Fourth-grader places second in first race
By Greg Seubert
Nevaeh Johnson is hooked.
Hooked on sled dog racing, that is.
The 9-year-old fourth grader at the Waupaca Learning Center competed in her first race Jan. 23 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and returned home with a second-place plaque.
Nevaeh – heaven spelled backward – and her family headed to the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race near Newberry, Mich. She only had three other competitors and was able to complete the 4-mile course, which started and ended at Muskallonge Lake State Park, in 18:39.21.
“I was really excited and a little nervous at the start, but when I first started going, I felt pretty confident,” Nevaeh said. “It was easy.”
She attended the race with her parents, Dean and Edna Johnson, and rode a sled led by two of the family’s Alaskan huskies, Mr. Incredible and Vera.
Dean has run sled dogs for recreation for the past 25 years, but didn’t start racing until this winter.
The Johnsons live on Granite Quarry Road, near Ogdensburg.
“We kind of graduated to Alaskan huskies, which pull much better and are a lot faster,” Dean said. “Once we got more, it was like, ‘Wow, we should race these guys.’ We’ve got them, they’re young enough, we’re always looking for things to keep them healthy, whether its backpacking, camping, riding with them on the bike, taking them wherever.”
“I practiced on the trails by my house,” Nevaeh said. “Sometimes, you have to swish around corners. They actually did pretty good. They stayed on the trail.”
“I had a lot of reservations,” Dean said. “Our ability to train around here has been limited with the snow and trail availability. I never had her out of my sight. When we put her in the chute for the first time and they counted down, she was on her way, around the corner and she was gone.
“We can’t do anything but wait the next 15 minutes until we started hearing, ‘The youth are coming back,’” he said. “I stood on a bale of hay and said, ‘That’s Nevaeh.’ I knew she was going to place. It was really exciting. To see the smile on her face, it was huge.”
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Nevaeh is looking forward to her next competition, an 8-mile-long youth race Sunday, Feb. 7, at the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in Bayfield.
Dean will also race.
“There’s a family race on Saturday, so I’ll actually be racing against her,” he said. “We’ll put all our dogs together on two sleds.”
The Johnsons have purchased several of their dogs from Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Mich., about 20 miles from Newberry and a seven-hour drive from home.
“They’re generally 3 or 4 years old when we get them,” Dean said. “They’ve been trained.”
Recent mild winters in central Wisconsin means heading up north to race.
“With the bad snow the last couple of years here, we almost have to get up north,” Dean said. “If we’re going to go up there, we might as well meet the other people and partake in the races.”
Races are held in several Wisconsin communities, including Merrill, Antigo, Mishicot and Wausau.
“It’s kind of a dying sport,” Dean said. “I’m trying to get her a little more interested and see if she wants to race. She ended up having a lemonade stand this summer and we bought a sled. Then we went to a dog sled symposium and won a $1,000 sled at a raffle. Now we got this nice sled and four dogs that are really young and in shape yet.”
The Johnsons began training the dogs in September with bikes on local roads.
“She goes with me and can give them commands so they get used to her voice,” Dean said.
After returning to school, the Johnsons brought Mr. Incredible and Vera to Louise Dayton’s fourth-grade class at WLC.
“I gave a speech in my classroom,” Nevaeh said. “We talked about my race.”
“My other kids that are 28 and 25, they grew up behind a dog sled, just goofing around and going camping with me,” Dean said. “They hiked the Ice Age Trail two years ago, so they have that adventure in them.
“It’s kind of nice with very few kids in the sport,” he added. “You can go to these (races) and place. She was able to go there for the first time and get second place. There weren’t 10, 15 people she was up against.”
Races with adults can have hundreds of dogs, but the focus is on the kids, according to Dean.
“A lot of emphasis is placed on the children,” he said. “They cater to the kids when they’re there because everybody knows they are the future of the sport if we want to keep it going.”
Dean competed this past weekend in a four-dog race in Iron River, Mich., and he and his daughter plan to head to Mishicot, near Manitowoc, later this month for the Mishicot Winterfest.
“We hope to get in four or five this year,” he said. “Maybe we’ll travel a little more next year. There are a lot out East, but there are enough around here to keep us busy. There are also dry land races that start in September, so you can race with your mountain bike or a scooter. Or, you can just have a belt on and run with your dog. Most of the sled dog clubs promote anything that have to do with getting your dogs out.”
The dogs will get a little break once the racing season wraps up, but not for long.
“We take them swimming or run around the dog parks,” Dean said. “The more they care about and love you, the more they’ll work on that sled. They definitely know it’s race time.”