Skijoring Bethel, Maine
Sunday, January 28, 2001
"Whoa" is a crucial word. You can't whisper it or chortle it. You must say it with conviction -- Whoa! -- like you mean it -- Whoa! Otherwise your skiing partners, two Siberian huskies, will pull you all the way to the Yukon. And that is a long way away from Bethel, Maine, the Northeast hub of skijoring and my temporary home base.
The second important lesson I learned after "whoa" was to always listen to Steve Crone, my weekend host, skijoring instructor and voice by proxy, who, in one utterance, could stop huskies Tamika and Kenai in their tracks. Sure, the dogs were pulling me, and, yes, I was essentially their "driver," but when faced with running free in the wild or paying mind to the sissy on skis tethered to them, they chose the former. Thank goodness for Steve.
On paper, skijoring may seem like an insane sport -- something the X-Games should add to its roster of winter races. In fact, most winter activities seem to shrink before this sport, in which a cross-country skier is strapped to a pack of raring-to-go dogs. But in practice, skijoring is loads of fun, like nothing I have ever experienced before on dry or wet land, in cold or warm weather.
The Scandinavian sport is a hybrid of cross-country skiing and sled-dog racing, with a human on ruler-width skis standing in for the sled. The equipment is pretty basic: a pair of cross-country skis, boots and poles; a harness for you and the dog(s); a six- to 12-foot rope; and dog(s), of varying breed, age and size. The set-up is equally simple: Attach the harnesses to all parties, four- and two-legged; put your skis together, pointed slightly uphill and facing the canines; add tension to the rope that connects you to the dogs; shout "Hike" and release the rope (not necessarily in that order); and watch the furry legs run, run, run up and down the slopes, with you trailing behind, hopefully on your feet but possibly on your behind.
Steve, the hyperkinetic owner of the Telemark Inn, whose blue eyes bulge in delight whenever you mention dogs and skis in the same breath, has been skijoring since the early 1990s. A couple of years back, he decided to add the sport to his 30-acre ski touring center, which loops around the Adirondack-style lodge just outside Bethel, about 70 miles northwest of Portland. (He also offers llama treks, snowshoeing and hiking, and with his girlfriend, horseback riding and sleigh rides pulled by horses or her pet cow, Nandi.) The inveterate outdoorsman, who mushes 300 miles at a time and is training for the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dog-sledding race, first skijored with his black lab, Lakota. He has since added more than 50 dogs to his team, trying out different breeds for different speeds.
I, fortunately, was hooked up to the most sluggish dogs in the sport, Siberian huskies. Tamika and Kenai were overweight and underexercised -- just my speed. More advanced skijorers run with Alaskan huskies or German shorthairs, the thoroughbreds of the skijoring world. And for real dispatch, try seven dogs to one person.
Two pups were powerful enough for me, and in the beginning, even too strong. The first yank felt like I was being tugged by a small tank. The shock tipped me over as if I were made of cardboard. But per Steve's instructions to keep my skis together, glide along and pole occasionally, I stayed upright for at least a half-mile. And once I was syncopated with the dogs, understanding their pace, their rhythm, the twitching of their noses (smelling other animal scents), I was flying along with ease. Until I had to stop.
I shouted whoa in a range of voices. In a deep, assertive tenor. In a schoolteacher scolding tone. In a save-me, damsel-in-distress pitch. Then to my right, a calm yet forceful whoa shot forth, and the huskies stopped and looked lovingly at their master (not me, Steve).
Taking advantage of this opportune (non-mobile) moment, I spun around to view my winter-wonderland surroundings. The mountains of Grafton Notch State Park crept up behind me, the icy peaks biting into the sparkling azure sky. Ahead of me lay ribbons of trails that cut a white swath through the evergreens and red berry bushes. And at my feet stood two beautiful huskies who were barely breathless after hauling me up and down hills and across packed-snow flats. The dogs were content to be out in the wild, doing what came naturally to them. But they were also looking forward to the ride back to the Telemark Inn, where they would be rewarded with a slab of raw meat.
I would get my rewards as well, in the form of a glass of red wine, a plate of salmon and a dog napping at my feet beside the hearth.
Details: Skijoring in MaineDO THIS IF . . . You are a dog lover and can stay balanced on skis while being pulled by what amounts to a small army of fur.
DON'T TRY THIS IF . . . You have a delicate derriere and are tone deaf to the call of the wild.
COST: Skijoring lessons at the Telemark Inn (see below) cost $25 per hour; use your own skis or rent in town. You may also bring your own pooch (and keep him at the kennel down the road) or borrow one of innkeeper/instructor Steve Crone's.
GETTING THERE: To reach Bethel, fly to Portland, Maine (United, US Airways and other major carriers fly from Washington for about $250 round trip) and drive about 70 miles northwest on I-495 north to Exit 11. Pick up Route 202 to 26, then turn onto Route 5, which leads into town.
WHERE TO STAY: To live, breathe and sleep skijoring, stay at the five-bedroom Telemark Inn (10 rugged miles from Bethel, call for directions; 207-836-2703, www.telemarkinn.com), where Steve offers lessons that go beyond snowplowing and learning to say "Whoa." He will also introduce you to his family of dogs; take you for a moonlit ride on his dog-pulled all-terrain vehicle; regale you with kooky tales over dinner; and stoke up the wood-burning sauna for a late-night steam. Rates run $95 per night, or $120 all-inclusive (two-night minimum), which includes five meals, hors d'oeuvres, use of ski touring center, snowshoeing and other winter activities.
Closer to civilization, you can stay at any number of accommodations ringing Sunday River ski mountain. Info: 207-824-3000, www.sundayriver.com. For B&Bs in town, contact the Bethel Chamber of Commerce (800-442-5826, www.bethelmaine.com).
WHERE TO EAT: The Telemark Inn's winter weekend packages include meals, and despite the lodge's rustic air the food falls on the side of big-city chic (i.e. sushi roll appetizers, salmon steak with vanilla-tinged mashed potatoes). You also can find hearty apres-ski food and ales around Bethel and (atop) Sunday River, including Sunday River Brewing Company (Junction 2 and Sunday River Road) and the Sudbury Inn (151 Main St.), a local hangout with entertainment and pub food downstairs and finer fireside dining upstairs.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: The Telemark Inn offers a slew of cold-weather activities, including snowshoeing, winter treks around its 30 acres of trails, horse- (or cow-) drawn sleigh rides, horseback riding and playing with Steve's affectionate dogs.
At Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (Route 16, Pinkham Notch, Gorham, N.H.; 603-466-2333, www.mt-washington.com), scale blustery Mount Washington in a winter SnowCoach or don cold-weather accouterments and explore acres of wintry trails. There is also snow tubing, snowmobiling and ice skating; contact the chamber of commerce for details.