Winter ‘Ski-dogging’ offers special outdoor experience

I snug up the padded belt around my waist and check the quick release to make sure it works. I may need it. Getting pulled on skis by a powerful animal can give new meaning to the expressions “out of control” and “living on the edge.” I grab a dog harness and my skis and poles from the porch and step outside. The cold air tastes good, full of oxygen and power. The dogs will run hard tonight. We might even see a sunset, for faint cracks are beginning to appear in the gray sky.
Two white huskies see me coming and begin running around their chain posts barking and squealing frantically. There are only two of them, but they have enough energy and excitement for a whole pack. They are Alaskan huskies, a lean and powerful racing breed, created to run thousands of miles for the sheer joy of running. Gifted with extraordinary metabolisms and spirit, they are hard-wired on go and wild.
0803iod1Unfortunately, I can only take one of them tonight. They are young and playful; and if I tried running them together they would tangle their tow ropes immediately in a wild wrestling match. Besides, I’m not fond of running into trees. Getting pulled by one half-trained husky is dicey enough, getting pulled by two could be dangerous.
So which shall it be, Kalevi or Veikko? Blue-eyed Kalevi is slightly stronger and a natural leader, but since I took him for a run two days ago, it is brown-eyed Veikko’s turn. Veikko actually pulls best when Kalevi is in front of him towing another skier, but tonight he will follow Kalevi’s old tracks.
Ski-dogging is my own word for skiing with a dog pulling you. It is an unpretentious, honest word that recognizes the dog as well as the skier, but unfortunately has not found its way into the dictionary. In its place, you will find the word “skijoring,” which is as cold and lifeless as a dead herring and cannot even be pronounced properly unless you have a mouthful of Copenhagen snuff. It does not give any credit to the dog, and even worse, it is as Norwegian as lutefisk. For a good, open-minded Finlander like me, this is reason enough to shun it.
I lay down my skis and approach Veikko. Getting underway involves first calmly slipping the harness over a frantic animal that jumps, twists and lunges like a rodeo bull, and then putting on your skis without getting jerked off your feet or lynched by the tow rope while your dear pet races around his new chain post. With experience and much older, calmer dogs than mine, you might even be able to do this without breaking into a sweat.
Over the course of several minutes, I wrestle Veikko into the harness and put on my skis while he tries to wind me up in the towrope. I slip the last coil over my head and grab my poles just as he slams into the harness and jerks me forward.
I clamber into the tracks and cry “Hike” as we accelerate up the trail. “Hike” is the musher’s command for “go,” which, of course, is totally academic at this point. It takes a few seconds to slip the pole straps over my wrists, but then I hit my stride—kick, glide, double pole, kick, glide. Even though the trail across the field is slightly uphill, we are racing. Veikko stretches forward like a bounding panther and I try my best to match his pace. The beauty of ski-dogging is you can ski just as hard as you would alone, but go twice as fast.
A sled dog fresh off a chain has an incredible surge of adrenaline to burn off in its initial run out. This is why so many handlers are required to restrain full teams of racing dogs and why trails generally start out straight—no driver wants to play snap-the-whip with a team of charging dogs.
But Veikko is only one dog and he is pulling a full load on a semi-packed trail; he burns through his adrenaline rush after a quarter mile. When we reach the top of the field, he falls into a trot as we enter the woods. We are following an old snowmobile track that is fast and well-packed, and I can keep pace easily with Veikko by double-poling. The towrope connecting us contains a rubber shock cord that helps to even out the tension. I try to adjust my effort so that Veikko’s remains constant. Going uphill, I work harder, on the flats I ease up, and on the down hills I hang onto the rope and enjoy the ride.
Although my dogs are prone to stop and sniff other animal tracks, today Veikko has his brother’s old scent to follow and does so eagerly. It does not matter to him that he left Kalevi at home; dogs live in the present. Kalevi’s scent is right here and it must be trailed.
An oak leaf blows across the trail ahead of us and Veikko breaks into a run to chase it. It falls into a deer track beside the trail. Veikko buries his whole head in the snow and snorts. He would like to follow the deer tracks, but with a few tugs and one long pull, I remind him that we have another trail to follow. Such is life. His wolf ancestors traded their freedom to trail live deer in exchange for meat scraps—and thus became dogs.
Since neither dogs nor wolves can ponder such things, it is left to us to ask a foolish, but perhaps revealing question: Did they make the right choice?
0803iod2Veikko dismisses the matter with typical canine wisdom. He simply sniffs the tracks, then raises his leg and scent marks them. It is not necessary to follow every trail. Besides, Kalevi’s scent is still in the tracks before us.
We follow those tracks along a network of logging roads until we reach a windswept clearing amid oak- and maple-forested hills. The oaks still retain many of their leaves, creating a quiltwork of warm russet patches amid the gray and bare maples. The oak leaves reflect the reddish tones in the breaking clouds overhead, amplifying their value in the color-starved landscape. Maple leaves may flare and flame and fall in their brilliant autumn glory, but no leaves are more beautiful than those that rattle in a big oak on a midwinter evening.
Our trail drops into the clearing, which really is a snow-covered sphagnum bog. Along its edge are bushes that were laden with flame-red berries in November, before migrating robins and waxwings picked them clean. The bog proper begins with a tangle of low bushes, mostly leatherleaf and Labrador tea, buried under the snow.
Veikko quickly learns to step on my old ski tracks to avoid breaking through. Beyond the bushes the floating sphagnum mat begins, with its distinctive pitcher plants and cranberry vines. The bog is white now, but I am drawn to this place in all seasons. Although it is now only a memory, cranberry red is the dominant color here, the color to which all bog plants seem to aspire in November, when my wife and I come here wearing rubber boots to pick our Thanksgiving cranberries. Some years the snow gets here before we do, but if it is only a thin layer, we may be able to pick a few cupfuls of berries with cold fingers. Of course, it would be much simpler to buy cranberries from the store, but wild ones carry the pure scent of the bog, and our eyes are made much richer for searching for them in this beautiful place.
Veikko stops to sniff deep in snow, where a vole evidently has built a runway. Our trail skirts the small pond in the center of the bog. The ice would hold us, but the heavy snow likely conceals a layer of slush that could ice up my skis and Veikko’s paws.
We follow the bog to where it narrows and winds around a hill. Bushes reappear and then small trees—birch and black spruce—that are spreading into the bog to reclaim it for the forest. Behind them, a grove of white pine, spruce and tamarack stands in the last recess of this old lake bed, a small island of green amid the hardwood-covered hills. My ski trails often lead to places like this. Small islands invite us to enter and explore their recesses. Like small shops, they bid us to slow down and search for small delights. Their charm is in their human scale; for unlike the world at large, they allow us to be ourselves—our true, small selves.
Veikko is having none of this philosophizing, for he smells the tracks of the fox that recently has used this trail.
We surge ahead and enter the hardwoods. He is now running on a firm trail—the track of a snowmobile that passed here a week ago. I fly behind him on a thin layer of fresh snow that sometimes feels like a cushion of air. Like me, the fox has found this snowmobile track a convenient highway. I wonder whether it is a conflicted creature, one which dislikes the smell and noise of snowmobiles, but nevertheless still follows their ugly tracks regularly? Of course, only compromised purists like myself would ask that sort of question. The fox is focused on a more important problem—where will it find its next meal?
The fox’s tracks turn into the brush following a rabbit track. Veikko pauses, then turns back to our hard-packed trail. We swish along quietly, following the dips and turns of the trail as it skirts a narrow swamp and then begins climbing a low ridge. The snow now bears the blue hues of evening, what the Finns call the “blue moment.” I fall into a relaxed stride that matches Veikko’s trot and we flow through those blue shadows. Because we are roped together, Veikko appears to be running in place, pushing the landscape behind him. Paw prints fall from his feet into the snow and flow beneath me. The trees and cold air flow past. Time stops. We have entered the blue moment.
It lasts until we reach the top of the ridge. Suddenly Veikko lunges forward and snaps me back into the realm of classical physics. We are no longer running in place. We are racing down a steep, twisty trail. I grab the tug line with one hand and veer off into deeper snow in a vain attempt to slow down. Fortunately the snow is uniform and my skis cooperate. With as much style as I can muster, I lurch through the corners using my full repertoire of snowplows, step turns and one-ski-in-the-air staggers, and even manage to dodge a cluster of wicked bull thistles. We reach the bottom of the hill unscathed, and slice into a well-packed logging road. A masterful performance.
I acknowledge the applause by falling headfirst into a snow drift, jerking Veikko to a stop. As I struggle to untangle skis, poles and limbs from the crash site, Veikko comes back and nuzzles my cheek. Is there a more sympathetic audience than a dog?
Finally, I am back on my skis, brushed off and facing the right direction.
“Hike!” I cry and we head off into the sunset.
No. We are not heading into the sunset; east into a clearcut we are met with a surreal sight. The woods at the edge of the clear-cut are glowing intense orange as though afire. This is impossible, for gray trunks cannot glow like fire. But they do.
I glance behind me and see the cause. The clouds have broken in the west, and the setting sun has sunk into the narrow strip of sky between the clouds and the tops of the trees. Because of the dark blanket of clouds overhead, the soft diffused light from the sky is eliminated, leaving the landscape illuminated by a single intense source—the red sun.
I stop skiing and let Veikko pull me. I wish for a camera, but then realize no camera could do this moment justice. To my right, the tree trunks are aflame. To my left, over the snowy expanse of the clear-cut, that same terrible light defines every ridge, wave and curl in the wind-carved crust of the snow. Here alone, in the smooth depressions that lie between the snow crests, are blue shadows permitted to lie unmolested by fire. All else, everything that dares to behold the sun, is consumed by flame.
I am, I realize, in the presence of terrible beauty—terrible in its truest, most noble sense, like that of an approaching tiger.
At this moment, there is nothing to do, except to see. Veikko is trotting comfortably, but I am standing still, coasting. I drink in the beauty around me with my eyes and with deep breathes of the cold air. Something within me aches. I consider stopping, but do not. I don’t want to see this wonder fade, as it will within minutes, when the sun drops below the treetops.
Veikko is kicking molten footprints into the snow behind him. His fur glows with a warm soft hue. Although he doesn’t seem the least impressed by the scenes around him, I am happy to share these moments with him. Some things are best enjoyed in silence, and Veikko isn’t a big talker.

That’s what ski-dogging is all about. It’s not about the skis.

—Don Kilpela

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