It’s negative four degrees outside, and feels even colder, yet somehow the line at the ticket booth is backed up with people eagerly awaiting admission into an outdoor stadium. Steamy pillars of breath erupt from mouths hidden behind scarves, and hands only dare to leave the warmth of their pockets when it comes time to exchange cash for a smiley-face stamp on the wrist.
“I told you we should’ve gotten here earlier,” says Isobel, “I bet all the good seats are taken.”
I nod my head with a slight tilt and a shrug, the way you do when you’re agreeing with something, but hoping it isn’t true.
The reason we’re here is to witness a rare spectacle – an odd Scandinavian sport called skijoring. Isobel tells me it’s a type of race where skiers get pulled around a short track by horses, sort of like hillbilly chariot racing. I’ll gladly brave the cold to see something like that.
With smileys on our wrists, we’re finally granted entry. At the end of the entryway, I can see the midsection of the snowy racetrack. It’s already pockmarked from the hooves of a few practice runs, and dimpled in the patches immediately after each of its ominous five foot jumps.
The stands are packed, but before I’ve finished scanning the stands for an empty seat, the piercing crack of a gunshot rings out from somewhere behind me. By the time I’ve wheeled around to see where it came from, the roar of the crowd makes it clear – the race had started.
At the western end of the track, a buckskin horse bolts out of the gate, and –just as I had imagined it– not far behind is a skier clinging to a length of rope. Moving at a breakneck pace, he weaves around a set of wickets, carves around the first turn, and before I can even comprehend what’s going on, he’s airborne – six feet in the sky after hitting the first jump. A rough landing causes one of his skis to break free, but even being forced to ride one-footed doesn’t slow him down. In the blink of an eye he’s through the next set of gates and approaching the next jump. There isn’t a single person in the crowd who isn’t standing.
The guy ended up crashing pretty hard on the landing, and cartwheeling his way through a couple gates before skidding to a halt, but it didn’t matter – there were plenty more contestants lined up and ready to get reckless behind him. The high-flying, knee-killing madness continued all afternoon.
At one point, during a lull in the action (a young female contestant had to be carried off the track on a stretcher), I freed my fingers from the warmth and safety of my pockets to do a quick bit of Google research on my phone. Turns out Skijoring has been around for well over a century, and had its heyday back in 1928 when it was showcased as a demonstration sport in the Winter Olympics. The stuff I was reading said it had slowly lost popularity since then but the boisterous crowd in front of me in Sandpoint, Idaho said otherwise. Enthusiasts are bringing this strange sport back, resurrecting it with sanctioned races, crazier courses, and even a few new rules.
It’s definitely one of the oddest sporting events I’ve ever witnessed, but I highly recommend you check it out if you ever get the chance. You won’t be disappointed.
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