There is a swell of nervous energy in the air, the sort that threads the body and speeds the heart. Then there's the raucous din of 400 dogs: barks, yelps, pinched cries, beseeching whines, run-on yaps, an anxiety-soaked yowling unmuted by the snow lying across ice-capped Chena Lake. Haunches twitch. Steaming noses jerk about, picking at the sting of cold air under the wide, blue Alaska sky.
George Salmon nods. "The dogs know exactly what's going on," he says. "They're ready to fly."
Salmon plunges his head into the camper shell of his red Toyota pickup and rummages around. Meanwhile, in the vicinity of his knees, the other two members of Team Salmon work to remove the truck's bumper. When they first arrived at the Chena Lakes Recreation Area, 17 miles east of Fairbanks, Benny and Jets sat impassively at the ends of their chains, blinking slowly through eyes of blue stone. They are working dogs—Alaskan huskies, 55-plus pounds each—and so they possess the stoic reserve of animals attuned to receiving demands, not making them. But with several hundred dogs this close and the prospect of a breakaway flight looming, Benny and Jets have started padding back and forth, taking periodic pulls at the bumper.
Other dogs are pinwheeling toward berserk. Two trucks away from Benny and Jets, another husky abruptly turns kangaroo, leaping three times straight up in the air. Its disregard for gravity is impressive—but worrisome if you're going to put on skis and attach yourself to such a dog.
From the back of his truck Salmon pulls out skis and a long cord. "Skijoring," he says, grinning, "is a trip."
Skijoring is Norwegian for "ski driving," though driving implies more control than the skijorer often has. Done correctly, skijoring works like this: Dog (usually one or two; more than that and there's even less control) and trailing skier are connected by seven to 12 feet of cord running from the dog's harness to a hook on the skier's belt. Skier gives the command to go. Dog lunges forward, cord jerks taut. If the skijorer remains upright, off they go, the dog's body bunching and unbunching in fluid surges of power, the skier sliding behind.
Lacking a brake or any kind of steering device, skijorers rely on verbal commands, but dogs can be selective listeners. So comparing skijoring to waterskiing is a reasonable analogy, except that boats don't leap into embankments to roll in the snow, and boats don't stop abruptly to pee.
Skijoring's roots are in Scandinavia. There, mushing teams of up to four dogs pulling a small sled (called a pulk) with the skier trailing behind while holding a line have long been popular. But the pulk can be heavy and difficult to maneuver, so in skijoring one simply gets rid of it. Scandinavian immigrants introduced skijoring to the U.S. more than 100 years ago. But in that early version, hardy souls schussed along behind galloping horses.
Salmon, a 47-year-old Fairbanks physical therapist, is a boisterous fellow with a handlebar mustache. His is one of 17 skijoring teams competing on this March weekend in 1996 at the annual North Pole Winter Carnival Championship Sled Dog Race. (The 1997 race will be held on March 1-2.) The one-and two-dog skijoring races are more of a sideshow to the marquee six-and 10-dog sled races. Fairbanks bills itself as the mushing capital of the world, and sled-dog racing is taken with appropriate seriousness here. At the Winter Carnival the mushers are competing for $6,500 in prize money. The skijorers will race a 4.5-mile loop around pine-and-birch-fringed Chena Lake—once on Saturday, once on Sunday (fastest cumulative time wins)—for a $300 purse.
Seventeen might seem a paltry number of teams, but as Salmon points out, most skijorers don't race. "They don't like the pressure," he says. But nearly 200 skijorers belong to the Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association in Fairbanks—North America's first skijoring club, founded in 1987. Then there are the hundreds of other skijorers in and around Fairbanks who prefer to operate without a club banner. They skijor about town or into the backcountry. (A competent skier and dog can easily cover 30 miles in a day.) In Anchorage skijorers have their own hot line (907-349-WOOF), and there are still more skijorers scattered across the Lower 48.