The winter ya-yas: a cautionary tale (skijoring, take 1)

It’s cold here, to-the-bone cold, and I’m being reminded of how stir-crazy this weather can make a person.

Let me set the stage for you, and then I’ll share a tale of how not to shake off the winter ya-yas.

As I write, it’s 1 p.m. on Jan. 27, and we’ve reached 1 degree F, here on the northern plains. When I walked Leo this morning, the temperature was minus 8. This is a new low, but we’ve been mostly in the single digits for days.

When Leo and I go out, I cover up head to toe: fake-fur-lined hood, knit hat, mask pulled midway up my nose, eyes left to fend for themselves, eyelashes freezing together. My down-filled coat wraps me, chin to knees, wool army surplus pants cover my legs, and thirty-year-old Sorel Nanook boots—bulky leather monstrosities with wool liners and thick soles—protect my feet and shins.

Leo? On snowy days, he gets a smear of Musher’s Secret on his furry paws to prevent ice balls from forming between his paw pads, but he has yet to exhibit any noticeable reaction to the cold. His year-round fur coat appears to be effective.

Indoors, the furnace works hard, and I’ve designated a red wool sweater as my “sweatshirt”—the outer layer I wear most days inside. It’s well-worn, but I recently reinforced the cuffs and mended a rip in the back with stitches of soft blue yarn from the pile of wool my late Grandma left behind. It looks and feels hygge* now. (And a bit wabi-sabi.**) The sweater is a hand-me-over from a Portland friend, so it comes with some hug to it, which adds warmth (thanks, Sarah V!). On my bottom half, I wear yoga pants for morning yoga, and then add a layer of denim and wool socks. Layering is an art form here.

So about those ya-yas … Between the cold, the pandemic, Jon’s working remotely from home, and our son’s learning remotely from school, the three of us are in almost constant close quarters. Add to that my recent banishment of D’s school-issued chromebook (long story), and now, while Jon works, I’ve resumed my head teacher position … to a young man who is not keen to learn from his mom. Our quarters feel even closer. Like many these days, I’m an introvert who rarely finds time or space to recharge in solitude.

All this is why I found myself in a funk last Sunday. By mid-afternoon, Leo was standard-issue antsy, and I was climbing the walls (of my mind). The obvious answer was to take Leo for a walk, but I couldn’t seem to make myself go out in the deep freeze.

That’s when I recalled an old dream.

A snowy dream

Half my life ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, going through a divorce and struggling to make ends meet. I remember reading an announcement about a free opportunity to try skijoring on the St. Paul campus.

They had me at “free.” And again at “ski.”

Skijoring is a winter activity involving skis and generally a dog or a horse. This event was BYOS (Bring Your Own Skis), and I was all over it. A small group of us met up outside and heard a brief explanation of the history and how-tos of skijoring. Then, we clicked on our cross-country skis, and the organizers harnessed us to their dogs, which, on command, pulled us across the snow.

Joy! Imagine being towed like a waterskier — this is cross-country skiing with an extra engine. It was a short ride, but I loved every second of it.

And I’ve always wanted to try skijoring again. Only, until now I either had a dog in a place where snow was scarce, or I had snow but no dog … or neither snow nor dog.

When I recently mentioned my skijoring dream to my winter mentor and college adviser Gene Bakko, he recalled harnessing his dog to a sled to pull his kids when they were young. No special equipment—just an energetic dog, a leash and a sled.

Hah! I thought. I have a dog, I have skis, I have leashes and harnesses … and I have an unused alleyway, a straight, flat line of powder, right behind my house. What is stopping me? 

So on Sunday, I watched a few YouTube videos and—on the advice of absolutely nobody—lashed two of Leo’s leashes together for length. I bundled up and outfitted Leo in his car-riding harness. He was all-systems-go, and so was I. I grabbed my skis and poles, and we trundled out the door toward the alley. Leo was anticipation personified: What adventure were we em-bark-ing (haha) on??

I wrapped one end of the lashed leashes around my waist and clipped it to itself, and the other end I attached to Leo’s harness. I clipped on my skis while holding Leo’s leash tight (he was eyeballing a clueless cottontail) and shuffled with him into the center of the alley. The rabbit wisely disappeared.

I backed up a bit, so Leo was in front of me, and released the leash. “Let’s go!” I said, using my customary command for moving forward.

And go he did. Like a bunny. Zigging to the left side of the alley, zagging to the right, back and forth, sniffing and peeing, sniffing and peeing, as I lurched after him, angling back and forth.

I pulled him back into a modified heel position and tried again: “Let’s go!” After a few more fits and starts, he began to catch on. Finally, forward we went, I pushing off on my skis, Leo pulling forward. We were working as a team. It was almost like that very first skijoring outing, long ago in St. Paul!

“Yes!” I shouted in encouragement, forgetting that this was the word I had trained him to associate with receiving a treat. He slammed on the brakes, turned around and ran back to me for his reward as momentum pulled me almost on top of him.

We had more false starts and stops, but for a few glorious glides, we sailed down that alley, working out our ya-yas together, enjoying a sunny cold afternoon.

The cautionary tale

So where, you might wonder, is the promised cautionary tale?

Well, that came on Monday, the next day, when we tried our homespun skijoring system again.

I recalled Bakko saying that he had walked ahead of his dog encouraging it forward as it pulled his kids’ sled. So I recruited my son to lead our little parade, offering treats and helping me teach Leo to skijor in a straight line.

Problem was, we headed out the door around Leo’s dinner time, which meant Leo was extraordinarily excited about our mission but even more so about getting some treats in his mouth.

Let’s say the incentive was there, but any sense of restraint was not.

Again, we set up in the middle of the alley. I sent D up ahead a good twenty feet, and settled Leo just in front of me. I was on skis, roped to Leo. When everyone was in position, I let go of the leash and motioned to D to call Leo, which he did.

Imagine, if you will, a sports car parked in front of an RV … an RV that a prankster has hooked to the sports car with a tow rope.

Now, imagine the unwitting sports car driver revving his engine a few times and then putting his pedal to the metal.

That is what happened next. This is the cautionary tale.

In my memory, Leo revved, popped the clutch and took off, full throttle. Only then did I see what was coming and braced for the lurch of my life.

Leo quickly ran out of leash, and his momentum lifted him upward, soaring into the air.

Meanwhile, the other end of the leash cinched around my middle — GASP! — nearly pulling me off my axle.

Leo landed fine and, oh yes, he got his treats. I didn’t topple, but for the next hour or so I felt as if someone had rung my bell.

Needless to say, we’re taking a break from skijoring—at least until we can get some proper equipment!

What happened when we got our equipment? Skijoring, take 2: “When being right goes wrong.”

And then, a happy ending, which is really only the beginning! Skijoring, take 3: “Worth the quarter century wait.

What skijoring can look like

*hygge: According to Meik Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge, this Danish word “loosely translates as a sense of comfort, togetherness and well-being.”

**wabi-sabi: This Japanese term refers to the acceptance of the transience of life and the beauty found in imperfection. Imagine an old pottery tea cup that has soaked the color of tea into the cracks in its glaze.

4 thoughts on “The winter ya-yas: a cautionary tale (skijoring, take 1)

  1. Your ya ya story reminded me of all the times when I was a kid playing in the snow. I didn’t have a dog to pull me around but I had neighborhood kids to play with and we stayed out in the snow until we were so cold we could barely move. My grandmother, the same one who read tea leaves, made mittens and I wore two pairs at a time. The top pair was always wet with ice balls on them and I licked the ice balls until they melted so I could continue to “play” . All the kids did. The only thing that drove us indoors was the wet mittens and the red faces and runny noses. What a memory. and I love your dog. thanks for your inspiring stories. carolann

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