Vernon’s Kat and dogs love sport of skijoring

Kat Spencer is a competitor in sport that sees cross-country skier pulled by dogs

This is a story about a woman named Kat and her dogs.

Yes, Kat and dogs. Really.

Kat Spencer, 35, lives with four dogs – Sassy, Sprint, Sumo and Scotia – two S-named felines – Sasha and Stallone – and her double-R partner with one S in his name, Robert Ramsay, at a beautiful spread among the BX forests. They moved to their property in November 2019 after nearly two years in Salmon Arm to be close to the trails at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre and SilverStar Mountain Resort.

Spencer is one of North America’s top skijorers. Skijoring is a sport that sees cross-country skiers on skate skis pulled along trails by dogs.

There are one-, two- and four-dog skijor races. Spencer has entered three events this year, one in Wyoming and two in Montana, and won them all, skiing confidently behind Sassy, a greyster breed of 10 per cent greyhound, 85 per cent German Shorthaired Pointer and five per cent Alaskan Husky.

Sassy and Spencer averaged 31 kilometres/hour as the pair won a two-dog event in Olney, Mont., covering the 5.5-mile technical trail full of turns, hills and trees in 18 minutes 22.39 seconds.

“Sassy was the fastest dog on the tracks,” Spencer said. “Normally in two-dog skijor, we run the same distance as four-dog dog sledding teams. Sassy has been the fastest on the track in all three races, competed against other two-dog teams and beat them easily all season. She’s got a lot of heart and we’re proving she and I are a good team.”

Spencer has been around four-legged competitors her whole life.

She was first introduced to dog sled racing at age two, when her mom, Margaret, put her in a bearskin, no helmet and secured her in the sled behind a dog team with a bungee cord. Off they went.

“I don’t know how she survived. I thought she was tired (in the sled) but maybe she was passing out from fear,” laughed Margaret, visiting her daughter and son-in-law from Mulmur Township, about an hour north of Toronto. “I’d bungee cord her in the sled (which Kat still has at her property). She didn’t wear a helmet. This other time, we had four dogs. She climbed up the kennel, opened the gate, fell and broke her elbow.”

Dog sledding was the family activity in fall and winter. In spring and summer, it was horse racing. Spencer’s mom and dad were jockeys who also owned and trained horses.

To eat, the Spencers had to win races. That’s where Kat gets her competitiveness.

Fast forward to life as an adult in Alberta. Spencer, a cross-country ski enthusiast, rescued a German Shorthaired Pointer dog named Scotia, who was about a year old, and everywhere Spencer walked Scotia, Scotia pulled.

“She failed Feisty Fido class at the Edmonton Humane Society, and I understand why she’s a rescue dog,” Spencer said. “She pulled me over on the ice when I was trying to walk her. I fell quite hard and I said ‘enough of this.’ I knew I could harness this pulling potential so I Googled dog sledding with one dog and I found skijoring.”

She began skijoring with Scotia, who had some back leg issues. So, because she wanted to enter some two-dog events, Spencer got more dogs. She started racing. In her first race — on classic skis — she fell at the start line. Along the way she met Ramsay, a retired air force pilot who was looking to get out of the sport. That didn’t last.

“We met in 100 Mile House because we were both racing and he was trying to sell all of his gear,” Spencer said. “I bought some of it.

“She wouldn’t leave me alone,” joked Ramsay. The couple has been together for three years.

The pair rescued Sprint, now seven, Spencer’s admitted favourite dog who stayed with her the whole time she was being interviewed in her living room, head planted upon her lap.

“Sprint taught me the most about racing,” said Spencer, who competed in the World Skijoring Championships in 2017 with Sprint. The pair raced in Italy in the European championships 2018, complete with a trip to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They finished dead last.

“It taught me so much,” said Spencer of the experience. “It showed me, here’s all the things I need to improve and things I need to learn about. I’m not Norwegian. I wasn’t born on skis.”

Said Ramsay: “She’s been taking lessons to improve her skiing and to have the right dog combination. You have to know how to drive the dogs to do this. You can’t just be a great skier. There are Olympic skiers doing the sport but if you don’t know how to work with the animals you can’t do it properly.”

At those European championships, Spencer and Ramsay saw one of the top dogs in the world at the event. They decided they wanted some of his genetics within their kennel (now four dogs) and put in a request to be on a list when the dog had puppies. Sassy and Sumo are greysters from that litter from the Czech Republic and the couple flew to get them and bring them to North America.

“The reason we bought Sassy and Sumo was to be ready for the 2021 Worlds in North America, so the dogs would be 2.5 years old for that race and would be competitive against the Europeans,” Spencer said.

Each dog has a pass to Sovereign Lake — complete with picture — and Spencer and Ramsay train there or at SilverStar, which is also dog-friendly.

Spencer said she runs into a new person trying out skijoring regularly, so she and Robert would like to build a partnership or relationship with the facilities to host clinics and promote skijoring.

“We meet a lot of people on the trails who are learning but they don’t have the right gear on their dog, or they don’t have the right gear,” said Spencer. “We wear specialized belts around our waists. I see people tying their leashes around their waists and hurting their lower back. Or their harness doesn’t fit their dogs.

“We really have a goal to promote the sport, help people get into the right gear and do it so it’s safe for them and their dogs. These are world-class facilities and we’d love to host a skijoring race here one day.”

When the snow melts, Spencer keeps in shape for skijoring by participating in canicross, cross country running with dogs. She and Sumo entered the Kelowna Wild One Wilden Trail Run in 2019 and won it.

READ MORE: B.C. School Sports suspends spring season

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Her first-ever skijoring race didn’t start well for Vernon’s Kat Spencer, being pulled by her German shorthair pointer, Scotia. She was wearing the wrong kind of cross-country skis and fell at the starting line. (Photo courtesy of Kat Spencer)

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