If skijoring has an epicenter, it might be the Salcha, Alaska, home of Mari Høe-Raitto. Soft-spoken and direct, the 37-year-old Høe-Raitto possesses the quiet competence necessary to manage her own sled-dog kennel and the firmness of character required to have once run off an angry moose that dashed into the midst of a mushing team. Growing up in the tiny town of Fagernes, Norway, Høe-Raitto was steeped in the Nordic passions of dogs and skiing.
She came to Alaska in 1980 to race dogs and later earned a B.A. in phys ed at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. It wasn't long before she inadvertently introduced skijoring to her Salcha neighbors. One day Høe-Raitto, a certified Nordic ski instructor, was out skijoring with two dogs when she decided to tail a surprised musher and his 20-dog team for five miles. "He kept looking back, expecting me to be gone," she says.
Since then she has organized skijor exhibitions, conducted clinics and, along with friend and fellow skijorer Carol Kaynor, written Skijor with Your Dog, a thorough book filled with sound advice such as, "Take the line off your belt and hold it in your hands when going down steep hills."
According to Høe-Raitto and Kaynor, skijoring is growing for simple reasons. It's fun, easy, fairly safe ("Only slightly more dangerous than cross-country skiing," says Kaynor) and cheap. A skijoring belt, line and dog harness cost less than $70.
Finding a skijor dog isn't hard, either. Høe-Raitto rattles off the possibilities: "Golden retrievers. Border collies. There's lots of Australian shepherds. Labs, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Great Danes, beagles. Giant schnauzers! Poodles. They can pull really well."
Competing in his first skijor race, Ken Zaklukiewicz, a fit-looking fellow who has shown up at Chena Lake wearing glasses with Day-Glo yellow frames, finds himself skiing for his life. The skijorers have drawn lots and then launched themselves in order, at two-minute intervals, from atop a small hill at the edge of the lake. Zaklukiewicz had gone off just before Salmon, but with 200 yards to the finish Salmon has gobbled up all but 20 yards of the gap. Tossing frantic looks over his shoulder, Zaklukiewicz can see the fast-closing, furiously skating, ski-pole-stabbing Salmon, bent low and exhorting Benny and Jets, whose steaming pink tongues are swinging in sync. Salmon exhibits not only impressive lungs but also confidence in his dogs. (Some dogs, upon passing, have been known to stop, sniff each other and sometimes fight.)
Zak holds on. "Jeez," he says later, wheezing. "These guys can really ski."
"Most people think if you skijor, you're just sitting back there," Salmon says from behind his spittle-spattered mustache. "But we race hard."
They go fast, too. A skijor team on the fly can reach 22 miles an hour. That kind of speed gives the skijorer little time to adjust to canine idiosyncrasy. During Saturday's heats Bill Saari had executed a textbook somersault when his two dogs dived into a snowbank to cool off.
Salmon heads off what potential problems he can. Before his heat on Sunday he trotted Benny and Jets through what appeared to be their warmup paces, but was really an attempt to have them do what dogs gotta do. Benny and Jets can perform on the fly, but Salmon would prefer they didn't. "They slow down, and that can really add to your time," he says.