Teen ‘mushing’ toward future Junior Iditarod

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When Alyson Smith follows her shadow, it doesn’t always mean the sun is out.

When most teenage girls are preoccupied with iPods, makeovers and boys, the 14-year-old Lakeview student is mushing along behind Shadow – an Alaskan husky that sometimes serves as her lead sled dog on her march toward a future Junior Iditarod.

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Shadow and the rest of the team should feel right at home in the 160-mile race through the frozen tundra trail of the Alaskan wilderness. The endurance test for the dogs and teens 14 to 17 years old has been run yearly since 1978.

“I’m shooting for the race in 2010 or 2011 as long as I’m ready,” said Alyson, tugging on the rigging that harnesses the sled dogs kept at her father’s home at the end of Santa Monica Drive. “A lot of my friends at school think i’s pretty cool.”

And when Alyson – who splits her home between dad’s residence here and mom in the Cortland area – gets ready to train, the neighborhood knows it.

The barking sound is deafening as Shadow, Apache, Shyla, K.J., Zorro, Charlotte, Poco, Kieko and the others get fired up for a run through the trails on a 60-acre chunk of land that abuts the property of Jim Smith, a Liberty police officer and one-time canine handler for the department.

The officer said he’s been fascinated with the adult version of the Iditarod since he was a kid.

“I guess it’s something a passed along to Alyson,” he said, with no second thoughts about the 320 pounds of Diamond Dog Food he buys per month for the 19 dogs that bed down in his garage, play around in his backyard cages, or get carted to area races in a bus that has been transformed into a kennel on wheels.

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Tribune Chronicle / Steve Schenck: Alyson Smith, 14, prepares for the Junior Iditarod at her father’s home in Liberty.

When the snow cover isn’t ideal, the family uses an all-terrain vehicle to run behind the dogs, who always are eager to get their exercise.

“Ideal conditions for the dogs are 10-degrees and no humidity. And then they just go,” said Smith, using the familiar directional commands of ‘gee’ for right and ‘haw’ for left to point out the path for the dogs.

“It’s really all about the dogs. You’re a dog lover first and a racer second for this kind of sport,” said the elder Smith, who also enters smaller, shorter and more local races. He tends to his stable of canines, sometimes using a needle himself to give inoculations and capable of patching up a punctured paw.

Using a lightweight sled made of ash, Smith with daughter and stepson Trent Swan, 7, a second-grader at St. Rose School in Girard, make the rounds to a lot of the seasonal races.

Last weekend, at races in Lorraine, N.Y., Smith took a second place in an adult Sportsman Class; Trent placed second in a junior division with a two-dog sled; and Alyson took a first place in the same race with three dogs leading the way.

Since the kids accumulate points in an international ranking system by the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA), Alyson hopes to move up from her sixth-place international ranking in the three-dog competition.

Following the races though, Smith, his family and his dogs were stuck after the bus broke down about 40 miles north of Syracuse, N.Y.

While waiting for a mechanic to perform work on the vehicle’s electrical system, Smith said, he wouldn’t trade places with anyone.

“We’ve met so many great people at races and through the ISDRA. We might compete, but we also help each other out. Other racers looked after our dogs and drove us back to the motel, when the bus broke down. Others brought us pizza. They’re just a great bunch of people,” he said.

Source: Tribune Chronicle

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