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July 30, 2014
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Just for Kicks

Whether self-propelled or puppy-powered, the spark’s worth barking over

Scandanavian in origin, the kicksled—or “spark” as it is known in its homeland—traces its beginnings to the 1800s. Capable of accommodating a passenger in a simple but comfortable seat, the kicksled continues to be used in the far north of Europe for everything from grocery shopping to taking a child to school to traversing frozen lakes to reach a favorite ice-fishing spot. The kicksled’s long steel runners excel on ice and packed snow surfaces, such as winter roads and groomed trails. In addition, “snow floats” can be attached to the runners for better flotation in light to moderate ungroomed snow surfaces.

Not surprisingly, Norway being filled with Norwegians, kicksled competitions fired up soon after the spark appeared, and the race was on to create ultralight, fast racing models. Kicksledding was a major event at the Nordic Games, the early twentieth-century predecessor to the Winter Olympic Games, and even today Norway continues hosting the annual Kicksledding World Championships. And Canadians put their own twist on the venerable kicksled, by adding a mushing harness and dog power, which made carrying a passenger even easier.
After learning all this and more about kicksleds, I knew I had to give it a try.

While first glimpses might lead one to believe kicksledding is a relatively sedate activity (and it certainly can be), I find that to keep moving at a quick clip for an extended period, while alternating the kicking leg, is a surprisingly aerobic workout. The runners seem too thin and flimsy at first. But in time I came to realize that this is intentional design—and that, as with so many other things, thin and flexible is better than overbuilt and rigid.

Balancing on my left foot, I push off with my right and then glide. I travel approximately thirty feet down a dead-end road in Victor, pointed in the direction of the Grand Teton Brewery. I continue balancing and pushing, alternating the leg I kick with, falling into a rhythm. Before long I’m cruising with surprising ease toward that sudsy enterprise.

As I lean into the corner, the runners flex and the kicksled turns smoothly in a new direction with little effort on my part. There’s an “organic” feel to the way it maneuvers over the winterscape, similar to paddling a traditional skin kayak—I can feel the sled moving with the terrain, adapting to its contours, rather than simply barging through it.

If I could suspend a certain amount of sensory input, I’d easily be taken back to skateboarding on the smooth asphalt of my suburban youth. But a few details are hard to ignore, such as the snow hitting the side of my face and the frost forming around my nostrils. And the fact that I’m wearing Sorels and wool pants and a thick hat.

Put all these small details aside, however, and the motion—as well as the sense of easy, fun travel—is much the same.
It isn’t long before I want to take it to the next level, the Canadian level. As I prepare to try it, my dog Hank sniffs the harness with approximately the same amount of enthusiasm he shows for the newspaper—maybe even less. Getting him into the harness proves to be an exercise just shy of partner yoga. But I finally get the harness on him, filled with the expectation that somehow a great lightbulb will suddenly go off in my shorthair pointer’s head … and then we both just stand there. Hank appears to be somewhere between bored and uncomfortable.

“C’mon Hank!” I encourage.

Nothing.

“Run!” I yell, waving my arms as if this grand, inane gesture will somehow help him understand.

He looks back at me with his head hung low, like I’ve just asked him if he’d like to swim to China. It occurs to me that to anyone watching at the moment, my dog must appear infinitely more sane and stable than I do. I step off the kicksled and start running ahead. Hank dutifully starts to follow, as does the kicksled that he is now attached to. I stop. He stops. The kicksled continues gliding until it hits his rear end. He is definitely not having fun now. I start running again. He stands there looking at me for another brief moment, perhaps recalling other ridiculous things I’ve cajoled him into doing in his short lifetime, and then starts off again at a trot. But this time he keeps going, even when I’ve stopped. I let him pass me, and then I run and jump on the back and keep kicking and yelling encouragement as Hank keeps pulling. Suddenly we’re traveling amazingly fast over a hard, slippery surface—and I’m starting to think of possible not-so-fun consequences.

But we do stay upright, and somehow my bird dog has been transformed, however briefly, into a sled dog. With the brewery looming large in the distance, it occurs to me that this might just be the best winter day I’ve had in a long time.

Mountain Boy Sledworks

Mountain Boy Sledworks is the brainchild of Crested Butte, Colorado, resident Brice Hoskin, who founded the company in 2002. Hoskin had a vision of building unique, aesthetically pleasing sleds that didn’t sacrifice on performance. While you could easily hang any Mountain Boy product on the wall (besides kicksleds, they also make traditional flyer sleds, toboggans, and more) to admire its craftsmanship, these aren’t fragile decorations—they’re engineered to be used. Mountain Boy also embodies a strong environmental ethic by choosing fast-growing, sustainable woods such as birch, willow, and maple for its products; and, perhaps most importantly, by building products to last.

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