My dog, Maggie, is obsessed with squirrels, mostly with chasing them — across the yard, through the woods, over stone walls. So the idea of being tethered to her while wearing skis was a bit unnerving, but I went for it anyway.
And now, I think I’m as hooked on skijoring as Maggie is on scampering after bushy-tailed rodents.
In my ongoing quest to find winter fun — often with Maggie at my side — I packed up cross-country ski gear and plenty of dog biscuits early this week and headed to the Outdoor Center at Gunstock Mountain Resort, where Jane Carpenter has been introducing skiers and their dogs to skijoring for the last 15 years or so.
“I’m passionate about this sport,” Carpenter said. “It makes me so happy to get people involved in it and realize it’s just a great thing to do with your dog.”
The word skijoring is Norwegian in origin and translates to “ski driving.” It can be done behind a horse or a dog. Since I lack the former, I went with the latter.
You may have a vision of a husky or malamute or New Hampshire’s state dog, the chinook, pulling me along the trail. Nope; Maggie is a golden retriever. She loves snow, loves to run, and insists on being the lead dog, so she took to skijoring like, well, like a squirrel to a winter birdfeeder.
This was no surprise to Carpenter, who has enjoyed skijoring with both her 80-pound yellow lab and her much smaller Jack Russell terrier. A few days before I arrived at Gunstock, she’d given a lesson to a skier with a beagle mix.
“I haven’t yet met a dog who didn’t enjoy it once they get the hang of it,” she said. “A dog likes to have a job. This is working — it’s fun work, but it’s work.”
The basic equipment setup for skijoring is relatively simple—and Gunstock’s Outdoor Center rents everything a skier needs. Well, except for the dog. You have to provide your own canine for the adventure.
Carpenter took a look at Maggie and sized her into the perfect harness, similar to what sled dogs wear. I stepped into what looked like a simple climbing harness: a waist belt with leg straps and two loops to hook into the 20-foot bungee leash that would connect me to Maggie.
Carpenter also handed me a list of commands—including many often used by dog sled mushers—to introduce to Maggie on the trail: “gee” for right turns, “haw” for left, “on by” to ignore the other people and dogs on the trail and keep trotting along. Perhaps the most important, though, was “Leave it,” which translates roughly to, “Don’t chase the squirrel!”
Then we headed out to the beginner loops behind the Center to see what this skijoring thing was all about. After a startled look behind her to see what was brushing against her tail (the bungee leash connected to her harness), Maggie leaned into the harness and trotted off down the groomed trail, skiing alongside Jane, who provided a stream of positive verbal reinforcement and well-timed treat handouts.
I slid easily along behind, adding my skiing strides to Maggie’s steady saunter as we glided over shadows, geeing and hawing around corners, and moving “on by” the few other skiers sharing the trails.
It’s important to set a good pace, for both the dog and skier, Carpenter said, and to break both in slowly. While Maggie and I have certainly been on longer and more intense excursions, she was learning new commands and figuring out the physical aspect of wearing a harness and helping to propel me along the trail.
After a few easy laps, we called it a day. But I was already thinking about getting my own skijoring harness and lead and hitting the trails closer to home. I’m also thinking the “Leave it,” and “On by” commands are going to come in handy during other adventures with Maggie.
There are several cross-country centers around the state that allow leashed dogs on some or all of their trails. These include Bear Notch Ski Touring, Bretton Woods, Gunstock, Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring, and Ski Hearth Farm. Always check which trails are dog-friendly before you head out, and remember to pick up after your pup!
Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at email@example.com.