Poor man's mushing

Skijoring gaining in winter popularity

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- When Pat DeRuyter started skijoring back in 1988, she didn't know what she was doing except having fun.

''I didn't have any of the right equipment,'' DeRuyter said. ''I had this big, fat belt that looked like it came from the 1970s and I just tied a rope to it.

''I had two dogs -- one was fast and one was slow,'' she said. ''One ran in front of me and one ran behind me.

''We did it in the hills so we ran into trees and all sorts of stuff,'' DeRuyter said. ''But it was fun.''

Nowadays, DeRuyter wears a special, padded harness designed for skijoring. The line that attaches her to her dogs is equipped with a bungee cord that serves as a shock absorber when the dogs pull.

Both dogs run in front of her these days, too, and she hasn't smacked into a tree for a while. Most important, she's still having fun.

''You don't have to be a great skier. You don't have to be young and athletic,'' said DeRuyter, a 48-year-old mother of two. ''It's a great sport for everybody.''

Not too long ago, skijoring was a relative novelty around Fairbanks. Ten years ago, seeing a moose at Creamer's Field was more common than seeing dogs pulling someone on skis.

''Now you see them everywhere,'' said Mari Hoe-Raitto, who co-authored ''How To Skijor With Your Dog'' in 1991 with Carol Kaynor, which still is considered the bible of skijoring. ''It's really caught on.''

Skijoring is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in Alaska, and Fairbanks probably has more skijorers per capita than anywhere in the state.

''I think people see it and say, 'Man, that's a trip. I've got to try that,''' said Jim Herriges, president of the Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association at Fairbanks.

While the club has around 100 members, Herriges and other skijorers said there probably are four- or five times that many closet skijorers in Fairbanks.

''I know a lot of people that never race,'' said George Salmon, one of Fairbanks' top racers. ''I went into the White Mountains with 10 skijorers last year and I was the only one who raced.''

A dozen people showed up at the club's annual beginner's clinic at Alaska Feed Co. during a recent weekend to learn more about the sport. Salmon and DeRuyter were among several experts on hand to provide pointers.

Mike Chamberlain brought her 100-pound ''couch potato,'' King, to the clinic to give skijoring a try.

''We got him at the pound eight years ago,'' Chamberlain said of the all black shepherd/Labrador mix.

Chamberlain, 55, recently moved to Fairbanks from Gustavus and decided skijoring might be a way to get both she and King off the couch.

''I'm trying to try new things and I thought this would be fun,'' she said.

Another selling point of skijoring is that it's cheap.

''It's sort of like poor man's mushing,'' said skijorer Lisa Stuby. ''It's like mushing, but it's not as expensive as mushing.''

Assuming a person has skiing equipment and a dog, it costs less than $100 for a complete skijoring outfit, which consists of a skijoring belt/harness ($35-$50), lines ($20) and dog harness ($20).

''Equipment is pretty cheap,'' Herriges said.

Unlike mushing, though, skijoring doesn't require many dogs. Three dogs is considered a big team for skijoring and most skijorers use only one- or two dogs, what Stuby refers to as ''micro kennels.''

Stuby, 36, started skijoring 12 years ago, or shortly after moving to Fairbanks. She was ''Quonset hut sitting'' for some friends and they had two dogs, a husky mix and a Newfoundland.

''Within a month I heard about skijoring and went out and tried it,'' she said. ''I just put a climbing harness on and put a line on them.''

Two years later she picked up Bears and Moon, a pair of huskies. ''We've been a team for the last 10 years,'' Stuby said.

It's not surprising that skijoring has caught on in mushing-crazy Fairbanks. With seven months of snow and cold, a labyrinth of dog mushing trails and a dog population that rivals that of humans, it's a perfect fit.

''It seems pretty natural to me if you have a dog and you're looking for something to do in the winter,'' said Herriges, who owns two dogs. ''A lot of people take their dogs for a walk every day so why not skijor with your dog every day?''

Michelle Coombs and Evan Thoms discovered skijoring when they moved to Fairbanks six years ago. They got their start like most skijorers.

''I just knew somebody that did it and it sounded like fun,'' Coombs said. ''We just got a couple of reject sled dogs and started doing it.''

Now, they use their three dogs to go on backcountry trips.

''You can go further with two- or three dogs than you ever could just skiing,'' said Coombs, a 28-year-old graduate student at UAF. ''Going 20 miles is nothing skijoring, but if I skied 20 miles, I'd be dead.''

A dog or two doesn't hurt when it comes to hauling camping gear for overnight trips, either.

''It makes camping easier,'' Stuby said. ''I have a little pulk sled I can fill up and have the dogs pull. I'd rather have dogs with me, anyway, so I might as well have them do some of the work.''

Not only can anyone take up skijoring, but so can any dog. While huskies are the preferred skijoring dogs, almost any dog will do.

Peggy Kuryla started skijoring with her 3-year-old golden retriever, Shania, last year. Shania has been a slower learner but she's getting better, Kuryla said.

''We started her out last spring and she wouldn't pull at all,'' Kuryla said. ''Then we went to some of the fun races and she's doing better. She likes to chase.''

Renee Gray got her dog, Chester, at the pound. The orange pitbull-look-alike showed a strong desire to pull at a recent clinic

''This is the first time he got to chase people and really go,'' Gray said.



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