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Skijoring with pound puppies

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- Back in the 1960s, an old-timer named E.S. Nordby told me how he delivered the mail to mining camps above Valdez. He strapped on skis, hung the mailbag over his shoulder, put his butt in a sling and hitched up to a husky.

The only problem, he said, was that sometimes the dog supplied so much power that Nordby couldn't control his speed.

Once, hurling downhill toward a livery stable, the husky veered and sent Nordby into the dung heap. The old Norwegian recalled that when he got up, ''the dog was sitting on the snow bank, laughing at me!''

Nordby had a reputation for tall tales. But he told the truth on this one: Dogs and skis are an excellent combination.

One of the great pleasures of my life has come from seeing skijoring re-emerge from legend to become one of Anchorage's most popular winter pastimes, giving pleasure to people and animals alike.

If you cross-country ski but have never skijored, this is a great time of year to go dog shopping. You may have read how our local animal shelter is brimming with dogs that someone thought would make a good Christmas present but didn't.

A lot of those doomed dogs would make excellent skijorers. I've always used rejects that have produced good results and wonderful memories.

Tuncks, for instance, was a stubby, though wild, 50-pound black husky in the mid-1980s.

Back then, Conners Bog was rugged and I pounded trail with my skis. Tuncks followed, deepening and compressing the trail with his chest.

Today, by contrast, Connors Bog is groomed for skijoring by the North American Skijor and Ski Pulk Association, an Anchorage club of skijor enthusiasts.

The equipment has changed too. In the 1970s, the only place I could find a harness was Rae's Harness Shop. They're available in several stores now, as is other equipment specifically tooled for skijoring.

But Rae's still has the best selection, an important consideration when fit matters -- and it does. I manufactured a sling by taking the belt off an old aluminum-frame backpack. The clip was a big brass chunk of nautical hardware. The line connecting me to the power source was a basic rope.

Need I mention that the skis were wood?

Skijoring gear hasn't changed that much over the years. Improved belts with fast-release capability added to safety, and the addition of a bungie cord in the line made pulling smoother.

But innovations have come slowly, said Bud Black, general manager of Rae's, which not only manufactures much of what it sells but also supplies other stores around the state. The last leap in technology happened about four years ago when the bungie and line were separated into two components so you had to replace only the worn-out piece instead of the whole configuration, Black said.

What has changed is the number of skijorers.

''It's extremely popular,'' he said, pointing to a picked-over rack of belts. ''Those are all junior sizes,'' he said. ''I can't keep the adult sizes in stock. As soon as we get some out here, we get a run on them. It's crazy.''

Training time depends on the dog and the driver. In my case, Tuncks understood instinctively what to do and training took about 30 minutes. Most of that time was used by me, figuring out how to keep my center of balance.

Details like turns would be worked out in time. But from the first trip, Tuncks always leaped when he saw me pick up his harness. I've never seen a skijoring dog that didn't.

At that time I liked going into Chugach State Park at night, sailing through the trees by moonlight. That seems foolhardy now, but Tuncks' dark color against the snow made it easy to read the trail immediately ahead. It also helped to have a nose out front in case any moose were near the trail.

Tuncks was impervious to cold and liked to sprawl in the snow, napping when it was minus 20. This was handy when I added a sled to the mix and started to go winter camping.

The only time I had to let him into the tent was when a windstorm blew into Portage Pass. Without his weight inside, the gale might have snatched the tent and carried it off to Prince William Sound.

Another time, slogging through whiteout in the Talkeetnas, Tuncks came to a firm stop for no apparent reason. Commands and gestures wouldn't get him to move.

I stretched forward and prodded with my ski pole. We had arrived at an invisible cliff.

Having one trained dog made it easy to train those that followed. As new pups came along, I used a split line and hooked their collars together.

Canny Tuncks kept up appearances by jogging next to his student, but his line was always a little slack.

Jules, an 80-pound chocolate Lab with enormous heart and power, arrived several years after Tuncks.

On most runs, I didn't dare pump (push off with a leg) for the first mile or so. When my son took the line, he looked like a kite being pulled by a speedboat. Jules could maintain a gallop for an hour or more.

Jules' trail manners were impeccable too. He never diverted toward other dogs or wild animals -- ignoring porcupine in the branches as he sped by or moose in the brush.

The only trouble came from ptarmigan, which blended into the snowscape and exploded in a burst of feathers as we passed. Actually, that bothered him less than it did me.

My remedy turned out to be polarized sunglasses, which made the birds appear like gray blobs against the white and blue snow and let me brace for the coming squall.

Jules was uncommonly steady and determined. On a cold day we headed toward Williwaw Lakes via the great shaded valley of the Middle Fork of Campbell Creek. Far ahead and well up the slope, I could see where the sun barely cleared the mountaintops and flooded the valley. The monotony encouraged drowsiness. I shut my eyes and let random thoughts fill my mind.

Suddenly the kiss of sun on my face lit me awake. I had napped on my skis for a mile or more while Jules lugged me uphill.

I once missed a turn and shattered a pole several miles from the Prospect Heights parking area. Without a dog, a fine day on skis would have ended with a long trudge out. Instead, we continued the run. He was still on full power as we went roaring back to the parking lot.

Some nonskijorers stood by their car and admired. I waved the broken pole as we passed and shouted, ''This is the best reason to ski with a dog!''

Then I hit ice and fell to the snow, blowing an otherwise picture-perfect return. Jules pounced on me, and I hugged him out of gratitude. He was a proud and happy dog that day, laughing at me and with me the way Nordby's husky must have laughed at his handler back in the mining camp days.

On the Web: The North American Skijor and Ski Pulk Association of Anchorage, www.ptialaska.net/ 7/8skijor/.



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