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Snowkiting coming to Winterfest

WORTHINGTON — What do you get when you combine windsurfing, snowboarding and kite-flying? A high-intensity activity with spectator appeal and unique character: snowkiting. 

“Snowkiting is the winter version of windsurfing — lots of windsurfers get kites out in the winter. Since we celebrate windsurfing every summer in Worthington and have a lot of wind all winter, it seemed like a natural fit,” said Jay Milbrandt, local snowkiter and Winterfest board member of his idea to bring snowkiting to Winterfest Saturday.

The appeal of snowkiting, which originated in the second half of the 20th century in both northern Europe and the U.S., is broad and requires a wide range of skills. The snowkiter must control a large, parachute-like kite made of synthetic material while balancing and changing direction on a traditional snowboard or pair of skis.

“As an organized activity, I’ll credit Cory Roeseler (Oregon) and the Legaignoux brothers (France) who independently in the ’80s developed recreational systems allowing independent use to go down-wind, across the wind, and upwind. Upwind is the key skill since it allows you to get back to where you started, like a sailboat,” said Minneapolis snowkiting expert and recreational shop owner Mike Kratochwill, who along with Milbrandt is coordinating the snowkite racing in Worthington.

The exciting hybrid activity has attracted athletes from several winter sporting disciplines, with many in Minnesota and the Midwest. Snowkiting gained renewed traction as a sport in the 2000s, and Red Bull now sponsors a worldwide competition, the Ragnarok, on the Hardangervidda plateau in Haugastøl, Norway.

Although Worthington’s frozen Lake Okabena is not a mountain plateau in Norway, its windiness and open expanse offers a prime spot for snow kite racing that Milbrandt and Kratochwill hope to exploit to bring a new form of entertainment and cold weather fun to Winterfest 2016. Kratochwill himself has been involved for over a decade.

“I saw it somewhere in 2002, in a magazine, I think. It stuck in my brain, I ended up discussing it with others and it evolved into (my) first realization via instruction in 2004. It simply fascinated me, and figured it’s what I wanted to give a try. I find peace in kiting, whatever the surface or time of year. There are so many ways/places to play once you acquire the skill,” Kratochwill said.

As snowkiting is very new to Worthington and Winterfest, Milbrandt explained they are starting small and hoping for increased involvement in coming years.

“We’re hoping to run 3-4 races; since this is the first time we’ve done this in Worthington, and we don’t expect a high turnout this year. Hopefully, though, it will catch on and we can encourage people in Worthington to give it a try,” Milbrandt explained.

Kratochwill said snowkiting is an activity that people of diverse ages and abilities can learn and enjoy.

“The activity itself is unique in that virtually anyone can do it,” Kratochwill said. “It’s not age or gender specific, and has riders as young as 6 up to over 80 years old. How you choose to do this is your only limits: snow, water, surf board, strapless, booted in, twin tips, snowboard, ice skates, foil board, and buggy — there are so many ways to play, and it fits in most travel bags to satisfy your interests wherever you go.”

Milbrandt, who first got involved in snowkiting in 2003 after wanting to carry his water kiting into the winter, said the public should have ample opportunity to view the races. The snowkiting event will happen in the vicinity of Sunset Park, depending on ice conditions, and will likely begin before the Deep Freeze Dip and end around the time the Dip starts.

“We will set a course — typically between some flags at two ends of the lake — and the public can watch from anywhere, but should keep at least 200 feet away from the kites,” he said. “The kite lines extend out about 50-60 feet and can be a bit challenging to control in gusty conditions. There is a core group of racers in the Minneapolis area, but we hope to see if there are other kiters in the region.

“If the ice is bad, we will hold off until next year,” he added. “We can make that call this week.”

The racing that will hopefully occur in Worthington this weekend is a part of a larger set of competitions that Kratochwill has organized through his outdoor recreation store and school in Minneapolis, Lakawa.

“I created the Lakawa Snowkite Race Series this year for the first time,” Kratochwill said. “We have had ‘races’ in the past, but never in this structure. Course racing helps you realize your skill and challenges what you know.

“I don’t particularly like the term ‘race,’ since it’s really fun,” he added. “I personally enjoy the opportunity to know what to work on to become a better kiter.”

Worthington will be only the third of 10 planned races in Minnesota this winter, with the first two having between 10-20 participants per race.

“Different locations, like Worthington, not only offer a great place to showcase snowkite racing but at a minimum an opportunity to become aware of it,” Kratochwill noted. “As with any endeavor, time will tell. I’m eager to see how it grows.”

Despite fears of bad ice keeping the situation somewhat in flux, Kratochwill said he is excited to showcase the emerging activity and bring a new event to Winterfest

“I simply hope to feature (snowkiting), provide an opportunity to see the activity and … give the community an option to have a resource to getting involved,” he said. “Naturally, my business supports these efforts, but I believe the visual spectacle of it alone will engage and fascinate those who show up. Kiting simply looks nice and compliments lakes really well.”

Schedule

Worthington’s Winterfest will officially get underway with an opening ceremony from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Worthington Event Center. The event will include the crowning of the Winterfest royalty; turn-in of pledges and money for the Deep Freeze Dip; registration and shirt pickup for the Don’t Get Lost in the Frost Two-Mile Run/Walk; the Red Hot Chili Cook-Off (People’s Choice voting); and weekend announcements.

Saturday’s schedule includes:

Southwest MInnesota Ice Fishing Tournament, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (registration at 7 a.m.)

Don’t Get Lost in the Frost 2-Mile Walk/Run, 8 a.m., Worthington Area YMCA

Snowmobile Show & Shine, noon (setup beginning at 11 a.m.) Sunset Bay

Pond Hockey Tournament, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunset Bay

Snow Kite Racing and Demonstration, in the vicinity of Sunset Park, exact location depending on ice conditions

Deep Freeze Dip, 2 p.m., Sunset Bay

Community Open Skate, Sunset Bay: 4:00 p.m.

Warming Party, 7 p.m., Hickory Lodge

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