words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten
Cedarvale Park in the heart of York isn’t where I expected to find myself this bluebird February day. Surrounded by graffiti-sprayed beams hoisting traffic-filled overpasses, the snow-covered field is eerily empty, but for the occasional dogwalker and his armful of charges. The scene is a crisp departure from my charming Georgian Bay hamlet, but I’m soaking up the change of scenery, grateful for this assignment: Dogs and skis? Yes, please.
Louie whimpers and whines with anticipation. His shaggy yearling body wriggles as he fights the urge to leap into the air, strain at the end of his leash, bark his frustration. It takes every bit of his concentration, but he manages to sit. For one quiet moment he stares upward, deep into the eyes of Devin Montgomery, begging: “Please! Can we go? Now?”
Sorry, little buddy. It’s entirely my fault you’re stuck here on the side of the trail, waiting.
Most days Louie and Devin, co-owner of Skiis and Biikes, hit the Beltline Trail on their own. The former running and pulling, the latter skiing, hanging on for dear life, both having the time of their lives. But today Louie is forced to contend with me — snapping photos, chatting. Always with the chatting.
When Devin returned to his native Toronto from Vancouver a couple years back, he brought nothing but a couple of duffle bags. Paring down a complicated life meant selling nearly everything he owned, including his van.
“I really just wanted to simplify things, save money for a house and explore the city on foot,” Devin remembers.
He now relishes his hour-long commute to work, choosing to run, bike or ski, depending on mood and conditions. When Devin’s rescue dog Louie arrived from Texas last year through Redemption Paws and winter soon followed, dog-assisted cross-country skiing was the obvious choice for their daily travels.
Sprinting over various sections of the many trails winding their way through the city, “we can ski almost the entire way,” says Devin. “Louie loves it, and he’s well-rested for a day at the shop.”
Like any sport, you can choose to really get into this skijoring thing, with specialized equipment (harnesses for both dog and skier, towline with emergency release) and a new set of commands (Gee! Haw! On by!). You can train on the weekends. Travel to races. Acquire more dogs.
Or not. You can follow Devin’s lead and just dive in, have some laughs. No training required. “All you really need is snow, a basic dog harness and the right cross-country skis.”
Here in the big city, a multi-use trail may see thousands of boot prints and tire tracks per day, each frozen and re-frozen. Skijoring over this terrain is a far cry from a backcountry tour or loop on your favourite groomed track. These lumps and bumps are peppered with ice, melted puddles, patches of gravel.
It’s easy to see why skis with metal edges are a necessity here, but I’m guessing there’s more to this “right” ski. I note the pair under Devin’s feet, plastered with stickers and covered with the scars of daily use. “They’re the Fischer Outback 68 — especially suited for this trail because of a durable grip for hidden rocks. And they’re a bit wider than traditional cross country skis, giving necessary stability, especially with Louie pulling me.” The ski sales guy has me sold. Now I want the skis and the dog.
Then with a simple release command, the antsy but somehow patient Louie shoots out in front of Devin and the team takes off toward the shop. Begging at times for them to wait up, I’m struck by the exhilaration of it all, and can’t help but be envious of their daily trail time. I’m no city dweller, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the life of a commuter on the 401 — and how this alternative method of travel beats it by one metric boatload.
By the time they reach the Yonge Street store, Louie is sufficiently tuckered and ready for the important tasks of the day: naps, interspersed with brief periods of love from customers. Ah, the life of a citified ski shop dog. —ML