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Snowkiting takes off

Extreme winter sport gives fans a new way to ride like the wind

Email|Print| Text size + By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2006

MILTON, Vt. -- Rachael Miller screams across Lake Champlain on skis, traveling close to 30 miles per hour while tethered to a kite that obeys her like a giant, if somewhat obstreperous, dance partner.

The pair literally whistle in the wind as they skip across cloud shadows from the sun above the Adirondack Mountains. Splashes of powder from the modest overnight snowfall explode under Miller's skis.

It seems her only limit is the boundary between ice and water, located somewhere far over the horizon. The scene is dreamlike . . .

Time for a reality check.

Here is a 35-year-old woman emitting occasional joyous yelps as she cuts new tracks through an endless expanse of untracked powder snow.

She is going about twice the speed of the wind. And if she chooses, she can jump 30 feet high in what may be the only sport where you go up faster than you come down. There are no lifts, no lift lines, no lift tickets, and no out-of-control skiers and snowboarders threatening from above. In fact, there is no above; there's no hill -- or hardly any gravity, so it seems.

Dreamlike and real, the sport is snowkiting, one of winter's newest and fastest-growing adrenaline highs. Enthusiasts are preparing to gather on Lake Champlain next weekend for Kitestorm, New England's third annual snowkiting festival.

Organized by Miller and her husband, James Lyne, the event drew more than 1,000 kiters and spectators last year. This year's program is slated to include free introductory lessons and demonstrations by snowkiters from around the country.

''Not long ago, practically no one knew what this sport was. That seems to be changing," said Miller, one of the first certified instructors in the East and co-owner with her husband of Stormboarding, a snowkiting school based in Burlington.

Snowkiting uses wind to power highly maneuverable rectangular airfoils that somewhat resemble modern parachutes. In certain configurations and with certain motions of the control bar, the kites can actually generate their own breeze to go faster, and in many more directions, than by relying solely on the ambient wind.

In cross section, a kite resembles an airplane wing. Lift -- or a vacuum -- is generated over the top surface. The rider basically has but one axis of control on the bar; a pull on the left causes the kite to drop (or rise, depending on the starting point) on the left. A pull on the right sends the kite up or down to the right. Now the airfoil is not only feeling Mother Nature's wind, but that of the apparent wind it is generating. Do this up-down maneuver to one side or the other of the wind direction and the rider not only can cross the wind but also can go 20 degrees or more upwind. It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, but it sure can get you places faster.

How fast is the sport growing? Ozone, a leading manufacturer based in France, sold some 400 snowkites to Americans in 2001, according to Rob Whittall, one of the company's designers. Annual US total sales in 2004 reached 2,000, with that number expected to double by the end of this season, he said.

The greatest potential for growth is on the tablelands of the Midwest, according to Christopher Nygard, of the Professional Air Sports Association, which, among other functions, certifies snowkiting instructors.

''I'm Minnesota-born," said Nygard, now a resident of Oregon, ''and I predict the days are numbered where flatlander kids press their noses to the window and wonder how they are going to play in the snow and wind." Kites are now used for polar expeditions; snowkiters are literally skiing up mountains in the Himalya this season; some competitors have even proposed racing across Greenland with kites.

Snowkiting -- and kiteboarding, the older, waterborne sibling -- should not be confused with parasailing, where tourists basically dangle from parachutes while being towed behind speeding boats. Kiting, be it on snow or water, is an extreme sport. There are rules of nature and aerodynamics to be learned. Mistakes can injure. Bad mistakes can kill.

Two snowkiters in North America have died in the past five years, according to Nygard. At least a half-dozen have died kiteboarding. Most accidents occur at launch when victims -- almost always experts -- are flying kites too large for wind conditions, instructors say.

For the novice, the return for time invested is far greater on snow than water, according to Nygard. The kiteboarder requires far more power -- ergo, a larger kite -- to get out of the water and into the air. The need for that power can often result in a nerve-racking, water-logging series of failures for the beginner. Snowkiters, however, start standing. They are already on the slippery surface they will ride, and begin with small kites.

Small is how Justin Assad and Kate Newbauer began an introductory snowkiting lesson from Miller on a recent morning at Sand Bar State Park, which abuts Lake Champlain.

Assad, 24, heads the coaching staff for the University of Vermont's sailing team. Newbauer, 27, manages the Community Sailing Center on the Burlington lakefront. They arrived with a keen understanding of wind, but neither had ever tried to snowkite.

''I'll attempt anything that's outside, fun, and fast," Assad explained as he squeezed into ski boots. ''It looks like this sport pretty much qualifies."

Miller, a former Brown University sailing team member, who once tried out for the US Olympic team, co-founded Stormboarding two years ago because no adrenaline sport was taking advantage of Lake Champlain's playground.

''It is an incredible resource," said Miller. ''I've had students who never skied, learned to kite here, then went on to become proficient alpine skiers. They did it backwards."

Miller has dark hair often corralled under a woolen cap, and stands a trim 5 feet 4 inches tall. In a game of ''What's My Line," one of the last guesses would be ''extreme sports instructor."

''I sometimes get that questioning look from students wondering: 'This woman teach me?' " she said. ''Then they feel the power of a kite, watch how I can control it, and my credibility goes way up."

Before launching a kite, Miller and her students trudged several hundred yards out on the snowy expanse of Lake Champlain, a gear-laden sled in tow, distancing themselves from potential kite obstacles on shore.

Miller tested the ice for thickness. Then she and the students laid a small kite out on the snow, rigged the lines, and talked about the schizophrenic personality of a flying device that can go from sweet to nasty with a flick of the wrist. Then, for the better part of an hour, Assad and Newbauer took turns learning how to place the kite in positions that exploited those personalities.

Snowkiting experts have jumped almost 100 feet in the air. The Stormboarding website (www.stormboarding.com) has become a repository for speed postings worldwide, with kite companies offering free equipment to top performers.

''We ask them to submit a digital photo of the (global positioning satellite) reading with their faces in the pictures," Miller said. ''In part, we have to rely on the honor system and faith that people are going to hurt good karma by cheating."

Last season's tally includes the following entries: One Andreas Dahle of Cooking Lake, Alberta, recorded the fastest speed of 66.9 miles per hour. Shane Rodwell (6th) went 51.4 miles per hour in Halley, Antarctica. Rachael Miller (19th) went 34.1 miles per hour at Sand Bar State Park.

Newbauer and Assad would not be posting record speeds this day. They were topping 8 miles per hour on skis -- in gusts. Then again, they were just two hours into their first lesson, emitting the enthusiastic yelps that appear to come with the turf.

''I cannot begin to estimate how many times I have driven by this lake in winter and never considered going out on it," Assad would later muse. ''This has entirely changed how I look at this space."

How? He paused to think.

''A world of opportunity has just opened up," Assad said.

Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer, at northwester@comcast.net.

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