little time to
adjust to canine idiosyncrasy. During Saturday's heats Bill
Saari had executed a textbook somersault when his two dogs dived
into a snowbank to cool off.
Salmon heads off what potential problems he can. Before his heat
on Sunday he trotted Benny and Jets through what appeared to be
their warmup paces, but was really an attempt to have them do
what dogs gotta do. Benny and Jets can perform on the fly, but
Salmon would prefer they didn't. "They slow down, and that can
really add to your time," he says.
Out on Chena Lake, Benny and Jets stop for nothing. Dashing over
the narrow, packed trail, they turn in a nearly flawless
13-minute, 33-second run, almost a minute faster than their
Saturday race. Their weekend's effort, just under 28 minutes,
places them sixth in the two-dog competition. Despite his
teammates' impromptu plunge the previous day, Saari takes top
honors in the two-dog competition with a cumulative time of
24:39.5 and most of the $300 purse. His dogs receive a treat:
Back at the truck Salmon peels out of purple long johns.
Standing in his Skivvies, he considers skijoring's future.
"People love skiing, they love the outdoors, they love dogs," he
He slaps a bare white thigh. "Haw!" he barks. "Once you see
skijoring, winter will never be the same!"
Ken McAlpine is a freelancer from Ventura, Calif., where
skijoring still trails surfing in popularity.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE MATHERS Salmon, zooming along courtesy of Benny and Jets, finished sixth in the 1996 North Pole Carnival. [George Salmon skijoring with dogs Benny and Jets]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE MATHERS Hoe-Raitto brought skijoring from Norway in 1980 and isn't picky about which breeds pull best. [Mari Hoe-Raitto skijoring]