Edmonton

A dogged pursuit: Alberta's skijorer to race in world championships

Kat Spencer snaps on her skis and straps her team of yelping dogs into a harness before letting them drag her expertly down the winding trail.

Kat Spencer of Smoky Lake will represent Canada in the World Championship races this winter

Kat Spencer will represent Canada at the World Skijoring Championship this winter. (MF Photography)

Kat Spencer snaps on her skis and straps her team of yelping dogs into a harness before letting them drag her expertly down the winding trail.

Spencer and her team of three rescue dogs can reach speeds up to 40 kilometres per hour, and she seamlessly navigates icy turns, all without the benefit of reins.

The Team Canada skijoring competitor wasn't always so adept in controlling her canines.

Spencer, 32, was initially no match for her first rescue dog.

Her German shorthaired pointer's frenetic energy and insatiable prey drive was proving too much for Spencer, even though she had built plenty of strength by throwing axes and chopping wood. Professional lumberjack competitions were Spencer's first athletic passion.

"When I rescued her, she didn't have a lot meat on her bones and not a lot of energy. But when I got her into a healthy condition, I realized this breed has so much energy that I didn't know what to do with her," she said.

"One winter day I was walking her and she pulled me right over and I got a concussion on the curb."

Harnessing natural talent 

That's when the Smoky Lake woman, who takes part in professional lumberjack competitions across the west, enlisted her pup Scotia as her athletic partner in a new sport.

After a pot of coffee, her head still throbbing after smacking it on the curb, Spencer sat down at her computer and discovered skijoring.

Spencer found herself forgoing some of the axe-throwing in favour of training her team of three rescue dogs.

"I thought, 'If this dog wanted to pull and I was having so much trouble, how can I have an outlet? What's a natural way to harness that talent?' And with a little bit of Googling, I found skijoring," Spencer said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I ended up falling in love with the sport so much and I realized that I needed at least two dogs to have a good team."

'You and your dog need to be connected'

The traditional winter sport entails cross-country skiing with the assistance of one or two dogs pulling across the snow. 

In skijoring, both the skier and the dog wear a harness, and the two are connected by tug line.

There are no reins to control the dog. Instead, the dog must be well-trained and motivated by the sound of the rider's voice.

It's a popular sport in Alaska and Scandinavia, and now beginning to get a real foothold here in Alberta. 1:47

"That's all part of the training," Spencer said. "You and your dog need to be connected, and you need to teach them basic commands, your lefts and your rights or your 'gees' and your 'haws,' and also 'on by.'

"That is a key command. If you see a rabbit in front of you, you better yell 'on by.'"

Spencer will be representing Canada at the 2017 International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships Jan. 23 to Feb. 3 in Haliburton, Ontario near Algonquin Park.

The event, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, is expected attract 1,200 dogs, 150 teams, and competitors from 20 countries.

She's been competing all throughout western Canada and the United States over the last three years, and was finally selected for Team Canada this past summer.  

"I'm expecting to learn a lot. That is my main goal," Spencer said. "This is my first year going so it's going to be a learning year."

'They love to do it'

Some would say mushing is in Spencer's blood.

As a child, Spencer's parents — thoroughbred horse jockeys — earned their living by winning.

When he wasn't on horseback in summer, her father would spend his winters dog sled racing.

Some of her fondest childhood memories were jumping into the truck with a team of huskies in the back, a sled strapped onto the roof, as father and daughter made their way off to some small town for another race.

There's something special about watching her dogs pant and whine with excitement before they bound off down the trail, said Spencer.

"It's great bonding time with you and your dog," Spencer said. "You can see their eyes light up when you put that harness on them.They love to do it." 

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Ariel Fournier