SKOWHEGAN — Hundreds of spectators and dozens of participants showed up Saturday afternoon at Eaton Mountain in Skowhegan for a winter event that most of them had never heard of.

It was called skijoring.

Skijoring is a team time-trial race, in which a horse and rider pull a snowboarder or alpine skier around a groomed, 800-foot track in a tight loop of flagged slalom gates and three 2-foot jumps on snow east of the Eaton Mountain lodge.

Skijor Skowhegan, held for the first time Saturday as part of the three-day Somerset SnowFest, sports the only equestrian skijoring race in the Northeast. Competitors competed for cash and other prizes. The winning team was the one that made it around the track the fastest, with no wipe-outs. Winning times were in the vicinity of 21 seconds for the entire lap.

“We have 14 horses and 14 riders and 21 skiers or snowboaders,” said Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, which helped put on the event. “There’s an inner track for the horse and rider, and an outer track for the skier.”

Crowds poured in for the event, with cars and trucks parked along the entire length of Lambert Road, where Eaton Mountain is located, and all the way up and down U.S. Route 2, a half-mile away.

“We are so thrilled with the turnout. People are parking out on Route 2. It’s amazing to see so many people come out, even when it’s a little bit brisk out today,” she said.

Brisk it was. Air temperature was in the low 20s but chilled by a wind that made it feel much colder. Visitors watched with excitement, bundled up in colorful winter layers, as the horses dug in and took off at a gallop, towing the skiers or snowboarders behind them. The skier, the horse and the rider had to work as one, using a 30-foot nylon rope that had to be maneuvered to maintain full-taut efficiency.

“Skijoring” is derived from the Norwegian word for “ski driving.” It is a popular sport in the Scandinavian countries, according to Cannon. It is also popular in the Western United States.

Competitiors came from near and far once word of a skijoring event was made public.

Andrew Bouffard, 33, came to Skowhegan all the way from Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, where he works at the ski mountain. Bouffard might not have done well on his inaugural run, but the thrill of the event will bring him back for more, he said.

“I’ve lived out West before and I’ve seen this kind of thing happen out there,” he said. “I never thought I’d see it on the East Coast, so as soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Yup.'”

Bouffard said he was riding a snowboard being pulled by a horse named Kip, who may have gotten a bit skittish.

“We got to the first jump and he kind of like stopped right in front of the first jump, and I ended up going up the jump and passing the horse,” he said. “It’s looks like a very cool event. Especially for the first time, it’s a pretty good turnout. I hope I get to try it again.”

Another snowboarder, John Kalagher, 32, who grew up in Madison, said he would do it all again, too.

“It was a lot of fun. It was kind of crazy on the corners. You have to pull up,” he said. “You’ve got to hold on and don’t let go. I’ve never done that before. It’s pretty cool. I’ll come back, for sure.”

As for the horses, most of them appeared comfortable on the snow, said Kelsey Hilton, 32, who grew up in Starks and was the first rider to do skijoring on Saturday.

“I think they’re doing pretty well,” she said from inside the track loop. “They’re a little bit wound up because there’s a lot of people here; there’s a lot going on. But mostly they’re pretty experienced. The snow is not an issue.”

This year’s Somerset SnowFest is the first year that Lake George Regional Park has expanded its annual Winter Carnival and ice fishing derby to include events put on by Main Street Skowhegan. The Lake George winter carnival, now in its 27th year, has been expanded in collaboration with Main Street, Eaton Mountain Ski Area, Coburn Park and the Lakewood Golf Course in Madison, Cannon said.

Events continue Sunday with dog sled rides from 9 to 11 a.m. at Coburn Park in Skowhegan, followed by sledding at the park.

There is a planned Brunch at Bigelow Brewing Co., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; a Winter Brunch Walk with ATK, Lakewood Golf Course, at noon; tubing at Eaton Mountain, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m.; and skating at the Skowhegan Community Center.

The Sno-Hawks Spaghetti Dinner and Auction is scheduled for  4:30 to 6:30 p.m.at the Skowhegan Elks Club.

A full schedule is online at somersetsnowfest.org/schedule/.

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

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