NEW MIDWAY -- Seven yelping huskies strained at their harnesses, eager for their master's command to lunge and lumber along a winding trail at a remote Frederick County farm.
The cold, starlit night was nearly perfect for sled-dog racing. Just one thing was missing: Snow.
"Ready! Go!" cried John Tate, the bearded, 33-year-old president of the Mason-Dixon Sled Dog Racing Association. His seven-dog team jerked ahead for a training run last week into the darkness of a Maryland night -- and into continued obscurity.
Despite the double whammy of its lack of fame and snow -- though flakes were falling last night and the forecast called for 8 to 15 inches -- the Maryland group mushes on. Formed in the late 1960s by about 20 members, it now lists an active roll of just five -- two men in Frederick County and a family of three in Washington County.
Membership has declined because of suburban growth, increasing restrictions on large kennels and the development of open training land. But still, membership requires, first and foremost, practiced response to puzzled looks and oft-repeated questions:
Sled-dog racing? How do you do that without snow? The oft-repeated answer: Wheeled carts.
"It is an unusual hobby -- at least around here," says Woody Miller, 53, a musher from Middletown in Frederick County. "People sort of look at you funny: 'What are you doing? Are you nuts?' "
For most mushers -- or drivers -- outside the northern snow states, sled-dog racing consists of huskies pulling carts on wheels instead of sleds on blades. In the absence of snow, they race on dirt.
"As you go farther south, you become inventive," says Herman Lindeboom, head of the Mid-Atlantic Sled Dog Racing Association, which includes 150 mushers from New York to Virginia. "That's why we run on wheels. Of course, if there's snow we run on sleds."
There's been precious little of that lately -- and not only in Maryland. Cindy Molburg, editor and publisher of the New Hampshire-based Team & Trail -- The Musher's Monthly Newspaper Since 1963, said the New England Sled Dog Club has yet to race this season on snow.
"It's been a terrible winter," she complains.
In Maryland, insufficient snow is par for the course. The Mason-Dixon group sponsors a snow race once a year at Michaux State Forest just north of Gettysburg, Pa.
The course requires deep, packed snow. Otherwise, the race is relocated to a dirt course in Lebanon State Forest in New Jersey -- as it has been the past six years.
This year's Mason-Dixon race is scheduled Feb. 11 and 12.
"I've been racing 15 years, and I haven't raced on a sled often enough to learn how to feel confident on one," said Mr. Miller, who from his Middletown home earns a living delivering soft drinks to stores and trash containers to construction sites.
The Maryland racers ride a three-wheeled, lightweight cart behind their teams of mostly Alaskan huskies. They practice near their homes during the week, and race weekends from late December to mid-March -- mostly at the state forest in New Jersey.
Those races are sanctioned by the Mid-Atlantic association, to which the Mason-Dixon group belongs. They range from one-tenth mile for children with one dog to six miles for adults with six- and eight-dog teams. Winners earn trophies, seldom cash.
'Oh, you can't describe it"
The matches bear little resemblance to the famed "Iditarod" race, the more than 1,000-mile-long Alaskan sled-dog race that annually draws professional mushers and worldwide attention.
"We're a family sport," says the Mid-Atlantic's Mr. Lindeboom, who is 62, a swimmer, sailor, fisherman, tennis player, hiker, camper, jogger, bicyclist and white-water canoeist. "Nothing compares to sled-dog racing. You're outdoors. You're with your animals. The air is whistling through your hair. Oh, you can't describe it. You have to do it. Then you get hooked."
Adds Mr. Tate, a construction worker who has led Maryland's small corps of mushers for three years: "Well, to me it is just a lot of fun. Being in the woods is nice. And you get attached to your dog and working with your team."
Mrs. Molburg, whose Team & Trail has a circulation of 1,200, said about 5,000 mushers run dogs in North America. Most prefer snow, but hobbyists race on what is available -- even sand dunes in Oregon.
"It gives them a chance to live a little bit of Jack London all over again," she said.
The Bailey family from Boonsboro in Washington County is particularly dedicated to the sport. Bob Bailey, 59, an auto mechanic, and his wife, Debbie, 43, a dental hygienist, met racing their dogs 25 years ago. The first word their 14-year-old daughter, Evie, uttered was "dog."
The Baileys keep 26 huskies at their home on 6 1/2 acres. They bred the dogs. Otherwise, each dog purchased after being trained would cost at least $500, they say.
"It's an expensive hobby," Mr. Bailey said. "Most dog drivers are broke all the time."
Feeding each huskie costs $15 to $20 per month. Mr. Bailey made the three-wheeled cart; a new one costs about $600. He also made the trailer for transporting 24 dogs; a new one costs about $5,000. They build their dog houses and administer their dogs' shots.
They do as much as they can themselves, but can't avoid transportation, lodging and food costs every weekend for races out of state.
"You think we're crazy, right?" Mrs. Bailey asked. "You've got to love this, obviously, or you'd never do it. You certainly don't do it for the little trophies you win."
You do it for the competition, she said.
Mrs. Bailey is one of the top mushers in the country. She was the national champion racing on dirt with six dogs in 1989 and the national runner-up on dirt with three dogs in 1988.
'A way of life'
"It's definitely an adrenalin rush," Mrs. Bailey said. "And being a woman it's really fantastic being able to beat the men."
You also do it for the lure of nature. You do it for the camaraderie. And finally, she said, you do it for the love of the dogs.
"It's not like, 'Yes, I like to play golf, and when I'm done I put my clubs in the closet,' " Mrs. Bailey said. "No, this is different. This is a way of life."