Jack Kukowski held up his anemometer — try saying that three times fast — to measure the wind speed, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Too light for his tastes, the wind that had gusted more than 35 mph the previous day had settled down to a wimpy 7 mph from the southwest on this early December afternoon.
That’s not enough when you’re trying to launch a large kite and get it flying fast enough to pull a lightweight sled across the ice. Most times, it seems, outdoors enthusiasts complain about too much wind, but when you’re into ice — and snow — kiting, wind is the name of the game.
Within reason, of course.
“Typically when you’re kiting on ice or snow, you should have at least 8 to 10 and preferably 12 mph of wind,” said Kukowski, 55. “Then, you should be able to go at a fairly decent clip and keep the kite moving the way it’s supposed to, although I like more wind if the snow is deep.
“That is one of the fickle things about this sport — you’re really at the mercy of the wind.”
A senior quality technician at Polaris Industries in Roseau, Minn., Kukowski, of Badger, is among a relatively small but loyal segment of outdoor recreation seekers who use kites to ride the wind across ice and snow each winter.
Depending on whether he’s on ice or snow, Kukowski uses either a homemade three-skied aluminum sled with a single seat or downhill skis for his wind-powered rides.
“There’s actually a lot of people that kite in North America and Canada,” Kukowski said. “And even in Minnesota and North Dakota, there is a pretty good group of kiters. There’s actually a club down in the Twin Cities that has quite a few members, and they get together every year and have snow kiting events, so it’s a pretty big sport. And it’s big in Europe, as well.”
The ice on this portion of “the Bog” at Roseau River Wildlife Management Area north of Badger was nearly bare — perfect for ice kiting, if only the darn wind had been more cooperative. Just a couple of hours earlier, conditions would have been much more favorable, Kukowski lamented.
Now, not so much.
“We were supposed to have decent wind even into the early afternoon,” he said. “I don’t know; I’ll throw a kite up in the air and see what happens. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get a puff of wind.”
The kites Kukowski uses to ride his passion come in several sizes, and the nylon Ozone-brand kite he decides to launch is a 10-meter — so-called for its 10 square meters of material.
The larger the kite, the better its potential for catching the wind on days like this.
“I bet if I put that 10 up, it would actually drag me around a little bit,” Kukowski said.
There have been times, Kukowski says, when he’s hit speeds approaching 25 mph across the ice with the sled and 40 mph with skis on snow.
Lake of the Woods, with its vast expanse of ice and snow, is a favorite winter kiting destination, Kukowski says.
“I’ve carried a GPS when I was snow kiting on Lake of the Woods, and it feels like you’re going 100” at 40 mph, he said. “There are guys who have gone much faster. There are people that have hit over 70 mph. That would be pretty spooky.”
Kukowski, who’s also an avid kayaker and canoeist, said a paddling friend turned him on to winter kiting about 2007. It sounded like fun, he recalled, and that led him to start checking out videos on YouTube and exploring online sources for any information he could glean.
He started with a “trainer kite” — a small kite about 5½ feet wide — before gradually moving up to larger kites as he gained experience.
“Once I got the concept down with the little trainer kite, I started buying larger kites and experimenting with kiting using skis,” Kukowski said. “It was a challenge at first, but once I’d been at it for awhile, something finally clicked, and I was able to move across the snow pretty much in control and get back to my destination and go out and do it again whenever there was wind.
“It’s kind of an addicting sport once you learn the ropes.”
Kites retail for $1,100 to $1,500 or more, depending on the size, Kukowski said, with additional costs for ski or snowboard equipment and safety gear such as elbow pads and helmets. Newbies who buy used equipment probably can get into the sport for about $1,000, he said.
Today, Kukowski says, he has four airfoil kites — 6-, 8-, 10- and 14-meter sizes — and two inflatables, including a 16-meter he says is “a real monster.”
He’s used both types on snow and says the inflatables sometimes can be more of a hassle.
“You’ve got to inflate the bladders and get it all set up, so you’re dealing with these bladders and valves when it’s cold out,” Kukowski said. “Sometimes, they’ll freeze and occasionally, the bladder gets a hole in it, and then you’re done.”
That’s why Kukowski prefers airfoil kites like the one he uses on this day.
“They’re shaped like an airfoil or canopy of a parachute,” he said. “They’re simple to set up, there’s no pumping them up and no worrying about bladders.”
Even in light winds, the kites exert a fair amount of pull, and Kukowski wears a
harness similar to a rock-climbing harness to maintain control. The kite is steered with a control bar that is hooked to the harness; it has four lines about 75 feet long that extend to the
kite, and Kukowski uses the center lines to initiate what’s called a “hot launch,” which works well in lighter winds, but can be rather exciting if the winds are strong.
“I pull on the center lines, and the kite starts to rise up,” he said. “The cells are inflating — those tubes that run across the body of the kite, they inflate and give the kite its shape — kind of like a parachute, actually.
“When you dive the kite, that’s when it gets the power. It generates power the faster
All modern power kites have some sort of safety system designed into them. That’s necessary, Kukowski says, because the kites can generate huge amounts of power, given enough wind. The kite’s control bar has a safety release Kukowski can use to free himself from the kite if he crashes and can’t regain control.
There also is a safety leash or tether that hooks to the steering lines. If he releases from the control bar, Kukowski says, he’ll remain tethered, but just to the outside, or steering lines. That will have a braking effect and sometimes bring the kite down.
“If stuff really hits the fan, you can release the tether as well,” Kukowski said. “It has a quick-release on it, and you can just let the whole thing go. It’s better than going over a cliff or into a fish house or off a mountain or whatever.”
There’d be no worries about mishaps — or “kitemares,” as they’re known in the vernacular — on this early December afternoon.
“Since we have like pretty much no wind, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Kukowski said. “I’ll be happy if we can get the thing in the air, to tell you the truth.”
In the air
Despite the light wind, Kukowski soon has the kite aloft, and it produces a loud “whooshing” sound as it hovers above the ice. A couple of wind puffs — to call them gusts would be generous — produce enough power to pull Kukowski a short distance on his sled, but most of the time he simply stands, waiting for more wind and wearing ice cleats to maintain traction as he flies the kite.
Unfortunately — for ice kiting, at least — the forecast was right, and the breeze continues to diminish; keeping the kite aloft becomes increasingly difficult.
There’s no choice for Kukowski but to call it a day, pack up the kite and hope for better wind conditions next time.
“It was blowing pretty good this morning,” he said. “If we would have been out here even a couple hours earlier, I think we would have been fine. But when they say the wind is going to die, sometimes they’re right, and today was one of those instances.”