Big Air: Snowkiting gains traction

Cesar A. Portela, 38, poses for a portrait while snowkiting at the Fairgrounds in Watertown.

BY: Olivia Belanger
The north country’s snowy, cold and windy winters transform its lakes, ponds and open fields into ideal conditions for snowkiting. Traditional water kiteboarders who couldn’t wait all winter created this sport, using similar techniques and equipment, to get their adrenaline fix.

    Snowkiting or kite skiing is an outdoor winter sport where people use kite power to glide on snow or ice. The skier can also use a kite to give them power over large jumps. The sport is similar to water-based kiteboarding, but uses the same footwear as skiing or snowboarding.

    One resident, Cesar A. Portela, 38, said he took up snowkiting about ten years ago after seeing it on television.

    The origin’s of the sport can be traced back to 1972, but has been gradually spreading all over the globe. Foil kites were first introduced, but foil or inflatable kites are now available to use.

    In regard to technique, it’s very similar to windsurfing or kiteboarding. Kiteboarding combines aspects of wakeboarding and sailing into one sport. A kiteboarder harnesses the power of the wind with a large, controllable power kite to be propelled across the water, land or — in this case — snow.

    Compared to normal skiing or snowboarding, it’s more difficult to maintain balance since the kiters arms are controlling the kite.

    According to Mr. Portela, snowkiting requires at least 15-to-20 mile per hour winds and about two inches of snow on the ground. Depending on the wind speed, the size of the kite used will change.

    Snowkiters can stay at a jogger’s pace or accelerate to 50 miles an hour, depending on the kite’s size and wind speed. The higher the wind speeds, the smaller the kite, Mr. Portela said. They can go upwind or downwind, jump almost 100 feet in the air or just stay grounded if preferred.

    “The other day when the wind was blowing about 30 miles per hour, I was probably doing around 60 miles per hour,” Mr. Portela said.

    Most people use a snowboard to snowkite, but Mr. Portela said he uses downhill skis to have better control against the wind.

    He uses an open field for the sport, free of wires and trees, so the wind buildup isn’t interrupted.

    “It’s really fun because you can go wherever you want to go in the field, you can steer and stop whenever you want, wherever the wind’s blowing,” Mr. Portela said.

    Mr. Portela said he typically heads to fields in Clayton, or sometimes he’ll end up at Thompson Park. The windier the place, the better.

    On the Tug Hill plateau, a snowkite rally is held each year because of the open space and exposure to wind. The location is so ideal, it’s been called the “snowkiting capital of the east.”

    For attire, Mr. Portela said he wears several layers similar to what he’d wear skiing so the cold wind doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the sport. Even at freezing temperatures, though, Mr. Portela said the thrill of the sport makes it worth it.

    “If you get enough clothes on and winter gear, you’re bound to have a lot of fun,” he said.

    It is a typical misperception that kiteboarding requires strength, Mr. Portela also said. In reality, he said the kite does all the work.

    When kiteboarding, a person has a harness around their waist that will pull the boarder, as long as they know how to fly the kite.

    “People think it’s a really strenuous activity, but you don’t have to be physically fit to do this. You just have to learn how to fly the kite,” Mr. Portela said.

    He said learning the basics of kiteboarding took patience and practice, but now he is able to not only enjoy the sport, but teach others.

    Mr. Portela has three sons — ages 7, 9 and 12 — who are all in the process of learning the sport. They are all in the early stages in the snow, but in the water they have all been able to gain their balance on the board.

    Snow kiteboarding is actually easier than on water, in Mr. Portela’s opinion, because on the water there are more obstacles to consider.

    “You have a lot more going on,” Mr. Portela said. “You have to fight the current, the board and the wind.”

    He said his youngest son, Jesse, is still using a smaller training kite to get him used to balancing and handling the kite.

    “I enjoy getting people into it,” Mr. Portela said.

    The only downfall to the sport, he said, is it’s pricier than most hobbies. Though there are places to buy kites and harnesses used, a brand new set could cost upwards of $2,000.

    Luckily, he is able to use his equipment two seasons of the year for both snowkiting and water kiteboarding.

    “It’s definitely not cheap, the equipment’s not cheap, but it’s so worth it,” Mr. Portela said.

                Snowkiting can also be dangerous and challenging without experience, though it can be mastered by practically anyone. Those interested in trying snowkiting should ask a knowing-friend or hire an instructor.