A fresh snowfall. A good, stiff breeze. A full moon or cloudy skies that reflect Twin Cities lights.
That is a magical trio of conditions for Tighe Belden, who unfurls rope, straps on skis and lets the wind take hold of a kite that propels him across the wide expanse of Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) in Minneapolis or White Bear Lake — which he often has to himself as sunset disappears and gives way to deep, inky blues.
“Night rides are super special,” said Belden of Minneapolis, but he counts any chance for kiting as time well-spent. “There’s something about riding the wind. It’s finding harmony in something that’s alive. Some [kiters] like the jumps, spins and tricks. For me, it’s the dance with Mother Nature and that peaceful moment.”
Belden, 55, happily chased the wind as a devoted windsurfer for 25 years before getting hooked on snow-kiting and helping to orchestrate the Mille Lacs Kite Crossing, considered to be one of snow-kiting’s biggest events March 3, in Garrison. (Belden finished ninth last year among racers on skis.) This is the Crossing’s 14th year.
The sport, which draws from kitesurfing, evolved from the 1980s when a Hood River, Ore., surfer with a rigid kite met a surfer from France with a soft kite. They figured out better mechanics after a chance meeting in Hawaii, Belden said. Skiers, too, were experimenting and trying kites with handles to get more speed and bigger thrills.
Kitesurfing has evolved to become much easier. Kiters employ a harness and control their direction by how they lean. It doesn’t require the upper body strength of windsurfing, and allows people of all weights and body types to master the sport, Belden said. The sport also doesn’t require the heavy surfboards, one of the reasons kiting is overtaking windsurfing for thrills.
Jeremy Jones, 22, of Brainerd, grew up kiting. His family embraced it. He currently teaches kiteboarding in the summer along the Outer Banks of Hatteras, N.C. Absolute beginners can master the sport, he said, but it can help to already have skills such as assessing the wind from sail boating or windsurfing, or managing speed and balance from downhill or water skiing. Experience with snowboarding, skateboarding or wakeboarding helps with kiteboarding.
His advice? Invest in lessons. About three hours of instruction and practice can give a newcomer a good base of skills. Six hours can have a person ready to read the wind and kite. Those skills involve knowing which size kite to choose based on the strength of the wind and weight of the rider. Kites range from 3 meters to 19 meters. Twelve meters is a good midrange size for starters, Jones said. In general, smaller kites are best in higher wind speeds.
“Gear choice for the day is very important,” said Belden, who estimates that most kiters have two to four kites in their “quiver.”
Some have even invested in high-aspect performance kites that are so fast and precise, they’re like Indy race cars compared to a regular vehicle and required a new race category.
“They are wings more than a kite,” he said.
Learn at events
Longtime kiter Michael Fox of Excelsior suggests that anyone interested in snow-kiting should bundle up and catch a race such as the crossing of Mille Lacs. There are demonstrations from instructors such as Dynamik Kiteboarding, and opportunities to try the sport and talk to experts before buying gear.
“It’s a big investment at the beginning,” Jones said. “That’s mainly what keeps people away — especially younger people.”
Jones estimated it costs about $1,500 to $2,000 to get set up for snow-kiting. He likes that it’s then paid for, and no lift tickets or drives to ski resorts are required. He relies on wind power rather than an incline to provide the speed and momentum for big jumps and tricks.
“I really think the winter is the best time to get into kiting,” Fox said. “It’s like snow skiing. It’s generally easier than water skiing.” Starting on snow lets you stand upright and requires less space to gain speed.
Summer kiting can require a wide beach for about 70 feet of ropes, and if they’re busy with sandbox builders, sun bathers and swimmers, that’s a hazard. Bde Maka Ska attracts winter kiters. It’s an unwritten code of conduct to not kite there in the summer.
White Bear Lake and Lake Minnetonka, both of which buzz with boaters spring through fall, are much quieter in the winter. A Lake Minnetonka spot about 1.3 miles out on the winter road access near Wayzata has been named Kite Island and offered a snow-kiting hub for years. As a general rule, the bigger the lake, the stronger the wind. Most kiters also want at least a two-mile distance to cover. Jones also likes North Long Lake in the Brainerd area.
Belden said there are 500 to 600 snow-kiters vs. 300 kitesurfers in Minnesota. Many are eager for the ice-fishing houses to come off Lake Mille Lacs, leaving it open for the spectacle of the kite crossing and the chance to gather with others who love the wind.
“Every ride is always different, and you’re always learning.” Belden said of kiting and its ongoing allure. “It’s a therapy. You lose yourself in that moment.”
St. Cloud-based freelance writer Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”