Wind winging: the affordable, easy-to-pick-up winter sport you have to try

Photo by Liam Mogan

Dan Bartoli is a Canadian superdude. By day, he is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered electrical engineer who works for a global manufacturing conglomerate. From the company’s outpost in a Peterborough, Ont., industrial park, he designs and builds tiny, mundane machines. “We make instruments that measure volume and level using ultrasound,” he tells me. I had no idea such contraptions existed, but apparently, lots of companies need lots and lots of them, and they’re not cheap. The work has kept him busy, endlessly improving his mousetrap for decades. 

But once he clocks out from work, Dan seeks out adventure, attempting feats of derring-do using way cooler gadgets. He is fit and lithe, seemingly without an ounce of body fat, a late-fifties guy with the cut physique of eternal youth. Only the salt-and-pepper hair hints at his years. On this mid-March weekend, we are at his cottage north of Buckhorn, Ont., on the shores of Gold Lake. A snug log cabin hideaway is built atop a massive granite slope, but the little wooden shed down by the lake is where he keeps his gear. 

The day is cold but cloudless, and the lake is blanketed by a thick sheet of ice and a cushion of fresh snow. Dan’s wearing mirrored Ray-Bans to filter the bright sunlight bouncing off the white horizon, nothing but middle-aged chill. He grabs his alpine boots and slips them on, even though there’s no chairlift within an hour’s drive. Then he pulls out his skis, leaving the poles behind, and grabs the mystery gear—a waist-high duffle bag weighing less than seven pounds, along with what looks like a bicycle pump on steroids. 

With pump in hand, skis slung over one shoulder and duffle bag over the other, Dan walks it all out to the middle of the frozen bay. Most guys with gear to show off can’t stop talking about it, but Dan doesn’t say a word. He is not a talker to begin with (a trait common to both mild-mannered men and their alter egos), and his silence heightens the anticipation. He drops the bag onto the ice, unzips it, and reveals his superpowered contraption. It looks like what you might get if you crossed a windsurfer with a hot-air balloon: a mast-less, hand-held triangular kite with an inflatable skeleton. Is it a bird? A parachute? No! It’s…an Armstrong A-Wing with a 5.5 m² surface area. 

Dan blows up the wing’s airframe in two minutes flat with less than 100 pumps. He lays his skis on the ground, snaps his boots into their bindings, holds the wing above his head, and he’s off. It’s not a particularly windy day—not even windy enough to require the harness he sometimes uses—but the wing is so light and manoeuvrable that he can hold it at whatever angle best captures the breeze to propel him forward. He’s doing something I previously thought impossible: downhill skiing without a downhill slope, gliding effortlessly on a bald flat lake. 

Standing beside me out on the ice, Dan’s wife of 34 years, Cindy, gets a chuckle out of my amazement. “You may have noticed he’s a quiet guy,” she says, “but this is what gets him woohooing.” Cindy is the chatty one in the relationship, the artist to his engineer, an amateur photographer and writer. 

They’ve always been active as a couple, but Dan’s the adrenaline junkie. You should see him, she tells me, when there’s some real gusts for him to lean into, when he can slalom, spin, and practically achieve liftoff. “The first time he ever tried it was in the farmer’s field behind our neighbourhood in Peterborough,” she says. “It was very windy, but he got the hang of it fast.” As she was watching him test his wing from their bedroom window, she recalls, a neighbour texted her. “She says, ‘You gotta check this out! There’s this guy out in the field…What is that thing he’s holding? Is he on…skis? What he’s doing is unbelievable!’ She was watching him through her binoculars. She didn’t know it was Dan.” 

Winter cottaging is not for everyone, but as the saying goes, those who like it, like it a lot. Cindy and Dan Bartoli’s cottage isn’t fully winterized; its central heating system is a woodstove, supplemented as necessary by portable electric heaters. But they love it here in winter. Once the fire is roaring and dinner’s in the oven, the open-concept living area cozies up and holds the heat nicely. As a bonus, the leafless winterscape provides an even better view of the bay. 

The property was initially purchased by Cindy’s mother and her aunt, Peggy and Carol Noyes, who, in 1952, snapped up one-and-a-half acres of just-released Crown land with 400 feet of waterfront. The lot cost $143.70, plus a survey fee of $80.50—Cindy still has the receipts. The sale was conditional upon the construction of a private summer cottage within 18 months and valued at no less than $500. Peggy and Carol bought a prefab kit for a 20-by-24 foot structure from Peterborough Lumber and built it with the help of Peggy’s boyfriend, William Wakeford, who promptly purchased the smaller neighbouring lot and built an identical prefab on it six years later. 

Theirs is an iconic Peterborough love story: Peggy worked at Quaker and Bill at General Electric, the city’s two largest employers at the time, and whose massive manufacturing plants still dominate the cityscape (though GE’s beautiful red-brick buildings, built in the late 19th century, are now mostly empty—the company shut down its Peterborough operations in 2018). They met and married at Mark Street United Church in Peterborough’s East City neighbourhood, and had three kids who spent their summers with their cousins at the Gold Lake cottage in the Kawartha highlands. The provincial park of the same name, originally an 18 sq. km postage stamp on the map, was expanded in 2003 to 375 square clicks that now borders their lake. 

Cindy loved exploring that wilderness as a kid—“It was our playground growing up,” she says. Her childhood cottage experience was rustic in the true sense of the word: no running water and an outhouse. “Whenever we complained, my mother would just say, ‘It builds character.’ It became a family punchline.” Stubbed toe? Dunked canoe? Poison ivy rash? Lose big at cards? It builds character. 

Cindy and Dan met as third-year undergrads at Queen’s University in the mid-eighties, at a girls-night-in house party where Dan and his buddies were dressed up and serving dinner for the gals. After they’d been dating a while, she brought him up to Gold Lake for what she called the cottage relationship test: “If he can spend a week with an outhouse and no shower and still wants to come back, he might be a keeper.” (This test is really just another way of saying, “It builds character.”) Dan passed this test with honours; he and Cindy wed in 1988. 

Around that same time, Peggy and Bill engineered a property deal: they traded Bill’s smaller neighbouring cottage to Carol for her share of the original cottage. That deal cleared the way for a rebuild: in 1991, 40 years after it was originally built, Peggy and Bill tore down the prefab and built the current one in its place, with a spacious porch, a hot shower, and four bedrooms surrounding the open-concept living area. And perhaps best of all, the woodstove made it possible to come up in winter.

Cindy and Dan are four-seasons-active people, preferring human-powered activities to motorized ones: canoeing over boating, Nordic skiing over snowmobiling. “But for as long as I’ve known Dan, he’s always had an affinity for wind,” Cindy says. He learned to sailboard as a teenager growing up in Sudbury, Ont., and though he’s been doing windsports his entire life, he still struggles to describe why he loves it. “The engineer in me is fascinated by the physics of it,” he says. “There’s just something about the power in the wind, when you’ve got the harness on and everything is balanced and the wind is pulling you, and you’re just flying along.” No one who sails is ever bored by sailing. Every wind is unique, and using it to power your vessel is always a test of physical and mental acuity. Even when you spill, it’s a great natural high. 

But windsports are almost invariably summer sports. The only exceptions to this rule are kite skiing and ice boating, activities that entail a lot of complicated gear (the ropes on the kite are an ordeal all on their own), technical knowledge, and potential injury. Furthermore, kiting requires a very large body of frozen water, while ice boating requires a very large body of frozen water without any snow on it, which is a tall ask. They’re fussy sports. Neither is the kind of activity most cottagers can do from their waterfront. 

The inflatable wing, though it was built for use on water, is the game-changing winter cottage toy that we’ve all been waiting for. 

Its development was part and parcel of the recent decade-long wave in water sport innovation, including the stand-up paddleboard and the foilboard, which is basically a surfboard with a hydrofoil riveted to its underside, allowing it to rise out of the water when moving at speed. And with each of those inventions, the adrenaline junkies could only watch and wonder: wouldn’t it be cool if that thing had wings? 

The key to the invention of the wing, which didn’t exist until a few years ago, was the inflatable-strut technology that forms its skeleton, which is rigid enough to catch the wind but light enough for any 14-year-old to hold over their head. The first commercial wing was introduced to the market in 2018, and it’s surprisingly affordable for such a new technology: anywhere from $700 to $2,000. 

Their popularity has also been propelled by Covid-19. In fact, it was in the midst of lockdown-enforced web surfing ennui when Dan first discovered them. “We were going to go to Aruba with another couple to learn to kiteboard in the winter of 2020, but that trip fell through,” he recalls. That’s when he found some videos of winter wingers on skis and snowboards. The advantages, he says, were obvious right away. “There’s no way I could kite ski at the cottage because the lake’s not big enough. But I knew the wing could work.” He bought his A-Wing online for $1,300. Shortly thereafter, he was out in the field wowing his neighbours and, soon after that, woohooing on a frozen Gold Lake, just like he is now. 

There’s only one way to end a day of winging on the lake, and that’s in the sauna. (This, by the way, is where I learned how ripped Dan is.) It’s a wood-fueled barrel sauna manufactured in Ontario by Dundalk Leisure Craft. Cindy and Dan bought it in 2018, and thanks to both the sauna and the wing, they spend more of their winter weekends at the cottage than ever before. Dan’s mother was Finnish, so affinity for saunas runs in his blood.

Once Dan gets the sauna fire roaring, he pulls out some more cool gadgets, an auger and a giant saw, to cut a hole in the ice for a cold bath. In keeping with their ethos, they’re 100 per cent human powered, no batteries or ripcords allowed.  Dan’s got the system down: he draws a big triangle on the ice, drills a hole at one point, then saws straight lines between it and the other two points.

After 20 minutes in the dry sauna heat, it’s time for a dip. With total calm, Dan walks out to the triangle and lowers himself into the freezing water. He basks in it for a while before returning to the sauna. Steam rises off him like a slow-simmering human torch. I, on the other hand, a polar-bear-dip novice, can barely keep my composure as my lungs shrivel up in the water, then scamper back to the sauna like a lizard on its hind legs. 

The best thing about winter winging, Dan tells me, is its accessibility. If you can ski or snowboard, you can do it. “You don’t need lessons for winging like you do with kiting,” says Dan. “It’s really easy.” There’s some learning to do when it comes to harnessing the wind—Dan can talk endlessly about optimal angles and wind direction—but you figure out the basics pretty quick. 

And snow is probably a better surface for learning windsports than water. There’s no ducking under a swinging boom; no falling into the lake; no hauling yourself back onto a sailboard; no uprighting a soaked, heavy sail; no falling back in when you can’t find your balance; no deerflies biting your ankles through the entire ordeal. When you’re winter winging, you just tumble onto your kiester in the snowy cushion like you would on the slopes, and then you get back up and keep going.

Cindy is not the type to dote over or worry for her husband, but she definitely recognizes the advantages of his winter hobby. She tells me about the many injuries Dan has sustained while windsporting in summer—wrenched ankles, jammed fingers—but he won’t stop unless he’s bleeding. “Winter winging is safe,” she says, “and it has really opened up the season for him and for us.” There has never been a lower price to pay, in terms of money or risk of injury, for the adrenaline rush of windsports. It’s enough to make anyone feel super.

Want to try winging? Here’s how to get started

Look for smooth, packed snow in an open area such as a lake or field (bigger is better). In softer snow conditions, wider skis or a snowboard will work better.

wind winging gear
Photo by Liam Mogan

Skis: Dan says he bought his skis about 20 years ago for some trips out west and hadn’t used them much in the last several years. “So winging was the perfect reason to dust them off,” he says. “Any set of skis or a snowboard will work for wing skiing.”
Dan’s gear: Skis are Head C10s, and boots are Alpina

Harness: A windsurfing harness and line for the wing will allow you to cruise all afternoon without tiring.
Dan’s waist harness: Dakine

Wing: “There is now a huge selection of wings online,” says Dan. According to Jean-Robert Wilhelmy, co-owner of windshop.ca, before you buy, you should think about whether you’ll be using it in winter and summer, how much wind your area gets, and whether the lake tends to have a lot of waves. Wings are measured by area in square meters in a range of sizes, such as 2 m² at the low end and 7 m² in the upper range. You also need to factor in your weight and experience; as they go up, so can the size of the wing. “To start, you need a beginner-intermediate wing that is quite powerful to get you going, such as the Freewing Go or the Takuma Concept,” says Wilhelmy. He recommends a 4.3 m² to 4.5 m² wing for lighter weight and 5.2 m² to 5.5 m² for medium to heavy. “A wing that’s too big gets very tiring and heavy on the arms, and if it’s too small, it won’t make you move.” He suggests taking lessons at the beginning and starting with a good wind to help you get going fast.
Dan’s wing: Armstrong A-Wing 5.5 m²

This story was originally published as “The Wing King” in the Winter 2022 issue of Cottage Life. 

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