This is skijoring, a cousin sport to dog sledding where Nordic (cross-country) skis, harnesses and a short length of bungee cord form a system that can power interspecies teams to speeds heretofore unseen on flat snow. The premise is simple: The dog runs and pulls, and the human skis behind, borrowing off the canine thrust while also striding and skating to contribute to the team's momentum for flying down the trail. If you fall, most dogs feel the big jerk and stop. However, skijoring lines usually have an emergency release, just in case.
Skijoring is a long-practiced Nordic technique, a mode of wintertime transport that evolved into sport a century ago. But the activity has gained popularity in recent years as everyday skiers see the potential in their pets. Indeed, you don't need an Arctic sled dog to skijor.
According to Jim Benson, president of the 100-member Midwest Skijorers Club, any healthy dog that weighs 35 pounds or more is a candidate for the sport.
"We have Labs, border collies, retrievers and giant schnauzers in the club," Benson said. "It's a great way to exercise the family pet."
Once momentum takes over, skijoring is of little difficulty for a large dog. Waxed skis gliding on snow provide an optimal vehicle to pull human weight through the winter woods.
Speed is a No. 1 draw. A seasoned skijoring dog can pull consistently at 15 m.p.h. or faster, letting skiers tick off twice as many miles as on a dog-less day. Races each winter at events such as the City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis see competitors like Benson tethered to two or three trained huskies at a time, skidding through turns, yelling commands, skating and poling behind beasts bred to run.
Benson, a veteran skijorer who travels to compete, trains his dogs year-round, on and off the snow. He has a pickup truck with a built-in kennel. At races he baits big buckets of water with canned dog food, stirring in spoonfuls of glop to flavor a slurry the dogs will drink.
"Keeps them hydrated," Benson said. "Makes them run faster."
Most skijorers fit more the mold of Carin Offerman, an independent investor from Minneapolis who runs Raven, her 70-pound giant schnauzer, for exercise and enjoyment alone. "I do the races, but just for fun," she said. Raven and Offerman picked up the sport six years ago to stay in shape over the winter months. "We were both in need of more exercise."