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Alternative transportation

The growing sport of kite-skiing

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jan 14/02) - At the horizon level the panorama of Yellowknife from Great Slave Lake looks like an old photograph.

Shades of white criss-cross the bottom of the view as footprints and snowmobile tracks snake across the snow-covered surface of the lake.

Far in the distance, the colours of houses and trees blend together in stark contrast to the brilliance of the lake's surface.

But it is the sound that sets this scene apart from a photograph. Somewhere in the sky, thin cords whipping through the air slice a frigid northerly. The wind shrieks in protest.

Then a splash of brilliant colour is followed by a whoosh of air. A fast-moving cloud of rip-stop nylon, billowing in the freezing wind tugs at the cords that hold it near the ground.

At the other end of those cords is Chris Hrkac, who pulls and angles the cords like the seasoned kite-skier he is. He wears a pair of telemark skis and as the kite dips in the sky, he starts to move.

His body is crouched as he uses the wind's power to pull him across the snow. Soon, he is far from sight, even though today is a slow day as far as wind is concerned.

Hrkac carries a Global Positioning System device while he skis, which allows him to clock his progress across the snow. His top speed so far is 67 km/h.

He and his wife, Jennifer Stranart, picked up the sport -- or recreational activity -- three years ago.

Getting started

It was the natural next step in a trend of airfoil-powered motion. The same basic wing structure is used in para-gliding, kite-surfing (on water) and now kite-skiing.

"We thought it would be interesting to try on skis, so three years ago I tried to get into it," he said. "It's a lot of fun and it's the perfect environment for it up here. Down south, you'll have the wind but you won't have the ice and snow. One thing you can guarantee up here is that you will have ice and you will have snow."

At first it difficult to get the necessary equipment, harnesses, ropes and airfoils. So Hrkac and Stranart formed a company last year, Spin-Drift Kites, to promote the sport and bring equipment North. Not including skis, it costs about $1,000 to get started in the sport.

The endeavour is working. So far he has sold about a dozen kites, with six more on order. The kites are made as far away as France, and as near as Quebec City.

About 20 Yellowknifers have taken up kite-skiing. Miles Davis is one of them. He said the sport was brought to Yellowknife a few years ago when some Antarctic explorers used the city's lake surfaces as a training ground.

"They would come up to train and some of the local guys would go out," he said. "Now it's become a sport in itself."

"It's good fun," he said. "It's like the adrenaline of downhill skiing on a horizontal surface. If you're a good skier and (know how to) use those stunt kites you can pick it up in a matter of hours."

The activity has not been limited to Yellowknife. Hrkac, who is a geologist, has even kite-skied with herds of caribou farther North.

World championships

Kite-skiing is a perfect activity for the North.

"You've got seven months of ice time here, so it's worth it because (the season is) so long," he said.

Those conditions might even draw the world to this city. Davis is working to attract the World Ice and Snow Sailing Championships to Yellowknife. The international competition alternates between Europe and North America, and has not yet chosen a North American location for 2003.

"(Yellowknife) would be the perfect place for it during the Caribou Carnival, because that's when the best skiing is. It's warm and the average wind speed is actually higher in the spring," said Hrkac.

But for now, Great Slave's ice is criss-crossed by people from closer to home. Strapping on skis in icy windchills, they do it for the challenge and the liberty.

"You can do a lot with these things if you've got the fitness for it, although your body takes a beating," said Hrkac.

"I guess the whole idea of it is the freedom of being able to go whenever you want," added Davis.