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Santa's Little Yelpers

Children at Naval Center Enjoy Visit From Sled Team

December 18, 1999|TONY LYSTRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORT HUENEME — Six-year-old Lili Mitchell had a theory about why Santa ditched his reindeer for huskies during an early visit to the Seabee base Friday: Reindeer are just too slow.

"He didn't want to be late," said Lili, among scores of children who turned out with their parents to view Santa Claus as he toured the Naval Construction Battalion Center.

Lili wasn't kidding. Santa's eight little huskies ran their hearts out during the visit, clicking along at a good 15 mph as they whisked the jolly guy in the red suit through the base's neighborhoods.

Santa was mushing dogs owned by base engineer Preston Springston, who has been racing Siberian and Chinook huskies for more than five years.

For the past three years Springston has surprised Navy families with Santa's visit.

Children watched in awe Friday as Springston unloaded the eight hyper dogs and clipped them to the side of his truck. The dogs, so eager to run they could barely stand it, yelped and tried to cozy up to the nearby children.

Erik Bolin, 5, who lives on the base, wanted to know if the dogs were "magic huskies." He was especially curious as to whether the animals, many of them just puppies, had sharp teeth and whether they could fly.

Springston eventually hooked the dogs to a four-wheeled "sled" with all-terrain tires, a steering wheel and brakes.

And they were off, led by a base police car, its lights flashing and siren blaring.

Families poured out of their homes as Santa--who under that beard and suit bore a striking resemblance to Springston's 22-year-old son, Adam--did his best to hang on. It was a wild ride, driven by dogs who live to run. "Merry Christmas!" he shouted.

The families standing on their lawns grinned. They wrinkled their brows, not quite sure what they were seeing. But the sled sped on, seemingly skidding around corners.

Two weeks earlier, Santa made the same run for families at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

The Springstons' sled-dog hobby, and the holiday tradition it spawned, happened by accident.

Preston Springston brought a hyperactive husky named Czar home from the pound about eight years ago. When obedience training didn't calm the big dog down, Springston began taking Czar for runs on his bike. Then he let the dog tow him on snow skis. Then it occurred to him, "You know, I'd go faster with two dogs."

Today, the family, which lives in Silver Strand Beach, has five sled dogs. Three of the puppies that towed Santa on Friday were loaners from friends.

Preston Springston trains his dogs with the wheeled sled on beach, pavement or pasture--anywhere they can run. And he races in California's mountain areas--with moderate success.

"We're never going to win," he said, laughing as he surveyed his team of dogs, panting after doing their part for Santa and the children.

The big-time Alaskan teams win races, he said. His team is more about fun and usually makes a decent showing. The goal, he said, is simply to get the dogs to work hard together--and leave each other alone during the race.

The huskies can be mischievous, he said. Sometimes the temptation to play with the dog to your right is just too much for a husky during a long race, but most of the time they behave.

"I've had to kick some dogs off the team for fighting," he said.

He suggested the husky-drawn Santa run through the base three years ago, and his son got involved when the guy who was expected to don Santa's suit backed out, said Adam, who studies physical education and human movement at Cal Lutheran and pitches in the minor leagues for the Dodgers.

So Adam reluctantly got stuck with the gig. Now he loves it.

"It's good karma, playing with the kids," he said.

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