Teen's mind turns to mush(ing)

Soldotna student develps dog racing drive, skills

Posted: Friday, February 27, 2004

On the surface, 17-year old Elisabeth Habermann may seem a lot like other kids her age.

The Soldotna teen stays out until after midnight on weekends, spends too much money on shoes and there's a couple boys in her life who she's not sure whether she likes or not.

However, once you scratch the surface, it becomes crystal clear that Habermann's not that average a teen after all.

Her late nights are spent putting in 30-mile runs standing on the back of a sled; the expensive shoes are bunny boots; and the two young males are potential lead dogs that haven't completely proven themselves yet.

Habermann is a musher, and as she's proven this season, a pretty good musher at that.

Earlier this month, Habermann placed second out of 14 competitors in the 2004 Junior Yukon Quest. The 120-mile out and back race much of which is on the frozen Chena River is a grueling test of a dog driver's skill despite the "junior" title.

However, unlike many of her teenager counterparts the children of Martin Buser, Jeff King, Tim Osmar and Mitch Seavey Habermann hasn't spent most of her life on the back of a sled, training dogs or helping her parents prepare to run the Iditarod or Yukon Quest.


Elisabeth Habermann

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"My parents never did it," said Haber-mann.

Not being descended from famous dog driving folks didn't stop her from pursuing her dreams, though. Starting four years ago, she scrapped together what dogs and equipment she could and began training.

"I read every book and magazine on mushing that I could get my hands on, and I would call mushers with questions here and there, but mostly I just winged it."

At times it was difficult doing it on her own, but Habermann said she is happy for the experience.

"In the long run I think it's a good thing. I learned a lot from trial and error, instead of just being told," she said.

Habermann believes sometimes it's possible to learn more from your mistakes than your successes, and she's had her fair share of both.

"I've definitely had low points," said Habermann, with one occasion in particular sticking out in her mind.


Between the feeding, cleaning and training, maintaining a dog lot is a lot of work and responsibility, but Haberman is up to the task.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

It came last year when there was very little snow on the peninsula and mushers were traveling far and wide in desperate attempts to get miles on their dogs. Habermann was no exception.

"I went up on Mystery Creek Road. I had taken off from a new location I had never used before," said Habermann. Adding to the dilemma, she also was on a new sled for which she had worked hard, and saved even harder. It was much quicker than her old sled, and one she was still getting a feel for.

Her dogs were pulling fast and she took a sharp right, then a left, then another sharp right around a hill and careened unexpectedly into a tree.

"I broke the sled," she said, but the damage didn't stop there. "The snow hook also went through my hand during the crash."

Her wounds and her pride healed over time and she was able to repair the sled. It wasn't her proudest hour, but Habermann said the good days and positive experiences far outweigh the bad.

Her recent performance in the Junior Yukon Quest was one of those high points in the young musher's life.

Although she didn't capture the first place cup, she did do something that was equally satisfying to her: She finished the race with two leaders she had not only trained herself, but were also dogs other mushers had rejected as problem dogs.

"It's nice to know you contributed to your own racing success, but it's also great to see the dogs succeed when you may have had your doubts about them," she said.

As Habermann tells it, one of the dogs had been through five different mushers who all had dismissed the animal as "stupid."

"Taking other musher's un-wanted dogs is how we all start," said Iditarod veteran Jon Little, "but, for one reason or another, she'll turn them into good sled dogs. She's got a knack for it."

Little has not only given Habermann dogs over the years, but was one of the mushers who answered her questions when she was first starting out. He said he has seen some positive changes in her from then to now.

"It's been interesting seeing her development. She seems like she's matured into a musher that's confident without being cocky," said Little.

Habermann's mother, Janice, also has recognized her daughter's ability both with mushing and with sled dogs as a whole.

"I'm used to her mushing now, but when she first started I was really worried," said Janice. "I didn't think I wanted our daughter doing it. I hoped she would grow out of it."

However, she was a supportive parent. Despite her initial hesitations, she remained actively involved while her daughter learned the sport.

After all, she had to be involved to support Elisabeth, since the teen wasn't old enough to drive when she started.

So Janice was there. She would help load dogs and pick her daughter up and drop her off for training runs, as well as for races. She even stood on the sled runners behind her daughter from time to time.

"I would go with her everywhere, but it was a good experience," said Janice. "I got to see it all."

Janice liked what she saw, too, especially when she began to notice some very positive changes in Elisabeth. Like Little, she began to see her daughter's confidence growing.

"She was always shy, but through mushing she's made a lot of friends, at races and different places," said Janice.

She added, "Her self-confidence has helped in her decision-making skills too. When things don't go smooth like when she's out on a run and gets a big tangle she'll react and deal with it, not collapse under the pressure."

A comforting skill for a mother to know her daughter possesses, particularly when turning that daughter loose in 100-mile-plus races through Alaska's backcountry.

Habermann has also noticed how maintaining a kennel of 14 dogs has taught her daughter about responsibility.

"It's a lot of work," she said. "She's developed a good work ethic from feeding, cleaning and taking care of that many dogs, twice a day, every day."

However, the ability to transform other musher's problem huskies into prize-winning lead dogs doesn't come as the result of just spending a couple minutes in the dog lot.

"She loves her dogs and spends incredible amounts of time with them, and they respond to that" said Janice Habermann. "She knows how to draw the best out of them."

Elisabeth manages to do this despite holding down a part-time job, being an active student and an accomplished cross-country skier.

Despite what to many would seem like a full plate of activities and responsibilities, the young Habermann said she wouldn't change a thing especially in regard to mushing.

"I love it. It's great. I want to do it forever," she said.

This weekend Habermann travels north to take part in the approximately 160-mile Jr. Iditarod.

She will compete against 21 other young mushers for the purse of $11,000 in UA college scholarships.

To learn more about the race, go online to www.jriditarod.com.

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