The exact early history of the spark is lost in the mists of time, but the first confirmed sighting was in Sweden around 1870. Perhaps a Viking runestone will be found with a drawing of an early spark! My guess is that some inventive Swedish farmer nailed a chair to a pair of skis, and used it for hauling firewood. etc. "Spark" means "kick" and "Stöt" means "push". The word "stötting" or "stutting" was also used for small sleds used for hauling wood.
By the 1890's sparks had spread to Norway and Finland. In 1900 the modern steel runnered spark was developed, and the design remained nearly unchanged until now. At first they were built by the local village blacksmiths or carpenters, but then larger factories began to produce them. The zenith of the spark was in the period 1920-1950. In 1948, the company J Malmqvist & Son of Växjö, Sweden manufactured 135,000 sparks.
Sparks were used for transportation and then for sport as they spread to larger cities. In 1888 Stockholms Sparkstöttingklubb was founded. The club leader was Viktor Balck, who later became one of the founders of the Olympic Games.
There were major competitions in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Spark racing was one of the 3 major events (besides skiing and skating) in the Nordic Games (Nordiska Spelen), which was the ancestor of the Winter Olympics. However, after 1910 or so, sparks were mainly used as a utility vehicle. Today they are still used in smaller towns.
Serious spark racing was revived around 1985 in Finland by Hannu Vierikko. Racers built ultra-light racing models with carbon fibre frames etc. There is now a mass-produced racing model called Kick-spark. The longest race is the Viktor Balck 100 km, The record time for that is now near 3.5 hours, the average speed is close to 30 km/hr! The sprint record is over 40 km/hr! Many of the skating marathons have a spark class, such as Vikingarännet in Sweden, Weissensee in Austria, or Finland Ice Marathon . (and maybe soon on Big Rideau Lake in Portland, Ontario).
There is even a single blade kicksled called a "monomed".
The modern adult-size spark has 2 flexible steel runners, about 200
cm long and 5 mm wide. They are about 40 cm apart. Two uprights, made
out of wood or tubular metal are about 90 cm high. A wooden handelbar is
attached to the top of the uprights. There is a small seat in the front.
Usually there are foot rests attached to the runners. The seat can be
used for carrying luggage, a passenger or just for sitting on when
taking a rest. The seat is sturdy enough to hold at least 100 kg.
small picture of spark
One puts one foot on the footrest and kicks with the other foot.
To coast put both feet on the footrests and steer by twisting the handlebars.
WARNING! There are no brakes! Brake by digging the heels into the ice.
When it is too difficult to kick, just push it walking behind.
animation of kicking
Sparks are used extensively in small towns and country roads in Norway, Sweden and Finland, where sidestreets and sidewalks are not sanded or salted in winter. Depending on the user, a spark can serve as a bicycle, wheelbarrow, grocery cart or baby stroller. It has been called "the most environmentally friendly vehicle".
It is possible to rent or borrow a spark in many towns in Norway. This is often the best way to get around in some of the small towns in winter. The side streets, sidewalks and bike-ways are not plowed bare, but a packed layer of snow is left. The town of Lillehammer loaned them for free in 1999. Ask at the tourist bureau. In 1996 the tourist bureau in Røros was loaning them for free. Some larger towns may have a problem with thefts, so bring a bicycle cable lock.
Picture of traffic on Main Street, Lillehammer
For a real "spark" adventure visit the small town of Tynset (pop. about 3000) in northern Hedmark. Norway's biggest spark factory, NORAX (previous called NORØ), is in town where they make the "Tarzan" and "Rapp" models. The first thing you see when getting off the train is the "World's Largest Spark" in the town square. On a winter day most of the town's people will be riding sparks to work, school, or shopping. If you stay at the Tynset Hotel and Vandrerhjem ask Britt if you can borrow their spark. I often tied my skis to the spark and kicked my way out of town on the bike/walking lanes about 3 km to the start of the good ski trails.
Pictures of town square and parking lot at
Article from Tynset newspaper
There is an article about sparks at a museum in Tynset
Movie Trivia : "Song of Norway", musical, 1970: Almost the very first scene in the opening credits is of a person crossing a lake on a spark. Later in the movie in the Christmas scene- filmed in Maihaugen in Lillehammer - there are some sparks.
In Canada, the National Capital Commission in Ottawa/Hull rents sparks, the best place to use them would be the Rideau Canal.
There are rumours of early spark sightings in North America. In Monson, Maine, Swedish-born blacksmith Gustaf Johnson made kicksleds from about 1914 to 1950. Apparently the Monson museum has a sample of his kicksleds. See: Monson-facts and an article from a Maine newspaper in 1938
There are also reports of sparks being used in the 1920s in Jaffray in south-east British Columbia. See: "Kickers" in Jaffray
A spark is quite useable and fun here in Nova Scotia. Ski conditions are very unreliable. In winter we have a lot of frozen lakes with ice too rough for skating and not enough snow for ski-ing. But sparking on lakes is great (except for headwinds!). So the spark is my winter "canoe" as well as my winter "bicycle".
For better grip on ice with my boots I have tried various cleats and
mini-crampons. The best I've found are these VIBRAM(tm) boot soles with
sheet metal screws called ICERS. They attach to my boots with VELCRO straps.
photo: ICERS (mini-crampons) on boots
See: ICERS or a very similar product in the USA: STABIL-ICERS
Another approach is to put sheet metal screws (#8 1/2 inch hex head) into the soles of an old pair of hiking boots. This is described in The Screw Shoe
I have learned a few kicking ideas. Don't lean heavily on the handlebars, but keep most of your weight on your feet. This may not be a good aerodynamic position, but it produces more kicking force. Change kicking feet every 5 to 10 kicks to prevent overtiring each leg. The standard spark seems to be better balanced when there is some weight on the seat, which makes sense since it was designed to carry cargo. The geometry of the racing models (kick-spark) is different, they are designed for high speed stability rather that carrying cargo. A more aerodynamic posture may be possible on the kick-spark.
I put small sections of foam rubber bicycle handlebar grips on the ends of the handlebars. These are warmer and more comfortable to grip, especially when one is bouncing over rough ice.
There is more about kicking technique on the Kicksledding Primer (Download size, with pictures, is 1200kBytes) . Although this deals mainly with the racing sled (kickspark), most of the ideas work for the traditional sled.
The regular 5 mm wide steel runners work best on ice and hard packed-snow. The use of optional 35mm wide plastic runners (or skis) extends the use to softer snow. The plastic runners are included as standard in the selling price of most of the sleds. The plastic runners also make it possible to use the sled on pavement covered with a thin layer of snow. When the steel runners hit pavement they stop quickly! The plastic runners just slow down.
However, wider runners are stiffer, making turning more difficult.
Even wider (50 mm) runners are available, but use in deep, soft snow is still not good because the kicking foot sinks into the snow. In such conditions skiing is a more suitable method of transportation. The spark can be towed behind a skier but steering it is a problem since it tracks very well in a straight line, but turning depends on the bending of the runners.
I often go on tours combining sparking with skiing or skating, depending on the ice or snow conditions. For example, the trail to a lake may have deep snow, so I ski, pulling the spark behind me. When I get to the bare ice I change to "kicking-mode" and carry the skis. On lakes and wide trails I carry my skis crossways on the sled, but this is a problem on narrow trails or the bike/walking lanes in Norway. I'll have to devise a ski-rack for my spark! I also tow the sled behind while skating. A "bungee" cord or an old bicycle inner tube on the towing rope helps even out the towing forces.
The chair allows one to take a passenger, from small babies to large adults. And one always has a place to sit when taking a break for lunch.
One question often asked is: "How fast can you go?". Well, how fast can you kick? I did a few tests with a "Global Position Satellite" (GPS) receiver, which calculates speeds fairly accurately at speeds greater than 10 km/hr. This was on hard lake ice with no wind. A speed of 10 km/hr is reached with very lazy kicking. 15 km/hr is still a comfortable pace and 20 km/hr is a real workout. It becomes increasing difficult at speed higher than that (To get technical, the kicking power required goes up as the cube of velocity)
The world record for 1 km is near 2 min (30 km/hr). Sprints over a distance of 100 m have reached over 40 km/hr. These were on racing sleds by elite athletes.
With a tailwind higher speeds are possible. But remember: after kicking almost effortlessly several kilometers down wind, one will have a headwind on the way back!
It should be possible to rig up a sail. Sailing directly downwind is no problem but sailing into a crosswind would be more difficult - possibly 2 sparks could be tied together as a catamaran. I have read about claims of sailing at 80 km/hr! But remember that stopping or turning at high speed is a problem!
-- "To rust unburnished, not to shine in use" ["Ulysses",Tennyson was obviously thinking about a kicksled! ]
If the sled is left unused for a while, especially after getting wet, a thin layer of rust will form on the runner blades. The extra friction caused by a small layer of rust is quite noticeable. A period of normal use eventually will polish (burnish!) the blades, but polishing with fine sandpaper is a quicker method.
This also applies to the paint layer on brand new sleds, the runners are shipped from the factory painted. The paint on the running surface adds a lot of friction compared to bare metal.
After use, especially when exposed to road salt, rub the blades dry. For long periods of storage, it is a good idea to rub a bit of oil or vaseline on the runners to prevent rust.
For more lateral control on smooth ice it might be possible to sharpen the blades like skates, but it would be a long process and the blades would get dull again quickly. Serious racers use special ice blades - narrow, sharp - and expensive.
I have 3 sparks . One is the Finnish ESLA. I bought it from KICKSLED CANADA in Rawdon Quebec. ESLA in Finland now has an English WWW site
Other sellers of ESLA kicksleds in Quebec are footbike.ca and LaGlisse/Goslide . For the winter season 2007-2008, kicksleds can be rented at Mount Royal Park in Montreal.
NEW Kicksled Revolution in Whitehorse, Yukon , now sells ESLA kicksleds
My second kicksled is a Norwegian model made by NORAX in Tynset. I bought it from Crossled Canada which , unfortunately, has gone out of business.
CottageSpot, a mail order store in Muskoka region, Ontario, sells Mountainboy kicksleds
Importers in the US, are Viking/Scandia Kicksleds , NordicSkater in Newbury, NH. , Brave The Snow in St Paul Minnesota, Door County Kicksled in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Ely Bike and Kicksled in Ely, Minnesota, and Kicksled Alaska in Anchorage, Alaska.
There is a custom manufacturer of kicksleds : Mountain Boy Sleds in Silverton, Colorado .
Several years ago, Tom Strang of Ottawa published complete plans for making a spark. Although his WEB site has disappeared I have saved the plans as a "ZIP" file. Download: ZIP file for Spark Construction (300Kbytes) , and unzip it. The construction requires some blacksmith skills.
There is little difference in weight, strength etc. of the brands that I have seen. All come in several sizes. Most fold flat for easier storage and transport.
The easiest way of transporting is on a car roof rack, either folded flat or fully extended. My sparks (200 cm long) ,folded flat, will just barely fit in the back of my station wagon.
My latest spark is the Finnish racing model KICKSPARK, which is now being mass-produced by ESLA in Finland. Description is at: Kickspark.
The frame of the racing model is stiffer to make it more stable at high kicking speeds (30 km/hr and faster). The runner blades are shorter, about 150 cm vs 200 cm. The compact size makes transporting the sled easier. A nice feature is the adjustable handlebar height.
My initial impression of the kickspark is that it is good for a quick workout, but not as practical for pleasure touring as the traditional spark. The chair on the traditional models really comes in handy.
My interest in kicksled (spark) led to the discovery of another Scandinavian ice sport, tour skating (or nordic skating). I received a photo of skate blades, made by the Finnish company, FREE HEELS, that attached to a XC ski boot via regular NNN or SNS ski bindings. Here is a picture of the Finnish model of skates. I searched for over a year across Canada before finding a similar model, made in Netherlands by Zandstra: Zandstra skates with NNN boots
My Zandstras appear to be a copy of these Finnish skates- or is the other way around? There is some debate as to whether these skates were "invented" in Sweden, Finland or Netherlands! (or even New Brunswick, Canada!!) UPDATE. The Zandstra wood skates were developed around 1989 by Bert Steinmetz. He tested them himself on the first Weissensee 200 km race in 1989, finishing the 200 km in about 11 hours. However, sales in the Netherlands were very poor. Sales in North America were only slightly better- no-one then had any knowledge about "free-heel or klap" skates. Here is an article from New York Times 1990: Zandstra ski-skates
I've learned that these type of skates are now extremely popular in Sweden and Finland, with either fixed or free-heel bindings. In Swedish they are called "långfärdsskridskor" (long-distance skates). Tour skating has a long tradition in the Stockholm area. The Stockholm Skating Club, SSSK, was founded in 1901 and now has about 12000 members. There are now scores of skating clubs from Lund in the south, to Luleå in the north. The clubs offer tours of 20 to 100km, usually on "wild" or ungroomed ice surfaces. When it snows, many municipalities plow off skating tracks on the lakes, many of them are over 10 km long. In the winter of 2005-2006, most of the 80 km Vikingaslinga track from Stockholm to Uppsala was kept plowed for 3 months.
Tour skating and kicksledding take place in the same conditions. Although the kicksled can be used on much rougher and softer ice, I'm surprised that is quite possible to skate on fairly rough ice. The main advantage of skates over kicksled is their light weight and portability. There is also the simplicity and elegance of skating, but the elegance is lost when your blade hits a bad spot and you fall!
Recently I have also bought these Almgrens (Sweden) with NNN boots (seen with "isdubbar"). On smooth ice with no snow there's no difference between the 2 models. The aluminum base of the Almgrens gives more clearance than the wood based Zandstra when there is snow on the ice.
It seems that Zandstra
no longer makes these wood platform skates, although
Nordic Skater and other places may still have them in old stock. Now
Zandstra makes skates with aluminum platforms, very similar to the Almgrens.
Comparison photo of Almgrens and Zandstra blades on ice
(Note Almgrens is now a division of Lundhags)
In every aspect these skates are vastly superior to hockey skates for skating on outdoor ice - comfort, warmth, stability, speed, convenience. Even some competitive marathon skaters are using high-end models of these skates instead of regular long-track speedskates.
My current strategy is to check out the ice on the spark, then if I find smooth ice, I return on skates. Sometimes I skate and tow the spark behind me. It only takes seconds to attach the skate blades to my ski boots.
When on the ice with either spark or skates, I always carry a ski pole with an extra sturdy and sharp tip for testing ice strength. It is called "ispik" (ice-pike) in Swedish: Home-made ice-pike and tip detail. With a little practice, a single strong poke will determine if the ice is sufficiently strong. Often when skating, I use 2 ski poles for support and extra propulsion on rough ice or headwinds. The other safety item for both skating and sparking are the ice claws (isdubbar in Swedish). For articles about lake ice features and safety issues see: Lake Ice
There is a lot of information written on WWW about tour skating, mostly in Swedish. If you can read Swedish, Skridsko net gives links to dozens of skating clubs and thousands of articles and digital photos about skating in Sweden.
Here are a few sample photo galleries of Swedish skating tours:
Some other English descriptions of skating at: Timo in Finland and LLK in Sweden and SSSK in Sweden and Al's Ice adventures, an Australian living in Sweden and Tour Skating in Sweden, by Mark Harris, and Wildskating by Sven Andersson.
Since the climate and geography of Nova Scotia are very similar to that of southern Sweden, the potential for tour skating here is big. Some other areas of Canada can have excellent skating conditions, at least in some winters. For example, in December 2005 - January 2006 there was excellent skating on lakes in central Alberta. See: photos of Alberta Ice. Some lakes in Alberta were Cooking Lake and Pigeon Lake near Edmonton, and Buffalo Lake near Stettler.
Ironically, it seems that long distance ice skating was fairly common in the period 1870-1900 on the lakes and bays of the lower St. John River in New Brunswick. James A Whelpley developed the "Long Reach skates" which were well suited for long distance skating on the frozen lakes of the area. These skates were similar to modern tour skates, with a flat blade about 40 cm long and a wood platform that was strapped to regular winter boots. "Long Reachers" were also used by speed skaters across North America.
So skates, spark, and XC skis are a complementary trio of winter tools, if one has frozen lakes nearby. If conditions are not good for one of them, at least one of the other will have excellent conditions.
I used my sled mostly during icy periods, when XC skiing was impossible. Kicksledding decreases the stress cumulating from warm winters. While others keep complaining about lack of snow, an athlete who has included kicksledding in his training arsenal can, on the contrary, praise the weather conditions.