Climbing on board – Teenager taken by love of sled dogs and racing
From the time her son was a little boy he loved the snow, so much so that she was never surprised to look outside and see him sledding on anything he could find, from a trash can lid to a shovel.
She also remembers how good he was with animals and how much he seemed to enjoy their company.
That’s why when Cameron Byers told his mom he wanted to race sled dogs she was not overly surprised, as it made sense for him to combine all of the things he loved into one activity.
It all started one day in June of 2003 when Byers’ mom, Sue Fitch MacNeil, was reading a magazine at a doctor’s office and came across a story about Barbara Schaefer, a Grass Valley woman who raced sled dogs.
Byers’ birthday was coming up and his mother wanted to do something special for him – something like getting him a sled dog ride.
She looked up Schaefer’s information on the Internet and inquired about whether Schaefer ever gave sled dog rides. Schaefer said she did not, but knew of someone in Truckee who did.
Fitch MacNeil called and set everything up so that her son could have a day to interact with and learn about the sled dogs. The day worked out so well, with Byers enjoying his time so much, his mom e-mailed Schaefer back to thank her for helping to make the day possible.
After receiving the e-mail, Schaefer responded with one of her own, mentioning that there was an introductory to mushing class starting in August and maybe Byers would like attend. Schaefer even offered to let Byers use some of her dogs during the class.
During the class, Schaefer kept a careful eye on Byers to see how he interacted with the dogs and to get a better idea about his personality and sincerity about mushing.
“All of the dogs just loved him,” Schaefer said. “Even Gateway, one of my dogs who doesn’t like many people liked him. I liked how he worked with the dogs.”
After the class, Schaefer approached Byers and his mom and said that if he wanted to learn how to train sled dogs and race she was willing to teach him, but he would have to come over to do chores two or three times a week and keep his grades up.
Byers agreed to the arrangement, but Schaefer still wasn’t sure if he was truly dedicated to the sport and half-expected him to drop out after a few weeks of chores.
Weeks passed and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday Beyers showed up to feed the dogs, clean the poop out of their cages, hose down the cages change the straw, let the dogs out and unload the truck after races.
A year and a half later, Beyers, who is now a freshman at Nevada Union High School, is still doing those chores, but now he also travels with the dogs and races a team of his own when Schaefer enters races.
By the end of this sled dog season this year he will have raced in close to 10 races and just recently beat Schaefer in a race at Shaver Lake.
“I really enjoy competing with other people and having fun in the wilderness, nature and snow with the dogs,” Byers said.
He doesn’t mind the early mornings or the chores and doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon because so far the “work” really isn’t like work for him.
While Schaefer still owns the dogs, Byers has his own team of dogs he races, including Star, one of his lead dogs that he picked to keep out of a recent litter of puppies to train by himself.
“Cameron brings so much pride to his job and its easy to see how much he loves the dogs and how much the dogs love him back,” Schaefer said. “He is also gaining life experiences that are only going to make him more of a phenomenal human being than he already is.” While sled dog racing is keeping Byers busy, he is also dedicating some time to getting his driver’s license and his pilot’s license. However, much of the work he has to do to put himself in position to get that pilot’s license is on hold until his sled dog racing season wraps up.
“Sled dog racing really was a natural fit for him,” Fitch MacNeil said of her son. “I always knew he would do something more independent versus a team sport like basketball or football – something where he would have to rely on himself.”
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New season. New co-head coaches. Same expectations.