Almost every day, Maggie Stokes heads outside with Pilot, her Alaskan Husky, and a pair of Nordic skis. She tethers herself to her dog, Pilot pulls, Stokes skis, and off they go. Through the woods, down roads, across frozen ponds and wherever else they feel like going that day.

It’s called skijoring, and is a sport that essentially creates an intersection of sled dog racing and cross country skiing. Skiers get pulled by their dogs — or, in another version, horses — while also using their skis to provide even more power and speed, and the two have to work together to handle the often challenging terrain. It’s a sport that’s beginning to gain a foothold in Maine; Skowhegan hosts competitions, and Topsham will host its first skijoring event in February.

Depending on how seriously it’s pursued, it can be physically demanding or a fun time outdoors, and for Stokes, a 19-year old Maranacook graduate and freshman at Colby College, it’s the ideal meeting of her interests.

“It’s not nearly as intense as Nordic racing was in high school, and I kind of love that,” said Stokes, a Mount Vernon resident. “For me, it’s the perfect intersection of skiing and being with my dog and mushing. There are no factors of Nordic skiing that I don’t like. It only incorporates the factors of mushing that I love. For me, it’s a perfect combination.”

Stokes has only been skijoring — a term derived from the Norwegian word for “ski driving” — for a year, but her path to the sport was laid well before. It started when she began Nordic skiing before high school, and ended up competing for Maranacook’s perennial powerhouse program. It continued when she took a year off after graduation and spent nine months in Norway, where she took a course in mushing and had a dog by her side constantly when she’d venture outside.

Maggie Stokes and her Alaskan Husky, Pilot, survey the conditions on Flying Pond in Vienna before skijoring Thursday. The Colby College freshman went to Norway after graduating from Maranacook Community High School in 2020 to spend a year learning how to mush. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Being immersed in the world of mushing, Stokes said, was eye-opening.

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“(It takes) incredible strength,” she said. “You also have to have insane endurance. Sometimes the snow is too deep, and you have to run alongside the sled. And sometimes you have to kick, and you’re just holding the handle of the sled, you have one foot on the rudder and you’re kicking and kicking and kicking, up a hill.

“It’s an exhausting sport, but it’s just as rewarding. … There’s not a better night’s sleep (than what you get after mushing).”

While in Norway, Stokes saw highlights of skijoring, and how it combined two of her interests. When she returned in May 2021, she got Pilot from a former babysitter who had a kennel of sled dogs, and started letting her pull her along on her bike. Stokes could tell right away that Pilot enjoyed it as much as she did, and after a two-mile November bikejoring race, she made the switch to skijoring on the snow.

“It was a really pivotal experience for her,” said Stokes, who also owns a dog sled that she uses with Pilot. “When she got on snow, I was like ‘Finally, this is going to be her thing.’ She ran around in it and her eyes, she was like ‘Is this even real?’ And I said ‘I need to skijor with her right now.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing, every day. … She’ll pull me for miles and miles and miles. She hates to stop.”

Stokes said she’s found out that skijoring isn’t only for masterful skiers.

“It’s something that looks really out of reach, I think, but it’s so simple. You’re one step away when you walk your dog,” she said. “They’re so similar. You walk your dog, and if your dog pulls you while it’s walking, there are just a couple of things that need to happen before skijoring happens.”

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At the same time, she said there is a trick to understanding the activity. First and foremost, she said, is a bond and understanding with the dog, from teaching it commands to finding out where it prefers to go. One time, Stokes said, she wanted to go one way, but Pilot insisted on going another. Moments later, Stokes saw open water instead of ice where she had wanted to go.

VIENNA, ME – JANUARY 13: Maggie Stokes directs Pilot, an Alaskan Huskey, on Flying Pond in Vienna on Thursday January 13, 2022. The two try to skijor whenever their schedules and the weather conditions permit. Staff photo by Andy Molloy/Staff Photographer) Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“We’re learning every day together,” she said. “I’m learning what she likes and what she doesn’t like. When it’s really windy, I learned that she likes to hang close to the shoreline, and she really likes snowmobile trails. … When I train Pilot, we just go out and have fun.”

Stokes is still refining her feel for the sport, but she said she would like to pursue it competitively.

“I’m not planning on getting any more dogs while I’m in college. Having a puppy is a lot,” she said. “But my goal is to do a few skijor races in Maine in the winter, and keep doing that as Pilot gets older. And my dream is to have a small team of four to six dogs, and we can go adventuring up logging roads in northern Maine. Because that’s the way I learned how to mush dogs.”

As much as she’s enjoyed getting into skijoring, Stokes said anyone else could give it a try and have the same experience.

“You don’t even have to be in the sport to do the sport,” she said. “You don’t have to be a great soccer player to go kick a ball around in the backyard. You don’t have to be an expert adventurer or hiker or skijorer to go out and enjoy the woods or the lake with your dog. It’s pretty incredible.”


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