BEND — Finally, a gust of wind blew hard across the cold white terrain, puffing a swirling cloud of snow into the blue sky on a ridge near the east base of Ball Butte.
Tim Carlson took immediate advantage of the wind. His bedsheet-like foil kite flapped into the air, and suddenly he was up and skiing. The kite took him back and forth across the flat swath of snow as he turned expertly on his telemark skis.
Soon others joined in, and the mid-January sky was filled with half a dozen colorful kites as the skiers and snowboarders carved their way along the snow.
"It's the new chairlift," quipped Carlson, president of a group known as the Bend Kite Crew.
One of the latest winter sports to hit Oregon, snow kiting has a small but dedicated following. The seven-member club meets most winter weekends at Dutchman Flat Sno-park near Mount Bachelor before snowmobiling about five miles due north to Ball Butte.
Snow kiting is an offshoot of kiteboarding, a water sport that is popular in places such as the Columbia River Gorge and the beaches off Florence. Snow kiting, however, is practiced on land.
Just like kiteboarders, snow kiters use large inflatable kites — some use foil kites that are easier to power down — that allow the wind to pull them along. Kite lines attach to a snow kiter's harness and handle, which is used to maneuver the kite.
Most snow kiters in Central Oregon are snowboarders, but telemark and alpine skiers also take part in the sport.
Snow kiting has been popular in Europe for many years, according to Matt Willett of the Bend Kite Crew, who notes that the sport has been introduced in the United States over only the last five years or so. Kiteboarding on water has surged in popularity over the last decade.
"It's actually easier to learn on the snow because there's not as much density (in snow as in water)," said Willett as he set up his kite. "It helps to have soft snow. Hard snow definitely hurts a bit when you're learning."
Willett demonstrated that kiting can be unpredictable and sometimes a little painful. As soon as the wind began gusting, Willett was up and riding on his snowboard. He quickly switched directions and the kite launched him a few feet up into the air. Then he landed hard on his rear. On his back with the kite above him, Willett was looking for a pocket of wind to get moving again, but the kite came crashing down instead.
Wind speeds of 10 to 20 mph are ideal for snow kiting, according to Carlson, and the base of Ball Butte, an area popular with backcountry skiers and snowboarders, is a great place to find the right wind.
Waiting for the wind is a necessary part of snow kiting. But once that wind comes, there are plenty of options. On this day, for the Bend Kite Crew, those options included surging up Ball Butte, changing directions to catch air, or just gliding across the snow. The southeast wind that typically blows through the treeless area can send snow kiters charging up the butte.
"When you're getting pulled uphill, that's the best feeling in the world," Carlson said.
Harnessing the power of the wind can also be dangerous. Snow kiters must make sure they do not get pulled into trees or slabs of ice.
"It's surprising how much power there is," said Steve O'Shea, another member of the Kite Crew. "It's like having a motorbike up in the sky."
Kite Crew member Brent Bishop offered another comparison to describe snow kiting: "It's like wakeboarding, but you're driving the boat, too. You've just got to learn how to turn the kite."
From Dutchman Flat, members of the Bend Kite Crew routinely make a 20-minute snowmobile trip up to the Three Sisters Wilderness boundary near the base of Ball Butte. Snowmobiles are not allowed past this boundary, which is where the snow kiters usually set up. Groups of no more than 12 people are allowed past the wilderness boundary, per U.S. Forest Service rules. Snow kiters must be careful not to travel too far or get into a difficult situation in the wilderness because snowmobilers will not be able to rescue them.
Carlson started the club because snow kiting is such a gear-intensive sport. Club members contribute funds that go toward the purchase of snowmobiles and other shared gear. Carlson hauls everything to the snow kiting site on a small drift boat hooked to the back of his snowmobile.
"I think it's going to become really popular," Carlson said of snow kiting. "The hard part is coming up with all the equipment to get up here, so that's why we created the club."
Bend Kite Crew members started meeting last winter, and they were able to snow kite into July because of the hefty snowpack in the Central Oregon Cascades.
The crew recently hosted the inaugural Winter Kite Fest, which included 40 snow kiters from all over Oregon and Washington. Some snow kiters were able to ride all the way to Tam McArthur Rim, some three miles from the wilderness boundary.
The wind was blowing and it was amazing, Carlson said.
"A classic southeast wind. People were flying off the top of Ball Butte," he said.
Aaron Sales, the editor of Kiteboarding magazine, was on hand for the event.
"Finally a killer spot to ride in the Northwest!" Sales is quoted saying on www.bendkitecrew.com.
"That says it all, because he's been to Alaska, he's been everywhere," Carlson said.
Carlson is worried, however, that snow kiting might be banned from wilderness areas by the U.S. Forest Service, much like paragliding and hang gliding are banned. Any mechanized mode of travel is prohibited in wilderness areas.
"Is (snow kiting) really a mechanized mode of travel?" asked Chris Sabo, trails supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest. "It's definitely a new mode of recreation in the wilderness. It's under discussion, and it's not isolated to here. It's really growing in other places."
Carlson and other local snow kiters hope to work with the Forest Service to keep their sport alive in wilderness areas.
"We want to totally comply with their expectations," Carlson said, "and keep it open for everybody's use."
On the Net: Bend Kite Crew, www.bendkitecrew.com