When the flakes started falling earlier this season, I hauled out my skis in prep for a classic Minnesota ski season. These were the conditions I remembered from my youth, more than two decades ago, when I first learned to cross-country ski. Despite lackluster snowfalls these past few winters, my fiancé, Jason, and I managed to bond over our shared interest in the sport.
Having adopted a Vizsla puppy named Welly in the summer of 2012, we were eager for her to join us on the trails. Now full-grown and full of energy, Welly was finally ready for her debut.
So Jason and I loaded up Welly and drove to Theodore Wirth Park on Christmas morning. As we pulled up to the park’s 1920s Swiss-style chalet, with its imposing stone terrace, temperatures hung around 25 degrees and a fresh blanket of snow covered the park’s grounds. We figured this would be the perfect time and place to try skijoring for the first time.
Some false starts
With skijoring, the skier generally skate-skis with one to three dogs pulling out front, usually attached by 10-foot bungee towlines. At Wirth Park, skijoring is allowed on the Front-9 and J.D. Rivers/Wirth Lake trails.
In preparation, Jason slipped a special nylon yoke over Welly’s head and under her legs. Meanwhile, I stepped into my own waist harness before clipping into my skis.
In the beginning, Welly darted back and forth, haplessly running off the freshly groomed trail into body-deep snow and thick brush. That’s where the scents are. I imagined a deer spying us from the woods nearby. While we were trail running this fall, a couple impressive whitetails dashed across the path in front of us, emitting a musky scent and sending Welly into a frenzy. She surely hoped for a repeat performance.
With tail curved upward and back ramrod straight, Welly and her snout moved with alert and purposeful rhythm. She stopped abruptly a couple feet off the trail as I snowplowed my skis in an inverted-V.
“Let’s go, girl,” called Jason, motioning her to follow. I gave the bungee a slight tug, and Welly reluctantly returned to the trail. I started skating toward her, shouting encouragement, as she began a canter onward.
She kept glancing back at me, her intense, amber eyes catching the sunlight, as if trying to decipher whether she had it right. After a few minutes, she turned forward and broke into a gallop. I skated harder behind her. Knowing I had little control over our speed, Jason stepped aside, allowing us to pass.
The first ski outing of the season is always a shock to the system. Your heart bumps hard, pounding in your ears. Your lungs wheeze trying to process the frigid air. Your nostril hair freezes. Your quads scream. You wonder why you’re out there in the first place. Then something remarkable happens, even when you have a boisterous hound attached to you: rhythm.
I looked down at my skis and watched as muscle memory took over. It wasn’t effortless, but the momentum born out of repetitive movement carried me forward. The soft tug of the bungee reminded me of our canine’s growing confidence with the task at hand. Meanwhile, my diagonal skate tracks marred her faint paw prints.
Setting the pace
As we made our way under Hwy. 55, we encountered several other skiers. Each nodded, more to Welly than to Jason and me. The three of us scooted around a sharp right turn, which soon led us across a tiny footbridge, bifurcating the trail toward Wirth Lake.
Just across Glenwood Avenue is the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and the 5-acre Quaking Bog. In the summer, this land is filled with dragonflies, songbirds, frogs and turtles. On this winter day, the coniferous forest stood silently above the thick snow.
I was struck by the snow’s silencing effect on this urban forest, in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and listen for sounds. There was nothing but for the occasional passing car in the distance and Welly’s insistent stamping in the snow — as if to ask, in protest, why we had stopped?
As we glided across Wirth Lake, the sun sliced through broken clouds, and somewhere high above water vapor began to freeze. When the fresh flakes started to fall, Welly lunged right and then left, attempting to catch a few in her mouth. This broke our tempo, but her earnest pursuit was too joyous to interrupt. The wind picked up, gusting the white stuff across the trail, sending Welly skidding sideways as she continued her hunt.
The featherlight powder made the park even more beautiful, covering old, dirty snow and adding a fresh layer on the trails for the grooming machine to handle. While this day was marked by stillness and the snowy absorption of sound, I knew deer, fox and squirrels roamed these woods all year round. Just below us, bluegills, largemouth bass and northern pike were swimming at depths of up to 25 feet.
Shifting into another gear
On our way back to the chalet, we came upon a gentle downslope that brought us back under the highway. Welly took up the slack in the line and surged.
I aimed my skis forward, bent my knees and stuck my poles under my arms in the tuck position. She shifted into another gear, momentum carrying us both. With unbridled joy, her ears flopped up and down playfully as she broke into an all-out sprint.
When we came to a stop at the end of the loop, I thought to myself: We should do this again next Christmas. Breathing hard, puffing out visible air, I watched as Jason assisted Welly out of her harness, patting her on the head. And this, it occurred to me, is how traditions are born.
Mackenzie Lobby is a local freelance writer and photographer with a master’s in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. Check out her website at mackenzielobby.com.