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Burlington,VT: Snowkiting on Lake Champlain

Burlington,VT: Snowkiting on Lake Champlain
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I trudge across the ice, following Rachael Miller, my snowkiting instructor, onto frozen Lake Champlain. My classmates tower over me–one with a need for speed, another just looking to shorten a long Vermont winter. Me? I’m a 5-foot 2-inch schoolteacher who’s looking for a new challenge.

On the lake, fellow riders abound. They slide on skis and snowboards, tethered to 14-meter kites. And they relax in harnesses, dragging gloves through the powder, turning flips and tricks. Rachael started her company, Stormboarding, in 2002, and it’s clear from the crew of hooky-playing riders zooming across the ice on a sunny Friday afternoon that she’s tapped into something. A consistent wind of 8 to 15 knots will get riders out in droves. During Kitestorm, the February festival Rachael founded, the sky is a rainbow of billowing, silky color.

After an hour of introduction to the equipment, it’s time to fly kites. A three-meter kite lies on the ice, its leading edge rustling. We’re going without skis at first, so I set my ski boots as best I can and tug the control bar toward me.

“Resist, resist!” Rachael shouts as the kite grabs the breeze. I slide, but manage to nudge the kite to a neutral position directly above my head. For a right turn, I simply bend my right elbow; for a left turn, I bend my left. I practice figure eights. I tug hard with my right hand and the sensitive kite dives to three o’ clock; I overcompensate with my left and the kite’s pull overpowers me. I run forward, helpless.

“Let go!” Rachael hollers. The brake is attached to a cuff on my wrist, but I forget this first line of safety and crash to the ice. My impact vest does its job, and the bar springs from my hands. The kite settles harmlessly to the ice.

I’m trembling. Suddenly I don’t want to do this. I reluctantly relaunch, but quickly hand the control bar to a classmate. I’m off the hook.

But Rachael has seen such intimidation before and lays out a smaller kite for less intense power. The great thing about kiting is that you can go at your own pace. If you love cruising, you can go with a smaller kite and slide across the ice all day. If you want scorching speed or air, it’s available. Soon, my figure eights become more aggressive and controlled. It’s time for skis.

I clip into my bindings and launch my kite. Snowplowing, I resist the kite’s initial tug, bring it to neutral, and adjust my skis to a 45-degree angle to the wind. I take a small backswing to the right and dive the kite to the left. I’m off–at a smoking two miles per hour, but I’m riding. My strokes become fluid and I pick up speed. I can’t help but grin, my wind-burned face turned to the sun.

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