Hundreds of people are expected to trek to Lake Mille Lacs the upcoming weekend, drawn not to what's below the frozen surface but what's above it.
One of Minnesota's largest bodies of water may be best known for its fishing, but snowkiting will take center stage in the annual Mille Lacs Kite Crossing. Colorful kites will fill the lake surface as racers speed by on snowboards or alpine skis, riding the wind across the lake while harnessed to a large kite that acts like a sail.
Now in its 14th year, the event in Garrison, about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, claims to be the longest-running snowkite event in the U.S. It includes a 28-mile race that traditionally draws spectators and 100 athletes from 14 states and Canada.
"It's the Super Bowl [of snowkiting] of the year in the Midwest," said Rob Evans of Excelsior, who has won the race and competes yearly.
While still considered a niche sport, snowkiting — the winter counterpart of kitesurfing on open water — has become increasingly popular in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It's similar to windsurfing, which can also be done on snow and ice.
While there are snowkiting races in the metro area, Evans said the Mille Lacs event is the state's main snowkiting gathering. And while no one tracks how many snowkiters there are in Minnesota (one estimate is 600), Evans said he sees more people participating now than when he started two decades ago.
"It's a rapidly growing sport. Minnesota has hardy people who like the outdoors," said Evans, who first saw people snowkiting on Lake Minnetonka and was drawn to the sport by the full-body workout and challenge of flying across the ice.
"It combines skiing ... but with the whole new element of using wind power to propel you. It's a real spectacle."
Over the years, Kite Crossing competitors have endured conditions from subzero cold to unseasonably warm weather. Despite sometimes less-than-ideal conditions, the event has grown from 30 competitors to more than 100, attracting several hundred spectators each year — a boost to the town of Garrison (population 200), said Michael Fox of Excelsior, one of the organizers and president of Fleet 8, a windsurfing and kiting organization.
Spectators can watch the races free of charge from the shoreline or by driving out on the frozen surface of the 132,500-acre lake.
"It's like a city on the ice," Evans said.
While the weekend's highlight is Saturday's 28-mile race, dubbed the longest-distance snowkite endurance race in the U.S., the event also includes shorter races, an ice bar, a bonfire, snowkite lessons, kickball games, hammerschlagen and freestyle events with competitors jumping 10 to 20 feet in the air.
That's a draw for spectators "if you like the Olympics or watching extreme sports," said Chrissy Zobitz of Duluth, who won the women's ski division last year and will compete again this year. "It's like watching hot air balloons or sailboat races."
Zobitz, who uses the sport to stay fit in the winter, said that anyone who can downhill ski, snowboard or wakeboard can kite. But with more men participating than women, she doesn't have much competition.
Mike Kratochwill, who has won the men's ski division the past three years and owns Lakawa Kiteboarding in White Bear Lake, said he hopes the annual event not only draws more competitors to Mille Lacs but more people to the activity — especially women and girls.
"We're really fortunate in Minnesota to have snowkiting and kitesurfing all in our own backyard," Kratochwill said. "I think it's going to continue to evolve and grow."