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Born to Run

Huskies Get Chance to Fulfill Their Calling--in Oxnard

November 24, 1997|CHRIS CHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Obedience school failed to tame the restless Siberian husky.

And nightly walks on the beach just left the dog hungry for a tougher workout.

So three years ago, undaunted by a lack of snow and driven by his dog Czar's ceaseless yearning for the outdoors, Preston Springston started a sled dog team.

Sure, people around Silver Strand beach stop and stare as Springston rides through the neighborhood on a big red cart, yelling musher's instructions to a team of huskies. But the dogs and their driver don't mind.

"A husky is just not obedient. It's just not their thing," said Springston, 49, a Navy engineer. "What a husky wants to do is run."

This time of year, the training gets intense.

With winter sled dog races in the Sierra Nevada coming up, Springston rounds up his team three or four nights a week for practice runs. They mush near the beach, on dirt paths near Oxnard College and in the Los Padres National Forest, a setting more natural for arctic working dogs.

"When I first met him, he surfed," said Springston's wife, Anne. "Now it's sled dogs, but it's not fly by night. If you have huskies, you better be dedicated to running them."

Before he started racing, Springston tried obedience school. But while labs and hounds rolled on command, Czar ignored instructions. At home, the dog bounded about at all hours of the day, leaving Springston searching for a way to tire him out.

Springston had seen sled dogs on television and heard about the famous Iditarod race that covers more than 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. Getting a racing team together seemed to be a good way to make his dog happy.

He started looking for husky owners close to home. He didn't have much trouble, for the breed is apparently popular with Oxnard beach-area residents.

Mike Stanfill was walking his dog, Victor, one day when Springston slammed on the brakes of his pickup.

"I've got a sled dog team, and I'm looking for some dogs. Yours looks pretty healthy," Stanfill recalls Springston saying.

That sounded great to Stanfill, whose husky was a bit edgy too.

A couple who breed Siberian huskies put Springston in touch with some local dog owners. Another half a dozen husky owners in the Oxnard beach area signed on. Springston had a team.

To learn about racing, he contacted other Siberian husky breeders and the International Sled Dog Racing Assn. in Merrifield, Minn. The organization has 750 members worldwide, including about 60 in California.

Springston read magazines for mushers. And he bought loads of specialized equipment: dog harnesses, a 30-foot-long bungee cord that lets the dogs pull with minimal strain, plus that steel practice cart with rubber wheels.

The equipment did not come cheap. Springston uses a $1,200 trailer to pick up the dogs for practices and drive them to winter International Sled Dog Racing Assn. races in Northern California. The wooden racing sled cost $800, and the practice cart another $350.

And staying overnight in ski towns such as Mammoth, where weekend dog races are held, adds up. Springston has given up skiing to pay for his sled racing.

But when he is riding that cart, with dogs charging as hard as they can, it all seems worthwhile.

"People call their kids to come out on balconies," he said of his runs through his beach neighborhood. "The streets are wide, and the traffic is real slow."

Bound by shady eucalyptus trees, the dirt paths near the college are a more private place to train. After a practice there last week, the huskies relished their rewards--hot dogs, water and pinches on the cheek.

These days, Czar has stopped running because of asthma. Springston adopted two more huskies, Blaze and Bandit, to take up the slack.

Springston said sled dog racing keeps him in shape. When the dogs hit an uphill stretch, he must push the sled with one foot. On especially steep grades, the driver gets off and runs.

"The perception is the musher is just riding on a sled," he said.

He also points out that mushers never actually yell "Mush!" Instead, the commands are: "Hike!" "Pick it up!" "Easy!"

Springston said his team struggles with some disadvantages. The Alaskan huskies they go up against are typically faster. And having a seaside city as home is tough. Other husky teams in California live together in kennels, he said, and pull drivers far lighter than his 200 pounds.

Usually, about a dozen teams of six dogs each compete in the races up north. In three years together, the best finish the Oxnard area sled dog team has posted is seventh.

But the main point, he said, is getting the dogs running on snow--not winning.

"There's nothing happier," Springston said, "than a husky running down a trail somewhere."

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