Twenty-five-year-old Elsa Gaule, led by her dog Ziggy, slid through Hope Valley on sunny Wednesday morning. Ziggy, harnessed by a 6-foot cord to Gaule's waist, pulled just hard enough to make her cross-country skis slide easily along the packed snow.
The dog-driven sport, known as skijoring, has taken a hold in the area.
"It's amazing to go out when it's 40 degrees and sunny out," Gaule said. "The snow is pretty nice today."
Gaule, who moved to South Lake Tahoe from Moose Pass, Alaska, six years ago, tries to skijor at least three times a week. She started at 10 years old, and has since introduced several friends to the sport.
"When I was a kid, we were big on cross country skiing and everyone had dogs," Gaule said. "They just put a rope on me and I loved it."
Four main pieces of equipment are needed for skijoring: a dog harness built for pulling, a waist belt, a cord to attach the two, and cross country skis or splitboard. A bungee is sometimes linked between the cord and the waist belt to minimize sudden jolts.
"Ziggy is always funny with his harness," said Gaule. "Putting it on he acts like a little kid in too small a jacket. But once he gets it on, he's always ready to go."
The sport taps into two canine instincts: trail running and running in a pack, said John Thompson, owner and operator of Skijornow.com. And the dogs love it, he said. Some breeds will perform better than others and skijor dogs should be over 25 pounds, fit, not too old, and not too young, advised Dawn Armstrong, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society.
"There are breeds that love to pull," Armstrong said. "Obviously, you're not going to do this with a Chihuahua."
The best way to find out if a dog is healthy enough for skijoring is to check with a veterinarian, Armstrong said. Dogs do not need any special training to skijor, Thompson said.
Gaule and Ziggy paused in the meadow. Ziggy rolled in the snow. Gaule checked the dog's feet for snowballs that collect between the toes. Ziggy howled at the dog-person pairs coming down the trail towards them.
"In the beginning they're amped to run fast," Gaule said. "But once you've gone some distance, the human should work just as much as the dog."
What sets skijoring apart from other sports is the balance between the skier and the dog, Thompson said.
"There are many other sports with animals and humans that require direction, effort and care, but skijoring is the only one where both are equal partners," he said.
Skijor originated in Norway after Scandinavian miners brought dogs back from Alaska more than 110 years ago, said Thompson. The sport became popular in the lower 48 states during the late 1980s and early 1990s and has significantly increased in participants in the last two years, he said.
"This year we could barely keep up with demand," Thompson said. "It is growing by leaps and bounds."
Skijoring competitions are held in several countries. Races are broken into two types: sprint racing and distance racing. The first U.S. national skijoring championship were Feb. 5-6 in Minneapolis.
In the Tahoe Basin, there are many locations for skijorers. Gaule said Hope Valley, Fallen Leaf Lake, Kiva Beach and the Airport Meadow are a few of her favorite spots. Kirkwood Cross Country welcomes skijorers.
Gaule and Ziggy wound their way back to the car. Gaule unhooked the harness and the Australian shepherd and German short-haired pointer cross plopped down in the snow with her tongue hanging out.
"It's a good way to get outside to exercise yourself and your dog," Gaule said.