Elite Belding musher chosen for Tour de France of sled-dog racing

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NEWBERRY— When Tasha Stielstra decided to quit her job and leave Duluth, Minn., the Belding native wanted to move as close to her hometown as possible.

So where’d she go? To Newberry, about six hours north of Belding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

"It’s the closest we can be to Belding and still have 110 dogs," said Stielstra, who along with her husband, Ed, trains and races Alaskan huskies.

Stielstra is one of five women, and the only one from the continental United States, recently invited to race in La Grande Odyss/e, Europe’s most prestigious sled dog race. The 12-day competition will cover about 550 miles through France and Switzerland from Jan. 8 to 19, 2006.

A little like the sled-dog version of bicycling’s Tour de France, only 20 mushers worldwide are chosen to participate in the event each year.

"It’s a pretty big honor to even be chosen," Stielstra said.

The 1992 Belding High School graduate didn’t always want to be a sled dog racer. After finishing high school, she attended Western Michigan for two years before graduating from Michigan State with a degree in elementary education. That led to a first-grade teaching position in Duluth in 1998.

It was in 2001 that Stielstra relocated to Newberry. There, she and her husband own and operate Nature’s Kennel, a sled-dog training camp that’s open to the public during the summer and offers sled-dog tours during wintertime.

"As a child growing up, she never had a dog," said Stielstra’s father, Steve Tchozeski of Belding. "She went from no pets to 110."

He said his daughter always has been athletic and fearless, a trait that comes in handy when she’s in the middle of nowhere navigating a dog sled in subzero temperatures.

"I think it’s her attitude for the sport and her love of the outdoors" that helped her excel in sled dog racing, Tchozeski said.

Although Stielstra is now one of America’s best mushers, she never really had dreams of becoming a great sled-dog racer.

"I never really wanted to race. I just liked training and taking care of the dogs," Stielstra said. "I’ve only been racing for about four years. I was never really that competitive."

The sudden success has landed Stielstra in the dog-sled spotlight as a top contender nationally. Earlier this year, she finished just 26 seconds behind the winner in Marquette’s 2005 U.P. 200 competition. La Grande Odyss/e will be Stielstra’s next challenge.

She said her biggest hurdle won’t be the race as much as it will be getting there. With 14 dogs, two sleds and about 200 pounds of gear, Stielstra figures she’ll need to come up with about $10,000 just to make the trip.

That figure doesn’t include the dogs’ food, which Stielstra cannot carry on the airplane. It costs her $35 a day to keep 110 dogs happy with dry dog food.

Stielstra has been making up for Newberry’s lack of snow by having her dogs pull a four-wheeler around her property.

v "I’d like to have about a thousand miles on them (the dogs) before France," Stielstra said. "One of the most important things for a musher is to have patience and bond with the dogs."

Aside from the funding and training, she said she has one other major concern.

"My dogs don’t speak French," Stielstra said.

Source:The Daily News

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