Take a visit to Alta or Green Lakes this winter and the sight of fluttering sails could convince you youd stumbled upon a summer aquatic scene. Except of course the water is frozen and the sails can fly as high as 30 metres in the air.
Kite boarding or kite surfing is a relatively new activity in North America that is fast gaining converts among high speed sporting enthusiasts and the curious. The idea of using a kite as a wind-fuelled propellant for skis or boards has been around since the late 80s. However the sport didnt really take off until three years ago in Maui and Oregon, when a group of world-class windsurfers began experimenting with the kite system. And now it has arrived in Whistler.
A single visit to Alta Lake yields a variety of users. Renee Hanks and Willie Kern brought their two kites up from California one being a "trainer kite" and the other a five square metre high performance model with an inflatable frame. Surfing kites can be up to 15.5 metres in size and most are designed to float on the water.
The couple first encountered kite surfing at the Gorge Games at the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon last summer where "people were doing all these amazing tricks using kites on the water."
Joining them on Alta Lake was Alistair Sutton from England, with his home-made power kite, and Jurg Humbel from Whistler riding his "ice sail" invention. Other kite fliers could also be seen at the far end of the lake.
So what is the appeal of a sport that revolves around being towed by your arms? To the novice eye, it looks a little tiring and even unnecessary, given the number of wind-powered sporting machines such as windsurfers that will take the beating instead of your body. The answer is on several levels.
"You can get big air on a kite," says Hanks. "Were talking up to 40 feet in the air and covering big distances in those jumps its so much fun."
Kites need relatively less wind than windsurfers, which require at least 25 knots to make the big jumps.
"Portability is a big plus factor," adds Sutton. "Its small enough to travel with and it can be used for towing on the snow or water." He added this was his first time trying it out on ice with a snowboard.
So whats the verdict?
"Its great," he says. "Kites provide a different type of power source and a new way of thinking cant wait to try it out on the water."
Access was another key selling point.
"Skiers use the kites to glide up the Mount Hood glacier and they travel a lot faster than the lifts," explains Kern. "We want to get good enough to do that, plus its a pretty humbling experience to harness and feel the power of the wind."
Mastering kite flying techniques isnt as easy as it looks, while still trying to steer your board or skis. A quick lesson from Kern reveals there is the "neutral zone" almost directly overhead where the kite can easily fold and fall if the wind drops, as well as the "power zone" where it just about pulls you off your feet. The bigger the kite is, the more strength and weight the flier needs, to avoid doing a Mary Poppins impersonation. Hanks says being overpowered can be terrible if you get shot up into the air or dragged along the ground. Having the balanced combination of kite size, wind speed and riding equipment is important.
"It can be scary but overall its a pretty safe sport, especially when you compare it to something like kayaking where you are at the risk of so many elements."
Likewise Humbel says ice sailing has risks inherent with travelling at speeds of up to 100 km/h, but he believes his invention is safer than windsurfing on ice. The ice sail setup consists of a windsurf sail attached to what looks like half a snowboard. Humbel is attached by a waist harness to the main sail and moves alongside on skis.
"My design allows you to escape if you need to because you will brake instantly if you let the sail go," he explains. "This flexibility means you can gibe safely at 80 km/h, unlike other ski or board wind machines on the market where it is all attached."
Humbel has been working 15 years on the design and hopes to launch the product after the World Ice Sail Championships in Saskatoon in mid-March.
"Whoever is in the business of designing power kites stands to make a killing," says Hanks. "The sport is at the experimental stage and people are willing to take risks when buying to test out a new idea or product lots of room for innovation."