Surfing the Sky

It was my understanding that there would be no math involved.

I’m kneeling on frozen Lake Laberge with Jim Welsh from Kite Yukon, and he’s drawing a diagram in the snow with his mittened hand.

There’s talk of vectors and angles, half-spheres and other terms that give me flashbacks to my high school math futility.

I get about 13 per cent of what he’s saying. I’m sure I have the same look on my face that my dog gives me when I talk to her – trying desperately to understand, hoping desperately to be included in whatever’s going on.

Welsh pauses and looks up at me, “Sound good?”

“Uh … yeah. Let’s do it!”

Friendly, generous, knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about snow kiting: as co-owner of Kite Yukon with his wife Catherine, Welsh appears to be the de facto godfather of the sport here in the Yukon.

His passion doesn’t surprise me. Anyone I’ve ever known who’s into snow kiting has been so obsessed with it, their stories so endless, their use of the word “epic” so liberal, that they get annoying.

Seriously, get a few kiters in the same room and you start to feel like the guy at a Star Trek convention who doesn’t live with his Mom.

I didn’t get it.

Previously, when I wanted to go snowboarding, my attitude was – I’ll use gravity. Being dragged around by a kite seemed like too much trouble.

But now, it’s safe to say I’m a convert.

My lesson moves quickly. Welsh introduces me to the small training kite and I learn how to work it back and forth in a figure eight.

Next we move up to a real kite. This is where I begin to “get it”.

Still in our boots with no skis or boards attached yet, Welsh shows me how to dive the 12-metre foil through the “power zone” where the energy of the wind in the kite gets converted directly into an adrenaline rush that rattles my spine.

For the first time that day, I draw an analogy in my mind between kiting and surfing, a sport I’m more familiar with.

In both, you’re taking a powerful force of nature and influencing it, working it, redirecting the energy it offers – while having the most fun you can possibly have with your clothes on.

The similarities don’t end there. Like surfers, kiters tend to be devoted students of the weather, studying wind patterns and devouring meteorological reports.

As a relatively new sport that is just starting to come of age, it tends to invite a pretty tight community, too.

“I get calls from friends all the time,” Welsh asserts, “And they’re all excited, ‘You see this system coming in?!'”

But it’s a community that’s growing quickly.

None of this surprises Welsh. “Consistent winds, frozen lakes, the accessibility of White Pass, which is basically a massive kiting playground – we’ve got one of the best places to snow kite in the world.”

Largely due to Welsh’s coaching, I discovered that the learning curve for kiting is actually pretty steep. Before long he’s encouraging me to strap into my snowboard and actually start riding across the lake.

This feels like a big step. But – partly inspired by my photographer friend Ben, also totally new to the sport but already strapped-in and ripping it up – I go for it.

I buckle up, take a deep breath and give the kite lines a tug.

Then with Welsh shouting encouragement and riding next to me on a snow machine, I’m carving across the lake.

Snowboard skimming the ice-crusted snow. Bright red kite full of wind. Pure energy flowing down the lines and mainlining into my veins. You couldn’t have pried the grin off my face with a crowbar.

As much fun as actually riding was, I had a revelation about my friends’ obsession with kiting. Until now, I assumed the kite was just a means to an end – a way to get propulsion on your skis or snowboard.

I know now that the really addictive aspect of the sport probably lies more in actually handling the kite and harnessing this energy that nature offers.

At times, apparently, when the wind conditions are right it can also be a pretty killer means to an end.

On one memorable trip to the White Pass backcountry, Welsh and friends peeled off eight laps of Feather Peak – kiting up and skiing down – a trip that takes me all day to do just one lap when I’m snowshoeing up and snowboarding down.

For experienced kiters, “getting up” isn’t just about summitting mountains.

Welsh and his buddies manipulate their kites to actually boost airs big enough to throw spins and flips in a vertical ballet that is jaw-dropping to witness.

And this is my lasting image of our day on Lake Laberge: sunlight draining from a pink sky in long streaks and casting shadows on the ice-crusted snow, brightly coloured kites dotting the horizon, and Jim Welsh hanging upside down 20 feet in the air with skis attached to his feet.

Let’s do it! You’ve got to try snow kiting. You’ll need to bring your snowboard or downhill skis – telemarkers are one of Welsh’s biggest customer groups, he says – and Kite Yukon will provide all the kiting equipment.

See for details.

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