Winter Play: Let's go ride a kite!

A person on a snowboard steers an orange kite
MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III launches a kite during a snowkiting lesson with Chad Dobson on White Bear Lake in Mahtomedi, Minn. on Jan. 31.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime.

It’s rare that I have experienced the aphorism “pride comes before a fall’ quite so physically.

There I was, feet bound to a snowboard, harnessed to a giant kite, sailing across frozen White Bear Lake, my ego as inflated as the kite above me until it all came crashing to a halt.

A man wipes out while kite sailing
MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III learns how to snowkite during a lesson with Chad Dobson on White Bear Lake in Mahtomedi, Minn. on Jan. 31.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

While I catch my breath, which had been knocked out of me, I should back up a little.

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I've never been kiteboarding, never had the desire. For me, the term “winter fun” is an oxymoron.

However, when this opportunity presented itself as an option for our Winter Play series, I leapt at it. I remember thinking, "Hey, if I fall at least it'll be on snow, how bad could it be?"

Ignorance is bliss 

On the day of my lesson I woke up early, jumped in my vehicle and headed toward the Twin Cities. It was minus 12 when I left home, but by the time I met the photographer, Stephen Maturen, it was a balmy 3 degrees. 

Two men sit in the cab of a truck
MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III, left, gets a quick overview of kite types and wind planes during a snowkiting lesson with Chad Dobson.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

I met Chad Dobson, the owner of Dynamik Kiteboarding, not far from White Bear Lake. I signed a release and Chad launched into a 20-minute orientation with visual tips on how to channel the wind while strapped to a board.

It was only when we drove out onto the lake that I realized the reality of the situation. Unlike with fresh powder, there was no give to the lake snow. It was solid.

"No worries," I told myself. "I just won't fall." Ignorance really is bliss. However, I did make sure I had my helmet.

Learning the ropes

The first lesson was kite control. Chad had me practice doing vertical and horizontal figure eights in the sky with the kite. Like a bicycle, pulling the handle of the kite back with my left hand made it go that direction. Opposite hand, opposite direction.  

A man practices steering a kite
Mathew Holding Eagle III learns to fly a kite during a snowkiting lesson, starting with making shapes in the sky.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

While going through the exercises I developed my first tinge of uncertainty. I'm not exactly small — 5 foot 11 and about 215 to 220 pounds. But the kite had the power to pull me around like a rag doll.

A man holds onto the end of a kite
MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III is pulled along as he learns to fly a kite atop the frozen lake, trying not to fall on the hard icy snow.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

I learned if I got myself in trouble I could do a couple things to decelerate. I could grab a center line and deflate the kite. I could also just let go of the handle and the kite would lose some of its pull.

Later I found out — the hard way, after being dragged across the ice like a can tied to the back of a car with a “just married” sign — that option was less than ideal. 

Time to go

Chad explained to me when it comes to kite-powered winter sports, it’s best to start on skis, and then graduate to the snowboard. But I had snowboarded before, and insisted I was ready, blithely forgetting that experience was a couple of decades ago.

After mastering the vertical figure eight which is used to fill the cells of the kite to make it pull, it was time to go live.

We jumped onto a snowmobile and headed to the middle of the lake. I put on a harness and clipped into the snowboard bindings, which despite being in a wide open area, made me feel a bit claustrophobic. 

Two people prepare to go kite boarding
Instructor Chad Dobson adjusts a harness on MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III during the lesson just before he sets out for the first time.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Early on, the biggest challenge was gauging the wind to get from a seated position to standing.

Then I had to get used to the wipeouts. There were many, so I got a lot of practice.

It got to the point I started feeling like Johnny Knoxville in "Jackass." Turning to Stephen, the photographer, after a big one, I asked, "Did you get it?"  

A man crasjes on a snowboard, while another jumps to avoid him
During the lesson, Mathew Holding Eagle III crashes (again, and yet again).
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Thankfully, he did.

I had to take a couple standing eight counts, but little by little, crash after crash, I rode the wind!

A man learns to steer a kite
Instructor Chad Dobson helps Mathew Holding Eagle III launch his kite on White Bear Lake.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Teacher knows best

Eventually, I switched over to skis and instantly things improved. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief at how much easier it was than the board.

Being Indigenous, I have wide feet. Because of that the ski boot started cutting the circulation off in both my pinky toes. I decided to call it a day after one last run, which was when I crashed through a snowbank along an ice path.

I saw it coming but instead of relying on my training I told myself, "What the heck," and tried to navigate through it. Once the skis touched the ice it was all over. I slipped backwards and bashed into the surface.

A kite flies above a man
Mathew Holding Eagle III flies a small kite during a snowkiting lesson, with photographer Stephen Maturen observing: “It's really embracing the power of nature, I should say, so giving yourself over to the elements.”
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Lessons learned

All in all, it was a great experience. Later when we were packing up Stephen said he was proud of how I stuck with it.

"You never gave up in the face of conquering nature,” he said. “It's really embracing the power of nature, I should say, so giving yourself over to the elements.”

Then he moved from philosophical to the practical positives.

“It's cold. Very gusty. And we still have all of our fingers and noses and stuff. But most prominently, you still have all of your bones intact and your skull is intact. So that was good to see." 

A radio reporter sits on a snowmobile
Mathew Holding Eagle III poses for a portrait with all the gear he used after taking the snowkiting lesson.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

 Chad says he enjoys helping beginners.  

"I just I love the sport, I love being on skis, being on the kite (to) ride in the wind, and that giving back to the community. Just seeing the smiles on people's faces that first time they were out across the lake.”

He then turned it back to my experience.

“You felt that. You were all smiles even though you fell. You were all smiles. You got up and I love seeing that."

I'm glad I was wearing a helmet. And always listen to your guide. Skis were leaps and bounds easier than the board. But most importantly, all the physical pain was worth the feeling of freedom sailing across an ice-covered lake.

A kite flies high above a frozen lake
You can't see it in this photo, but MPR News Reporter Mathew Holding Eagle III was all smiles during the kiteboarding lesson that day.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

If you go

Where: There are many kiteboarding companies throughout Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities. We went with Chad Dobson’s Dynamik Kiteboarding out of Eagan. His website can be found here.

When: Kiteboarding can be done year-round — with wakeboards and water skis in the summer or snowboards and skis in the winter. However, wind is a necessity so check the forecast.

How long: If you own your own equipment there is no time limit. If taking lessons, the first one will last between three and three and a half hours. It’s designed to get people from never having flown a kite before to getting rides the first day.

How much: The price was $270 per person for the first lesson. After that it was $100 an hour with a two-hour minimum. Dobson said most people will come back for between two and eight hours depending on their skill set. If you want to invest in your own equipment it’ll run between $1,300-$2,200 for just the kite.

What to wear: Bring wind-resistant, waterproof clothes and layer up. I also wore a gaiter around my neck that I could pull up over my nose if it got too cold or windy. A durable pair of gloves is also a must. Being that I used a guide, he brought all the equipment I needed for the activity. Although the snow may look soft, it was my experience that it wasn’t. And always make sure you wear a helmet.