Imagine transporting the kite flying experience of youth into a sport that harnesses the wind to power through summer waves or across frozen lakes.
Mike Kratochwill, 43, remembers the moment he was really hooked.
He saw a guy cruising across a snow-covered Minnesota lake. It was like a “near to far” episode of “Sesame Street.” Seemingly in a blink of an eye, the man went from a small figure in the distance to being right in front of Kratochwill.
“I thought, man, that is amazing,” Kratochwill said.
Kratochwill had taken a lesson in kiting and knew just enough, he said, to be dangerous. With a practiced move, the charismatic stranger dropped the kite to the ground.
“The guy came up and wished me well and gave a couple of pointers,” Kratochwill remembered. They talked a little. Then the calm and thoughtful stranger gracefully and seemingly without effort sent his kite back up into the air and was off. Near to far.
This weekend, March 1-3, as long as there is wind to grab, the kites will be flying over Mille Lacs Lake in the ninth annual Kite Crossing event.
Kiteboarding is a growing sport where people on skis, snowboards, even ice skates, are harnessed to kites to master the wind. The same kites may be used for windsurfing on open water, using a different board. While supporters of certain sports can draw lines around themselves — even down to ice or water — wind enthusiasts don’t make those distinctions, Kratochwill said.
“Windsurfers and kiters, we really get along and its unique, actually, it’s a facet of Minnesota nice,” he said.
The easy-going community of people who harness the wind, whether they like the speed or just want to cruise the lake with feet mainly on the ground, was part of the attraction.
The pull was so strong Kratochwill left a corporate work environment and turned his recreation pastime into a business. It doesn’t pay as well as he’d like, but Kratochwill said the sport and the people make up the difference.
“The sport is just contagious that way once you try in and learn how to do it you become impassioned about it that way,” Kratochwill said. Through his business, Lakes Area Kiting and Windsurfing Advisory (LAKAWA) and its school of kiteboarding, Kratochwill has taught hundreds of people how to kite.
There is a learning curve akin to a skiing, snowboarding or golf lessons in getting body and mind together for the right move. Equestrians have the right idea of direct reining as pulling right means going right. But new students often think more of a wheel and turning hands in a crossing motion or throw in a little body English. Learning on snow is easier than water. But starting with too big of a kite may mean getting up close and personal with the snow pack.
“These kites are powerful — you can really have a lot of fun,” Kratochwill said. “It’s not hard to jump and float and to get up in the air, but you have to be skilled and have to know kite size and wind speed. Behind every successful jump are a bunch of failed ones.
“When you hang on to the kite for the first time you are awestruck. You are mesmerized. You wonder if this kite is going to lift you off the ground. That’s a foreign feeling to put your fate in this kite.”
Some kite boarders love the speed and the air, going 20 or 35 feet off the ground. Others, including a 68-year-old Kratochwill was recently on a lake with, prefer the serenity of gliding across the open snow powered more gently by the breeze aloft.
The age range of those in the sport is expansive. And the wind enthusiasts are able to embrace a day that may chase boats from the water or send others indoors to wait out the winter.
When it snows, Kratochwill said he doesn’t just think about shoveling the driveway.
“As a kiter we find the snow days just add to the pure play factor, so you get the joy of getting out there,” he said. “I can’t wait to go and put in fresh tracks in the snow.”
Like age-old sailers, the only thing they are dependent upon is wind. More than 100 riders are expected for the endurance kite race on Mille Lacs Lake this coming weekend, March 1-3. The event, which will include demonstrations, is out of Garrison Bay but times are wind dependent.
The 132,000 surface acres, or nearly 200 square miles, of Mille Lacs Lake provides a perfect playground for kiteboarding. By March 1, fish houses must be off Minnesota lakes, opening the way for the kites. The area has been a welcoming place for the annual event, Kratochwill said.
“It’s a great way to get out and have physical activity that is far more diverse than a club membership,” Kratochwill said of the sport, adding it offers an element of play for adults who have worries of jobs and mortgages and the everyday stress of daily life where pure fun can be hard to come by.
“I really relish in the fact we have that ability,” Kratochwill said. “It’s free. It’s green. It’s just the wind.”