Wednesday marks the start of the largest cross-country ski race in North America – the Birkebeiner.
Alongside the 43k Birkie and the 14k Prince Haakon is the Barkie Birkie, a skijoring race where competitors ski while strapped to their dogs.
It’s a frigid winter day in Manitowish Waters, WI, but Tim Fitzgerald wears only a light jacket.
“Normally we don’t wear very many clothes when we’re skiing,” he said.
At a snow-covered trailhead, groups of fat-tire bikers and solo skiers take off through a network of interconnected paths.
Fitzgerald is getting ready to join them.
With his ski boots tied and a red hat pulled over his ears, he opens the back door of his truck.
A brown and white border collie jumps down, and makes a beeline for me.
The dog glues her body to my legs – paws on my feet – eager for every inch of human contact.
“This is Terra,” Fitzgerald said. “She really loves people as you can see.”
Fitzgerald’s other dog, Tori, runs around the parking lot, stopping only briefly to greet a gathering of young bikers.
“Tori, come!” Fitzgerald yelled. “She’s a runner so I have to watch her.”
Fitzgerald, Terra and Tori are getting ready to go skijoring.
That’s a winter sport that uses dogs to pull skiers across snowy trails.
Working together, a skijoring team can reach speeds of 20 miles an hour.
“It can be scary down the hills,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald started skijoring decades ago. It began as a way to get his young kids and dogs outside together.
“I like it because it’s a family sport. You all can go in as a group and have fun with your dog,” he said. “You can’t take your dog to a hockey rink!”
While Fitzgerald enjoys skijoring recreationally, he’s also competitive.
In college he was an All-American runner at University of Wisconsin – Steven’s Point.
Now, he skijors in races across the state.
“Terra’s been second, and I beat my 25-year-old son who was third,” he said. “Which is way cool because I want to beat the younger kid.”
Today’s run is in preparation for the Barkie Birkie.
It’s one of the only skijoring races in the area that hasn’t been canceled this year to COVID-19.
Even so, it’ll be different than usual.
Connie Meek is the Barkie Birkie skijor race chief.
She said normally a hundred people sign up to participate in the skijoring event, but this year, only 45 people are registered.
“We have a course that’s one mile-long. It’s a big loop in the field and along the woods,” she said.
While other cross-country skiing events have virtual options this year, the Barkie Birkie does not.
“It’s just either Wednesday or Thursday or next year,” Meek said.
Fitzgerald and his older dog, Terra, have raced in the Barkie Birkie together since it started 10 years ago.
Terra is the only dog that’s run every single race since then, and Fitzgerald is still planning to race with her this year.
“All the rest of the dogs are gone,” Fitzgerald said. “She got a special award last year.”
Fitzgerald said racing in a skijoring event is different than a normal cross-country ski race, where all the skiers start together in a big crowd.
Instead, the skiers and their dogs take off at timed intervals.
Fitzgerald said this makes for a less claustrophobic experience.
“You’re all by yourself on this beautiful course and it’s just you and your dog,” he said. “And you enjoy it instead of fighting with people, bumping into people. So it’s almost better.”
As Fitzgerald finishes getting ready for the day’s practice run, his dogs are itching to get started.
Terra lays down at the foot of the ski trail.
Fitzgerald said, in the summer she’ll lay by the bikes all day long, ready to go bikejoring.
He attaches the dogs to a bungee-like leash, tightly harnessed around his waist, and together the trio make their way to the trail’s start.
Fitzgerald clicks into his skis.
His dogs watch him, waiting for the cue to go.
“Hike!” Fitzgerald yelled. “Hike, hike!”
They’re off, flying down the practice route as if were race day.