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The growth of a winter wind rider and some common myths dispelled

 article about kite skiing
Growing up in Ontario and attending high school, once or twice a
year we got to go skiing. It was never quite enough to really get the
skill down. It always felt year after year as though you were starting
over again. But what excitement it was. As a child, skiing down those
Ontario hills, they seemed so big. I think it just wet my appetite for
more.


This talks about
Growing up in Ontario
Adventure experiences right at your doorstep
Kiting and riding styles
Ice safety & cold weather
Starting out with equipment & costs


During University I never had much time to go skiing; only when a
friend managed to get me out. I remember always having so much fun
wizzing down those hills. I knew I would return as I really found an
outdoor physical activity to enjoy in the winter. After I graduated, I
started going more regularly; first with some friends then eventually
made my way to western Canada; a taste of real terrain. I remember some
of my ski buddies telling me that the Ontario hills were no longer
exciting. I really didn't understand what they meant at the time. I
thought to myself, I'll probably never get tired of skiing here. Years
later and a few thousand dollars in lessons with a few trips to
Whistler, Banff, Lake Louise, Mt Tremblant, Panorama, Kicking Horse and
my favourite Taos in New Mexico, I understood what my friends meant
about the terrain. They were talking about interesting and challenging
terrain that forces your skiing ability to grow.

In the mid
nineties when I was out west kite skiing, I took some time off and
bought a kite. Little did I know how it would change my life. I flew
that kite for hours at a time, even at night. I don't really know what
happened, other than it just felt really good controlling that piece of
nylon in the sky. I think it's about the oneness that you feel with the
winds of Mother Nature. The following winter I found out that I could
use the kite to pull myself on skis across the snow and ice on frozen
lakes.

Although the sport has been around since the early
1980s, since 1994 I've enjoyed what some call kite skiing, snow kiting,
or with a snowboard, kite snowboarding. Regardless of the type of kite
and what you're attached to on the surface, what the sport has to offer
is truly magical.

For years I used to attend some of those
Canadian outdoor adventure film festivals (Banff and Warren Miller).
They transported you to special places. Yet it always left me with a
feeling that I'd have to be some kind of extreme outdoor individual if
I wanted a similar experience. What I discovered through winter kiting
has materialized those dreams and all too close to home.

During
the winter when the lakes freeze in Canada, many people hibernate and
tend to stay closer to home. They don't realize the opportunity that
opens up when the ice forms. I think the lakes might be busier in the
winter than they are in the summer. You don't need a boat to go fishing
as you can walk out to your local fishing spot. All of a sudden what
seemed to be only accessible by those with some type of water craft is
ready and waiting. Most of all, the access to these large expanses
across the country is entirely free, and void of line-ups. We actually
have so much winter wind riding terrain in Canada, that most riders
probably only ride in a tiny zone within a kilometre or so from shore.
Yet ideas of back country adventures, first powder tracks, and runs
longer that you have the strength to ride await the kiter every day.
Winter winds are more consistent than our summer ones and the cold
dense air means you need less of it to sail. You really have the
capacity to sail pretty much every day in the winter compared to the
summer.

Another facet about the frozen lakes is that they are
naturally shaped and groomed by Mother Nature. Because of the changing
temperatures and wind direction through out the season, every day
brings new challenges. From black ice at the beginning of the season to
powder snow, snow packed, spring corn, smooth, uneven, wet, dry; you
never know what you're going to get from day to day. To add to those
changes, the rider has so much opportunity for riding style; jumping,
tricks, speed, carving, and distance. For those that simply want a nice
day of big blue or green downhill carving, traction kiting in its
simplest form offers that too. Believe it or not, many of these rider
styles can be achieved at the same time in the same conditions. This is
all achieved by technique and type of kite. It could be as simple as
changing the size of your kite. This means you don't usually need kites
of the same size for different members of your family. More experienced
riders tend to use larger kites, while new and/or light weight riders
us smaller ones. Some kites are so compact; riders can carry extra ones
while riding. The kiter can change kites as needed safely and
independently while out on the terrain too for varying wind conditions.


If you're not already into outdoor winter sports, then you're probably
wondering about the cold. For most riders compared to downhill skiing
where you have to stand in line and wait on the lift, you'll burn up
more calories sailing a kite in a shorter period of time. As for the
temperature, sure if it is below -15 or -20 Celsius, you may want to
dress with an additional layer, but most new riders tend to over dress
as they don't realize how much energy they're burning up. The activity
level in winter kiting is almost like a long distance runner. Think
about what they wear when they run in the winter. This is a learning
experience for all new riders as they find the balance of their own
metabolism and today's available high tech fabrics and clothing. For
the most part, the only thing that tends to get cold is the toes and
fingers and this is really only on very cold days.

The duration
of your day can very depending on your ability and passion. Taking a
break from riding is usually a social interaction, a chance to tune or
change your equipment, or a quick snack. Many riders just want to keep
riding as they're just having so much fun. Your day typically starts
later and ends earlier leaving more time for other activities. Believe
it or not, we just don't have the energy to kite ski continuously from
9am until 4:30pm. Think about it. Imagine a ski run that lasts 7.5
hours. The only thing preventing you from having fun is the wind.
Because of the physical commitment, most riders sail between 11:30am
and 3:00pm when the sun is the warmest and the winds are strongest and
that is pretty much a full day.

What about the safety of the
ice? For the most part it really depends on your environment. Local Ice
fishermen are great sources of information about the conditions when
you're at the lake. In Ontario and Quebec, we generally have a 3-4
month season that starts in mid to late December. The safety of the ice
is questionable at the beginning when the ice first freezes, at the end
before the melt, and any kind of shifting, or underground springs that
cause pressure cracks or openings. After a few seasons of experience
and talking to other riders, you judgement will be much better. If
you're not sure, don't go out. It's that simple. Four inches of solid
ice is all you need to start the season. Sailing with a personal
floatation device and some ice picks is always a great precautionary
measure.

Now you say you don't have time to learn a new sport
or spend money on another one. You will have to buy some kites for
different winds, but their maintenance is fairly simple and they last
quite a few years depending on use and abuse. As for the learning
curve, compared to downhill skiing which can be years before you're
feeling competent, learning to kite ski has a short learning curve
especially if you have a good instructor. Within your first few days,
you'll be soloing on your own and the only struggle will be staying
upwind. That skill is quickly learned as you understand more about the
wind and kite orientation. You need to be a great kite flyer which you
can practice anywhere and anytime of the year. You don't need to be a
great skier or snowboarder. That only adds to the enjoyment.


There are predominately two types of kite styles used in winter riding;
ram air foils and inflatables. Ram air foils have been around for since
the early 1980s. The kites are great at pulling and lifting the rider.
They are controlled using four lines with either two handles or a
single bar. They are usually used for buggying, mountain boarding and
winter sailing; where flotation is not required. Inflatables only been
around since the late 1990s. They were specifically designed for water
use. The rider has to pump up the either manually using a hand pump or
some new designs allow the kite to be inflated naturally by opening up
inflation flaps. This is where the kite gets its buoyancy. Inflatables
can also be used in the winter.

Ram Air Foils in the 3-5 square
meter size run about CAD$300-$600 per kite. Beginners usually start
with a 3.5 square meter foil, as it great to fly all year and have a
good wind range for the Ontario and Quebec winters. The equivalent size
in an inflatable would be about 13 square meters.

As the sport
develops, we see more equipment made specifically for winter and summer
traction kiting. In winter, you need some type of traction kite, a
harness (kite, kitesurf, windsurf, or trapeze), some pads (roller blade
knee and elbow or hockey), a helmet (ski, bike, or kayak), and skis or
a snowboard. Because you're usually riding in a straight line
perpendicular to the wind, you don't need a new pair of parabolic skis.
Those old straight ones sitting in your garage are all you need. In
fact, the longer they are the faster you'll be able to go. If you have
a pair of parabolic skis they work too but on black ice you may find
they have a bit of chatter as they were design to turn under pressure.
As far as the edges, keep them sharpened from tip to tail especially if
you're riding on the ice and don't detune them as you would normally
for downhill use. Cross-country skis don't have the support that a full
fit boot gives. Snow blades work but the shorter length and lack of a
long edge makes them less stable than regular skis.

As far as
equipment, you'll have to get in touch with a kite retailer in your
area. If you can't find one you can always check on-line (search for:
kite skiing, traction kites, kite sailing, snow kiting) or some of the
on-line groups:

http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/kiteskiing


If you can, please get some lessons from an experienced instructor.
This sport has been around long enough that you don't need to learn
from scratch. It will take longer and you'll just end up being
frustrated. As simple as it may seem winding and unwinding your lines
with the right technique can make all the difference between "I'm
having a great day" to "I want to rip this thing to pieces".

Some of the basic things to remember and this should by no means replace your instruction:

Don't set up your kite too close to downwind objects

Don't leave your kite unattended (snowmobiles may not see your lines)

Always use an anchor (a short ice climbing screw works well)

Don't be afraid to ask another rider for assistance

If you're not sure of the ice safety don't go out

Ice fishermen are great knowledge bodies as far as how thick the ice is

If things get really out of control, safely let go and retrieve your kite after you recover


Don't get me wrong, I still love to downhill ski but winter kiting is
growing every year. If the terrain is right in your area, it might be
time to check out the winter kiting scene. Next time you are at the top
of a lift on a cold windy day, take a look in the valley as you might
see some riders ripping up the terrain looking up at you. As Warren
Miller always says "every day you'll be another day older and wish you
had".



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