Blowing in the wind

Kite skiers find wind-powered fun on the Juneau Icefield

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Tim Arness likes kites. And he likes skiing. So when he read about kite skiing in a magazine last year, it didn't take him too long to decide it was something he wanted to try.

Kite skiing is as simple as it sounds. Clip a kite to a harness around your hips, strap skis to your boots, find a steady breeze and off you go.

But as Arness discovered at the end of April, when he and Juneau residents Greg Bledsoe and Don Larsen took a helicopter to the Juneau Icefield to try the new sport, substituting man-power with kite-power is not as simple as it seems.

"I guess we were hoping it would be an efficient way to get around the icefield, fast," said Bledsoe, talking with Arness about the trip over lunch last week.

"We thought it would just be zip-a-dee-doo-dah, just like that," Arness said. "It didn't work that way."

Kite skiing requires, first and foremost, a breeze. Though most who take multi-day trips on the icefield would consider no wind a blessing, still air is a curse for kite skiers.

Arness, Bledsoe and Larsen would have liked to use the wind power to travel from camp to camp, hiking for downhill turns when they reached their daily destinations.

Instead, the group made several attempts at kite skiing, but only found success when they had dropped their packs.

"It's so strenuous on your body that you can't depend on traveling any way you want to," said Arness, who described kite skiing techniques as similar to tacking on a sailboat.

Kite skiing is a relatively new sport, but has gained a strong following in the last 10 years. Since 1991 Concept Air, a Canadian company that makes kites for skiing, surfing and paragliding, has held kite skiing festivals and competitions in various Canadian towns.

But homemade kites can be just as effective - and cheaper - than manufactured kites.

"It turns out there are computer programs you can download that have patterns and instructions," Bledsoe said.

Arness first made kites only with material he could buy locally - nylon from Jo-Ann Fabrics, fishing line from Western Auto. He's made more than 15 kites. Bledsoe has made one kite himself and helped Arness with three more.

Making an average kite costs about $60 in materials and 10-14 hours of labor, Arness said.

Larger kites - Arness has made one as large as 16 square meters - require a lighter fabric that is not available locally.

Bledsoe and Arness have stockpiled more than 100 yards of specialty nylon and polyester fabric they bought on the Internet for future kite designs.

The larger the kite, the less wind required to pull a skier. This allowed the icefield skiers to have fun with the kites even with light breezes.

Once, while playing around with a 12-meter kite on the icefield, Arness caught a wind that lifted him off the ground.

"I was literally laying sideways in my harness and this thing was picking me up off the ground," he said. "It was fun while it lasted, but then it was damn scary."

Arness pointed his skis to an uphill slope and managed to bring the kite to the ground. When he tried to anchor the kite by planting his skis in the snow, he sank up to his hips in fresh powder.

Although they can fly the kites in a more traditional manner during the summer - wearing sneakers with feet firmly planted on the ground - Juneau kite skiers don't have to wait until winter to practice their sport. Bledsoe plans to return to the icefield for another go at kite skiing.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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