Liz Bailey hates summer. That's because she loves to "mush" - race her four-dog team over the snow. It's an unusual hobby for a 13-year-old, but she's been doing it since she was 11. And she dreamed of racing dogs for four years before that.
Liz is a good racer. Last year she and her team of Alaskan huskies were ranked No. 6 in the world in the junior category by the International Sled Dog Racing Association in Merrifield, Minn.
For Liz, dog-sledding is ideal. "I've always loved speed," she says, "and my favorite animal is a dog, so you'd think this sport would be just perfect for me." Her eyes light up as she talks about it.
When you see her train, you start to see why mushing is such fun. It's just Liz and her dogs zipping across the snowy hills of a Christmas-tree farm not far from her home in Strafford, N.H. Add the rustic barn and frozen pond in the distance, and the scene seems to belong inside a snow-globe toy.
First Liz attaches her four-foot-long wooden sled to the dogs' nylon harnesses, using ropes. Then she stands at the back of the sled with her feet on the ends of the 1-1/2-inch-wide runners.
Her mom, Deb, holds onto the ropes until Liz is ready to go. It's not easy, holding on to Sebring, Paris, and Jewell (Tessa, her fourth dog, isn't feeling well today). The dogs bark and lunge forward, eager to run.
Suddenly, Liz and the sled take off down the narrow trail of packed snow. The dogs' heads are down, their ears laid flat, and their backs arched. They are straining to get the sled up to speed. Their barks quickly yield to sounds of the sled scraping over snow and the dogs' panting.
Liz doesn't just coast along on the sled - she's part of the team. She shouts commands like "Haw!" (go left), "Gee!" (go right) and "Hike!" (go faster). She leans into turns to stabilize the sled, and runs behind it (while still holding on) to help the team go uphill. She may "pedal" (kick the sled forward using one foot, as skateboarders do), or apply the foot brake.
Each dog has a specific role. Paris and Sebring are the leaders. They are the most intelligent and quickest to respond to Liz's commands. Jewell and Tessa run behind them. They need to be strong, because they bear most of the sled's weight around corners.
Lead dogs are smart, but sometimes their attention lags. When Sebring starts off in the wrong direction, Liz draws a deep breath and yells extra loud: "Seeeeebriiing!" That gets her back in line.
In winter, Liz and her dogs train three days a week for a couple of hours. On weekends from January through March, she goes to races with her dogs.
Last year, when Liz was in the junior category, she won every race. (She competes in "sprint" races, which are four to five miles long.) This year she has done well, too - considering that she's now racing against adults.
But more important than awards, she says, "is the sense of personal accomplishment."
When Liz was about 7, she and her mom used the Internet to follow a musher in Alaska's famous Iditarod sled-dog race. Liz was hooked. She knew she wanted to race sled dogs. Her parents said it was OK - if she could earn the money to buy the dogs, their food, the sled, and other equipment.
So for the next three years, Liz sacrificed Christmas and birthday presents. Instead, she asked for money to buy dogs and equipment. She earned money playing the bagpipes at weddings and pet-sitting.
And when she finally did buy her first two dogs in October of 1998, she began training them every day, for hours. She had to teach them the voice commands. She rode with them down her dirt road on a bike, since there was no snow yet.
Sled dogs live outside year-round. Liz's dogs stay in a pen her father, Scott, built. There's a shed where they sleep, and wooden platforms where they eat or perch to stay out of the snow. On the rare occasions they do come inside the house, they act skittish, jumping up on tables and chasing other pets.
So far this year, Liz has won $150 with her dogs, but she's handed it all over to her parents. After all, it costs $30 a month just to feed her furry friends. She can't wait until she can have eight dogs. Then she can compete in long-distance races (30 miles or more).
Her hobby has taught her much more than just how to race dogs. "I have learned that if you follow your heart and work really hard, your dreams will happen," Liz says. "At age 7, I started. And now, six years later, it is all paying off."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society