Sure you could leisurely pass over a frozen lake on a pair of cross-country skis, but you’re going to top out at, what, 10 kilometres an hour? Maybe. Why not strap a kite to your midrift, throw on some alpine skis or a board, and cross that sucker no time flat.
Keith MacCullough, an instructor at Muller Wind Sports in Cochrane who teaches traction kiting (the catch-all term for ground kiting sports) at the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre, once got up to 70 kilometres an hour kite-skiing across a frozen lake. “It was not fun,” he says in retrospect. “That was not ideal. I mean, when it comes to life, I was like, ‘that was silly.’”
That was an exception. It was a windy day with good conditions. MacCullough says the average speed is in the 10 to 20 kilometres an hour range. It’s still a good clip, but a little easier on the nerves.
Traction kiting is essentially attaching a kite to yourself while you’re strapped into a mode of conveyance. MacCullough lists kite surfing, kite boarding (on snow and water), kite skiing, kite buggying and even kite mountain biking. His focus, however, is on skis and snowboards (when not paragliding in the warmer months).
“Skis are definitely easier, it’s not even up for discussion,” he says, preventing further discussion on the matter. “It’s nice to have your feet having free movement.”
That said, MacCullough still likes strapping on a board for good snow days.
The kite is attached to the area around a person’s belly-button and fitted with three or four safeties to release the kite in case of strong wind or other unforeseen issues. Once strapped in, the person attached to said kite must manoeuvre it to catch the wind without being tossed about, but the kites nowadays are designed to handle the gusts well.
Although it sounds challenging, MacCullough says it’s so easy your grandmother could do it (well, not mine, she’s, um, unavailable). “I’m not kidding,” he says. “My boss is 72 and she kites.”
That said, there are rules to follow and steps to be taken before someone can strap in and shoot across a lake. For one, if you want to go out with MacCullough, you have to sign up for classes when the weather is warmer to learn the basics. Once you’ve got that down, he’ll call you when the snow falls and the water freezes and you can try your luck with the real deal.
“Basically, the way we do a kite sizing is, first is wind conditions — it definitely matters how windy it is.... Then experience is next. I will hold down a bigger kite regardless of my size just based on I know where not to put the kite. Less experienced guys, you put them on a smaller kite and basically let them get the feel first,” says MacCullough.
“If you put a 12-metre kite out in 40 kilometre an hour wind, you’re going to be having a very bad day.”
Of course, a lot of people who strap themselves into boards and skis want more than just contact with the ground. Getting into the air is a staple of mountain sports and kiting is no different.
“You don’t even need jumps. You can actually use the power of the kite and you can get several feet in the air, like 50 feet in the air,” says MacCullough, explaining that you fly the kite back into “the power window.”
“It’s kind of like a pendulum. If you’re moving at 50 one way and the kite goes 50 the other way, well obviously you’re going to go one way, and that’s up.”
The goal is to find a wide open space, uncluttered by clumpy ground or people, with a steady wind between 20 and 30 kilometres an hour. That usually means a frozen lake, but there’s also the potential for mountains and the odd farmer’s field.
“The biggest issue is people. If there’s too many ice fishers and people like that on the lake, it’s probably not the ideal place to go kiting,” says MacCullough.
To learn more about traction kiting, or to try it out yourself, visit calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca or mullerwindsports.com.