Ski joring is an exciting and challenging sport combining the efforts of (wo)man and his/her best friend, dog. The sport has existed for centuries in Nordic and Arctic countries, but has only recently experienced an explosive growth in popularity. Nowadays ski joring is offered and, indeed, encouraged at cross-country ski clubs across North America.
What it is: basically, ski joring combines the activities of dog mushing (sledding) and cross country skiing. A skier wears a belt with a bungee cord attached to one, two or three dogs. The animals wear a harness and in the same way as in dog sledding pull the skier. The skier is, of course, not completely inert, but expected to help out the team, especially on uphill climbs. As you can imagine, this is a great test of the human/canine relationship and, perhaps, the strongest proof of love and companionship.
Several years ago, when I was living in Northern Canada with my dog, Punk Ass, I decided to attempt ski joring. I say I, not we, because Punk Ass proved to be completely adverse to the idea from the get go. But, since we had a codependent relationship anyway, I thought we would make an especially good team, and long before I had any reason to, laid claims to our superior skills. What follows is an account of the trials and tribulations faced by woman and dog and how we came through it defeated, but not deflated.
The first thing that we needed was the equipment. I took my dog into the musher's supply store and inquired about a ski joring outfit. The man at the store asked me to bring young Punk Ass inside for a fitting, since the harnesses came in several sizes. Punk Ass was pleased about being invited into a store for once and took great interest in the small animal cages. It took some effort to pull him away from these and put on a blue harness.
I thought he looked great and very much like the sled dogs I had seen on the Discovery Channel. Punk Ass, in disagreement, not so casually, attempted to get out of the harness by flailing himself in all possible directions while seeking out the nearest escape route. This however, was blocked by a stand of books. With his tail between his legs, Punk Ass gracelessly knocked this down, ran over a small child and hid himself under the counter, where in between trying to chew off the harness, growled menacingly at the store clerk.
'Sometimes, it takes a while for them to get used to it,'
the clerk said, as I watched the frightened mother gather her child and rush outside. My dog retreated further under the counter and continued his growling.
'Get him to wear it around the house at the beginning to get accustomed to it.'
Despite this initial setback, I really thought he would enjoy himself. Punk Ass was a husky-malamute mix and although I had managed to teach him very good manners, there was never any hope of his listening to the 'heel' command. I thought that with his breeding, his inherent tendencies towards mushing, he would be as eager to pull me as he had always been on our walks, some of which had nearly dislocated my shoulder.
I purchased the harness, the rope and the belt as well as an instruction book, gathered what was left of my dog owner's pride and left, more determined than ever. Punk Ass and I were going to make a great team. I was going to prove to all those who doubted, and among my friends there were many, that Punk Ass was, as I always said, the best dog in the world.
As always, I was blinded by my innate inability to face the truth.
As soon as we got home, I put the harness on my dog, and using the techniques I'd learned from various dog training books, tried to ease him into acceptance. I was very encouraging, even giving him a treat or two. Punk Ass wasn't buying it and spent the first few hours chasing it around his body and attempting to remove it with his teeth. After a few days, however, he slowly began to understand that I wasn't impressed or moved to pity by his tactics and eventually left it alone, not without giving me a begrudging look. We started going for walks and although he would occasionally regress and roll around on the ground or rub himself against trees in an attempt to rid himself of the harness, he seemed in general to forget about it.
Eventually, we moved onto the next level: bike towing. I would sit on my bike and tie the harness to the front and let Punk Ass do his work, never forcing him to tow my entire weight, but peddling when necessary. Punk Ass, however, was not always aware, or pretended not to care, about our physical attachment. It proved difficult to maintain control at the times when he would decide to spontaneously stop from a full gallop to sniff at something, or run into traffic, following the scent of a cat. We had several near misses with moving and stationary vehicles.
Winter finally came late one night and as the snowflakes fell, Punk Ass and I watched from the window. I put my arm around my dog and drew him close to me. Soon, we would ski jour. He only looked at me and I wonder if he had any canine premonitions. I wish I could have prevented what happened. If I had known how things would turn out in the end I probably never would have attempted this activity. Hindsight is 20/20 vision so they say.
They are right.
When there was enough snow covering the trails near my house I went out for ski by myself. I realized that 12 years of not skiing might have some impact on our performance and I didn't want Punk Ass to see me in the initial and awkward stages of re-learning. At such an early stage I couldn't risk losing his confidence. Much to my dismay, cross country skiing proved more difficult than I remembered it to be in my early teens. I won't go into details about my performance that day, but suffice it to say that I am as much to blame for what happened.
A month after I originally purchased the equipment, I decided that it was time to introduce Punk Ass to the skis. This, like everything else in our venture, proved challenging. Like any other foreign objects that I have attached to myself, sunglasses, backpacks, boyfriends, my dog became very concerned and upset. On the first day of skiing with my dog not even the allure of squirrels and other quickly paced wildlife was not enough to stop Punk Ass from attempting to attack my skis. Instead I spent the majority of the time trying to stop him from incessantly barking at them.
Slowly and with some effort, I got Punk Ass to accept the skis and he no longer reacted to them as if they were tools of Satan, instruments of torture or cats. It took many tries, many fallbacks, but like I mentioned earlier, I had the determination of an Olympic athlete striving for gold. I mean, I could taste it. I awoke one morning and the day just felt right. I couldn't have been more wrong as my story will soon tell.
After giving my dog a pep talk and putting him in the harness, I clicked into my skis, fastened the ski jour belt around my waist, and secured the bungee rope that tied us together. I took a deep breath and gave Punk Ass a pat and we were off. There was a lot of stopping and starting at the beginning. Punk Ass was confused and I was nervous, but shortly after the first few collisions, we succeeded.
All of the sudden it all just fell into place. My dog was running, I was skiing. He was pulling me and I was being pulled by him. We were a marvel of grace, cooperation and style. I felt the wind in my face and as my heart filled with pride, my stride went ever further. I looked ahead to my dog, my wonderful beast of burden, my best friend, and at that moment, all the effort, all the setbacks, proved to be worthwhile. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, honestly. I even yelled out mush, mush, Punk Ass, mush. The moment felt surreal, magical.
What happened next, however, undid all of my efforts. It was like a scene out of a movie.
We were going quite quickly when Punk Ass saw her. She was standing at the bottom of a small hill looking up with that hesitant yet friendly look that dogs get when they see other dogs and are unsure whether they are friend or foe. As always, my dog responded with the same gesture. He stopped and looked down at her eagerly. I didn't stop, having already passed onto the slope of the hill. Punk Ass attempted to jump out of my way, but the rope that led from my waist to his harness slackened and got caught under one of the skis. The ski got yanked upwards, I fell and got tangled with one of the ski poles, which I had tried to let go of, but was secured to my wrist. I rolled over and as I did I saw my dog fly over my head, his four paws splayed in the air. This vision repeated itself several times as we took turns rolling over one another down the hill. When we finally stopped, I can only assume we resembled a cartoon image of a giant snowball, with bits of ski equipment and body parts poking out.
The other dog fled the scene in horror.
Fortunately, no serious injuries were incurred by either party, other than to our self esteem, confidence, self worth, honor and pride. I wish this story had a happier ending. I wish that I could tell you that we tried again and that our efforts met with greater success. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and shortly after the events I have described, we moved back south, where there was little snow.
Somehow, we remained best friends.