I’ve been thinking about it, and, just hear me out here, I think the thing that has really kept me from achieving my athletic glory potential is not my gracelessness, nor my aversion toward elevated heart rates, nor the fact that throughout my eight years in competitive tennis I don’t think I ever even once actually looked at the ball as it made contact with my racquet, but rather my large and stupid imagination.
Either I’ve pictured myself achieving unmanageable successes, in whatever sport, from the gate, and have therefore doomed myself to be disappointed (as was the case with ice skating) or I have imagined myself dying on the very first try (the first ever kid to pass out and die from a free throw that misses the whole backboard) and have, in those cases, stayed far away from something I would, by necessity, have to be better at than I’d have thought.
Or else I’ve signed up to do something, having done very little research beforehand, and, while I wait for the day I’m set to do it, developed a series of increasingly unrealistic and kind of embarrassing mental pictures of what me participating in that activity looks like.
I’ll just say it: today I thought I’d be flying around in the air over a frozen lake, attached only to a kite.
I don’t think anyone but me can be blamed for misunderstanding so thoroughly what it was I’d be doing here, but this, I think, is where it started: I read the description of the “Intro to Kiting” course on the Lakawa Kiteboarding School website—“Our goal at the end of this class is to have you moving through the wind”—and I immediately saw myself floating peacefully across a lake by kite, eight or 10 feet off the ground so I wouldn’t be too scared—and then I apparently blacked out before I could comprehend the second half of the sentence: “...not dissimilar to riding on the snow or the water.” Or the sentence after that: “This is a land-based lesson focused on kite only.” I read those parts too, but I guess not really. I was already gone, floating away.
It snowballed from there. First I must have mixed in what I knew of parasailing, thinking we’d be attached by tethers to the ice so we wouldn’t end up in outerspace or Wisconsin. But later, subconsciously, my mind erased the tethers, and we were floating on our own—for a few minutes at a time, only, gently gliding back to the ground whenever the wind died down a little. I relayed this made-up version of a sport to my friends, Rylee and Colleen, and I sold them on going snowkiting with me by telling them I was sure (but how?) we wouldn’t be “going too high up.” To their credit they responded, “How will we get off the ground?” But not to their credit: when I said, “I think you just sort of run and take off,” they did not question me at all.
WHEN WE MEET MIKE, a gregarious instructor and guide at Lakawa, in a church parking lot next to not a lake, but a snow-covered, wide-open field, and one of the first things out of my mouth is the question (because by then I’d started worrying about it, and I honestly can’t believe it took me that long), “So, how high are we going to get off the ground?” and he says, “You won’t,” I am confused. “You mean we aren’t going to ... fly, or anything?” I ask him, at the same time realizing how weird it would be to be able to, in a single day, pay someone to let you float off into the sky with all of his equipment, not really knowing how/if you’d get back down. It had made so much sense before. Sort of.
To clarify: you can, at a certain stage, snowkite yourself off the ground. If you get there with training (which you should probably, definitely, do), it will be a while: months or maybe more, depending on how often you practice. (And when you do, you will be jumping into the air while on skis. Never, I’m sorry to say, will you just be hovering around, hanging off a kite.) Mike tells us that he, having participated in the sport for years, only got off the ground in the last few. Our introductory course that day would teach us the basics of using the kite itself. The next session after ours (which, at Lakawa, costs $300) gets you on the skis, pulled along by the kite.
It depends on wind and skill level, but snowkiters have reached speeds upwards of 70 miles per hour this way. (As Wikipedia rather dramatically puts it: “The limits of speed for snowkiting are not yet known.”)
But first—unless you want to just buy several hundred dollars’ worth of equipment and launch yourself into the sky like a lunatic—you have to learn how to manage a kite in a two-to-three-hour intro lesson like ours. It sounds like a lot for an activity most of us got the hang of as little kids, but these kites are four meters long, and that’s just to start: the kites used by the more advanced students in our group are 14 and 15 meters across. They yank you. To pull them across the sky takes enough effort that my muscles will be sore the next day, and Rylee will have a bruise from clenching the bar so tightly.
MIKE LEADS US ONTO the field and unpacks the equipment. He stands some 20 yards out from our little group, launching our kites into the sky and yelling, “Pull left! Pull right!” to help us keep them afloat. And that’s all you do—pull left when the kite is headed too far left, ditto on the right—but it is tough. What the kites want to do, especially, I notice, when Colleen is steering them, is to crash into the ground. I’m the last person to try it, and as I’ve found is the case with almost everything, it’s worth it to wait and watch everybody else mess up a whole bunch so that you don’t have to. When it’s my turn, I don’t crash the kite at all.
“She’s a natural!” yells Mike, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been called “a natural” at anything having to do with sports. I’m hardly even trying. Mostly I am just standing here.
Out of the corners of our eyes we watch the advanced students gliding across the field on skis—not at 70 miles per hour, but not so slowly either—and for the first time I can remember, I am jealous that someone’s getting to do the scarier version of an activity I’m doing. Toward the end of the lesson, I do a weird little hop into the air, just three or four inches off the ground, just to see if the kite could take me with it. It didn’t, of course, but for that half-second it was fun to think about.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.