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On Their Marks, Get Set, Snow!

Preston Springston devotes himself to racing one of California's top husky teams, which often trains on dirt.

February 03, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAMMOTH LAKES — Tail tucked between her legs, FloJo the sled dog is shaking. She peeks at the trail in Inyo National Forest. The snow--12 inches deep, packed tight, on rolling hills--begs for a fast break. The seven other members of the team unleash a soulful howl: "Arr-arr-arr-arrrrrr!" Under a late-afternoon sun, after a six-hour drive from Silver Strand Beach near Oxnard, they strain at tethers holding them to the bed of a four-wheel-drive truck.

Their cries merge into a strangled yelp of longing for the unfamiliar thicket of Jeffrey pines ahead: "Owooooo-Owooooo ... " The dogs' usual training ground is closer to home in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, where they practice on dirt. Here, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, in 30-degree weather, seven-eighths of the Seawolf sprint team is impatient for its first snow workout of the season.

From January to March, more than a dozen sprint competitions take place on the sled dog racing circuit throughout the West. In tiny Northern California towns, where schoolchildren wave hand-drawn signs saying "Go Mushers!," the Seawolves will compete in the speedy eight-dog, eight-mile division. (The winning team typically runs under a 4-minute mile.)

For sprint dogs, the key is speed rather than the extreme endurance required of teams in storied long-distance races such as the 1,150-mile Iditarod. (The Arctic Challenge, the fictional competition featured in Disney's "Snow Dogs," is the Hollywood version of that event.) Preston Springston, 53, knows his Seawolves aren't the fastest around, but that's OK. The ex-surfer turned musher says the fun is in hanging out with his dogs in the mountains and desert, and figuring out how to turn eight independent huskies into one joyful force.

He is a married father of two, a civil engineer who chuckles at the foibles of his dogs as if they were his newborns. In 1994, the year he started out racing, Springston began training four huskies, including a slacker dog named Blaze, to pull a homemade wooden cart by the sea. Once, in the middle of a run, Blaze laid down on the trail and put his paws in the air to signal that he was calling it a day.

This season, Springston sees the way his team is hunkering down on the trail in classic sled dog form: heads down, tails down, shoulders hunched. On their weekend in Mammoth, the noisy Alaskan and Siberian huskies leap with anticipation while Springston slips a harness around each one. FloJo, the team's newest member, ducks under the Toyota truck. She is a skinny Alaskan husky-hound mix, which means that, unlike the other dogs, she has ears that flop down. This is her first trip away from home.

Springston grabs FloJo and hooks her harness into the gang line--a stretchy cord that connects the dogs, two by two, to the rest of the team. In a snowsuit, snow boots and billed fleece cap, Springston positions himself on the sled's rear runners. He grins at the sight of all eight lunging, barking dogs. "FloJo's all into it now," he notes.

Springston reaches down and pops the snow hook, an anchor that secures the dogs to the ground. "Readyyyyyyy, go!" he shouts. The dogs shoot off straight and true. They fly over a mogul and disappear around a shady bend.

The team is silent now. Heads down, tails down, shoulders hunched.

California Mushers Use Open Spaces, Trails

Throughout California, mushers practice on any long, wide stretch of land such as a vineyard, an orchard or railroad tracks, places with a minimum of loose dogs or other distractions, says Charlene LaBelle, treasurer of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers Assn. The group has about 100 members in California and Nevada, in cities like San Jose and towns such as Los Gatos in the Silicon Valley. A few mushers live in Southern California, mostly in the high desert. In the winter, sprint drivers head to snowfields for speed workouts and practice in handling turns in powder and ice; mushers like Springston are stuck on dirt trails in the desert until they can make it to a place like Mammoth on a weekend.

"People are blown away that these [mushers] in California run dogs," LaBelle says. "We really blow them away when we win." In fact, California has produced a couple of world-class mushers such as international gold medalist Ralph Whitten of Truckee, a sprint team driver.

Mushers in the state gravitate toward sprints, which require as few as two dogs and wrap up in a weekend. By contrast, on March 2, Iditarod teams of 12 to 16 dogs will begin trekking across the Alaskan wilderness for up to 17 days in long hours of darkness.

The Iditarod champion takes home $68,571 of a $600,000 purse. In California's races, prize money typically totals $3,000, which is divided among the top finishers in six categories. If you have a good year, your winnings might put a dent in the dog food bills.

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