Snowboarder Phillip Driggars is towed by Janae Lukezech atop Hawk during Sandpoint's first annual skijoring event
Winter Carnival sport a
rousing marriage of skiing
and horseback riding
Story and photo by Matt Mills McKnight
Mix one part horseback riding with another part skiing or snowboarding, and people quickly learn the thrilling recipe for Sandpoint's newest winter sport, skijoring.
This exciting addition to Sandpoint Winter Carnival got its start during 2011 in the outdoor arena at the Bonner County Fairgrounds, but event organizer Matt Smart explains it is actually an age-old method of transportation turned sport.
"Skijoring originated in Scandinavia about 700 years ago, when it was a means of transport during the winter months," said Smart, who also owns and operates Mountain Horse Adventures. "It arrived in North America as a recreational pastime in the 1950s, and it's now a specialized competitive sport, practiced in at least five different states and several countries."
Today, the North American Ski Joring Association (NASJA) has set forth guidelines to help event organizers develop a challenging yet safe course for competitors. All jumps on the track must remain 150 feet apart and be twice as wide as they are tall.
"Our jumps at Sandpoint are 8 feet wide and 4 feet high," said Smart before the 2011 event. "The gates are 18 inches high, and skiers will have to manipulate or go around them while traveling the oval-shaped course. If they miss the gate they will be penalized a few seconds off their overall time."
A timed sport, skijoring poses a certain level of danger for both the rider and skier as they negotiate the course.
"It's a whole lot faster and more exciting than anyone gives it credit for," Smart said. "In some cases these skiers can be traveling up to 50 miles per hour while having to make jumps and gates – all at the same time."
Although Bonner County EMS waited just outside the course during the 2011 event, none of the competitors sustained any serious injuries.
"Things can happen during the event, but nobody hurt themselves this past year," said Smart. "Most of the skiers were quite competent to begin with; they already had experience with backcountry or terrain parks and how to fall correctly."
Cody Smith, from Spokane, Wash., has been skijoring competitively for 12 years and was the winning skier at both the event in Sandpoint and the World Skijoring Championships in Whitefish, Mont.
"Skijoring is a huge adrenaline rush. I've never done anything in my life like it," said Smith. "You're nervous at the start – lots of butterflies in your stomach – and then you're out the gate trying to go as fast as you can, but then, before you know it, it's all over."
For some participants, the 2011 event in Sandpoint was their first experience with competitive skijoring.
"I pulled into the fairgrounds on the first day of the event without a horse and rider to pull me," said Scott Barksdale of Sandpoint, who has been competitively skiing most of his life. "I looked for someone that resembled a cowboy and approached his trailer, once I saw it had Montana plates."
As luck would have it for Barksdale, his horse-and-rider team helped him win his first-ever skijoring heat.
"It was such a rush. I will definitely be back this year to compete again," Barksdale said. "I don't know if this is a rodeo event, but if it is, I want my buckle."
During its first year, Smart labored to get skijoring on the map in Sandpoint, but now community organizers are helping out.
"After last year we decided this had been a really great event, and we wanted to get more involved," said Kate McAlister, president and CEO of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. "We had people visit from Oregon, Washington and Montana to see the competition."
McAlister said attendance over two days was nearly 3,000 for Sandpoint's inaugural skijoring event.
"I didn't even know what skijoring was until I was sitting in the booth at Bonner County Fairgrounds," said McAlister. "I thought it was so fascinating. When the first horse and skier exited the gate I was yelling for all of them just like everyone else."
Because the event garnered visitors from other parts of the region and promoted tourism in Sandpoint, the chamber will now be able to use tourism grant money to fully sponsor it.
"We're going to team up with the event organizers and make sure we give the event that little extra oomph it needs this year," said McAlister. "This is a whole new way for everyone – in town and around the region – to enjoy winter and celebrate our winter carnival with us."
In years past Sandpoint Winter Carnival has occurred during January, but in 2012 it begins Feb. 17 during President's Day weekend and runs through Feb. 26, (see roster of events, page 49). Skijoring will be Feb. 18-19.
"Sandpoint gets better and more consistent winter-like conditions during February," said Smart. "It's great for the skijoring competitors as well, because now our event will be more aligned with the rest of the regular NASJA circuit."
Smart and friends were enthusiastic about the event but didn't know just how popular it would be.
"I knew it was going to be something big for our small town," said Smart. "We got a much bigger response than expected. I didn't know if it was going to grab Winter Carnival like it actually did."
From phone calls and e-mails he received since the initial event, he expects more competitors this year and will be making some new additions to the competition.
During 2011 the skijoring event hosted an open, sport and freestyle division in which men and women competed together. In 2012 there will be a bigger and better freestyle portion as well as a new division dedicated solely to female competitors.
"While participating in other skijoring events around the country, I noticed a general advantage that men automatically have with upper body strength," said Smart. "At the event in Sandpoint I am going to level the playing field so that female competitors can choose to compete against each other for similar prizes."
For those thinking of competing in the second annual event, though, don't be fooled about the course's difficulty. "Last year's course in Sandpoint was just an introductory version for the first year. Now that we are here to stay, we're going to bump up the course difficulty a bit," said Smart.
And there's mutual excitement from skijoring event organizers and the chamber.
"It's really become a partnership between Matt Smart and us," said McAlister. "Hopefully this will be a mainstay in the list of Winter Carnival events for many years to come."
Winter blues, begone
Winter Carnival livens up town Feb. 17-25
The 2012 Sandpoint Winter Carnival
Feb. 17-25 features a cornucopia of exciting events sure to draw locals and visitors to the streets of Sandpoint and the slopes of Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
Skijoring at the Bonner County Fairgrounds kicks off the week's events with a registration party Feb. 17 at Laughing Dog Brewing, followed by two days of horses pulling skiers and riders around a course at breakneck speeds Feb. 18-19 at the Bonner County Fairgrounds.
Rail Jam and Bonfire takes place downtown at the Jeff Jones Town Square Feb. 17. The event is a freestyle contest where skiers and snowboarders put up their best acrobatic moves while sliding on rails and other man-made features, all to the soundtrack of a live DJ. The fire-dance troupe Bio-Luminesce returns the same night with its hypnotic, pyrotechnic routine performed at Pend d'Oreille Winery.
Schweitzer plans day activities from Feb. 20-24 and also hosts its annual Outrageous Air Show Feb. 24-25, with a torchlight parade each evening.
The Taste of Sandpoint, Feb. 23, is always a big social event where local establishments serve up delicious samples.
Easily the most endearing Winter Carnival event is the K-9 Keg Pull, hosted by Eichardt's Pub & Coffee House Feb. 26. Dogs of all shapes and sizes barrel down a snow-packed course pulling appropriately sized kegs. Entry fee for all dogs is $5, and all proceeds are donated to Panhandle Animal Shelter.
And many of the restaurants and businesses in town will be taking part in Dine Around Sandpoint and Shop Around Sandpoint. This means bargains everywhere, all week long!
Call the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce at 263-2161 or the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association at 255-1876, or look up www.SandpointWinterCarnival.com to learn more.
– Matt Mills McKnight