This article was originally featured in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
It’s Ingmar Bergman country here, just north of High-way 50 in Gatineau. Before me are snow-covered fields and a ruined barn as grey as wasp paper; above me, a sky like breath-clouded steel. You could almost imagine Death and the Knight, out of the classic Bergman film The Seventh Seal, meeting here for their final contest. But they wouldn’t be playing chess. They’d be pulling themselves across the snow by means of brightly coloured kites and yelling at each other (in Swedish): “Tear it up, dude!”
It’s hard to be introspective when you’re ski kiting.
I like a sport that mixes snow and sky, but that’s not the only reason I’m here. Lately I find myself thinking of a famous speech by Lambert Strether, the protagonist of Henry James’ 1903 novel The Ambassadors, who urges a younger character to “live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”
Strether is 55, same as me. He feels that he’s over the hill, that it’s too late for him to follow his own advice. Whenever I start to feel like that, I look around for something slightly off-kilter to do. Not wildly off-kilter, like skydiving — even Henry James couldn’t get me to do that. Just something to take me away from the quotidian. Ski (or snow) kiting definitely fills the bill. It involves using a power (or traction) kite to pull yourself across a frozen surface; kiters wear either downhill skis or a snowboard. It’s the winter experience writ large.
My teacher is Drew Haughton. He arrives dressed in a green ski jacket, blue snowboard boots, and a shapeless toque pulled low. Haughton runs his own kiting school, We Ride, and is cheerfully patient with novices. We begin with the small training kite, three square metres in size. I don’t need skis at this stage; the idea is just to get a feel for the wind. The bright orange training kite has two guidelines attached to a control bar; by manoeuvring the bar, you make the kite turn. I stand with my arms out, feeling the wind’s sinews pulling at mine. The bigger the kite, of course, the stronger the pull. On good days, ski kiters can be drawn right into the air.
“So how high have you got off the ground?” I ask Haughton.
“I guess about 30 or 40 feet,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s hard to tell when you’re up there.”
The training kite dips and hovers and plunges like an impulsive hawk. Whenever it crashes, as it does frequently, Haughton runs over to it, picks it up, and launches it again.
“Okay,” he says enthusiastically, “let’s try the other kite. You can get your skis on.”
The kite I will use next is the same size as the training kite but with an inflatable edge for more lift. It also has four guidelines; to use this one, you have to wear a harness, which means you are actually attached to the kite. Once I’m all hooked up (and wearing a helmet borrowed from my teacher), Haughton lets the kite go.
“Okay, really aggressive with the turns!” he says.
This kite is even more wayward, veering and arcing and sometimes drawing itself up high into the air; but now and again something goes right, and I am pulled with a sudden spurt across the snow. Drew follows, calling out encouragement and frequently breaking through the snow crust. I find the four guidelines difficult to manipulate; when the kite nose-dives to the ground, we often have to stop to untangle them. But I think — I think — I’m getting the hang of it.
Haughton has another kite with him, seven square metres in size, but twilight has stolen up on us, and we won’t have time to try it out. Two and a half hours have gone by without my noticing it.
We head back over the field toward the barn, and I divest myself of the harness and helmet. I didn’t graduate to the big kite, and I wasn’t pulled into the sky like a saint before the adoring masses, but still, wrestling with the wind has generated a warmth that radiates outward, from soul to skin. Maybe I’ll be back. Maybe I’ll get in some actual tacks with the big kite. But for now, it was enough to be out on the snow, fencing with the air and leaving city preoccupations behind.
Jamieson Findlay is an Ottawa writer and author of the novel The Summer of Permanent Wants.