A few days after she turns sweet 16, Bedford County resident Taylor Steele will experience a less typical milestone.
Born and raised in Hopewell, Taylor has traveled thousands of miles from Pennsylvania to Alaska to train and race in the Junior Iditarod XXXVI, taking place Feb. 23 and 24.
The race, which starts in Wasilla, Alaska, and is open to teenagers ages 14 to 17, is typically 150 miles, but the distance can vary depending on trail conditions, said Taylor, a 10th-grader who is home schooled while racing, but normally attends the Northern Bedford School District.
Taylor Steele holds two puppies at the Ididande Kennel, Seward,?Alaska, in August.
Taylor arrived in Alaska Dec. 13.
Taylor's interest in dog sled racing began when she was about 7 or 8 years old, she said. She had a Norwegian Elk Hound she remembers hooking to a wagon. Over the years, she owned different dogs, and eventually raised her own dog team and began racing. Taylor's family owns Blue Vision Sled Dog Kennel.
The 2008 movie, "Snow Buddies" - a Disney movie about a dogsled race in Alaska, got her interested in the sport, she said. Later, Taylor would meet one of the dogs from the movie. She also met a musher in Breezewood, Herb Brambley, who got her interested in traveling to Alaska.
n Second place at the Trappers Special Sled Dog Race in Salamanca, New York
n Two first places at Cooper's Lake Dryland Race, Butler County
n Third place at Winterfest Jim Lobdell Memorial Invitational Sled Dog Races, Warren County
n First place at Sinnemahoning State Park Dryland Race, Cameron County
n First and second place at Cooper's Lake Dryland Race, Butler County
Follow Taylor's journey on Facebook under Taylor Steele Racing. Follow the race Feb. 23 and 24 online at www.iditarod.com.
To make a donation to help fund Taylor's dream visit: http://www.gofundme.com/17olxg
Taylor's mom, Julie Steele, said she thought it might be a phase her daughter would grow out of, but she has given it her heart and soul.
She told her mom when she turns 18, she will lose her to Alaska, Julie Steele said.
Taylor's goal is to race the Junior Iditarod and then one day be the first woman to win the adult Iditarod. To even race, a musher must have three major races under their parka, Julie Steele said.
Taylor is in good hands in Alaska.
At one point, Taylor met Danny Seavey, who was involved with the Iditarod.
Now she is training with a member of the Seavey family. Mitch Seavey won the Iditarod in 2004, and his son, Dallas, won the race in 2012. Dallas was the youngest person to ever win the race at the age of 25.
"They got really good dogs. They like never get tired," she said. "They just want to run."
Taylor is training with Conway Seavey, 16, who won the Junior Iditarod in 2012.
"Training for this race isn't an easy undertaking," Conway said. "You have to be seriously dedicated to charge out for a 15-hour trip at 40 below in the middle of the night. It's a real responsibility, too, as you're in charge of your entire team's safety in everything from sled handling to moose attacks.
"Mushing absorbs a huge portion of your life - it's not just about training," he added. "From September to February we focus on the nutrition, health, equipment and strategy needed to care for, train, and race almost 30 sled dogs."
Taylor worked at the family's tour kennels - Ididaride Kennel - in August. She got to know Mitch Seavey more during that time, and in October, he offered her a Junior Iditarod team, she said.
Taylor traveled to Alaska for the first time in 2011 with her father, Sam, and her sister, Samantha Steele, 13. She also has a brother, Patrick Rinehart, 22.
Sam Steele has raced motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles, but never animals, he said. He supports whatever his children get into as long as it's positive. Taylor is putting in a lot of work, he said.
Training is the hardest part of the endeavor, Taylor said.
Fall training is done on a four-wheeler, she said. Then training is two days on, one day off.
But once on a sled, Taylor is mushing daily for two 40-mile runs, alternating two different teams of dogs. The 40 miles takes about four hours on average. In between runs, they rest for five hours.
Taylor will pick dogs from both teams to make an ultimate team for the race, she said. Taylor began training with six dogs and recently added two more. Eventually the team will grow to 10, she said.
"The most important part of building any team is understanding and connecting with the dogs," Conway said. "We started the season with a bunch of rowdy, goofy sled dogs, and the goal is to end up with a team of athletes that trust and respect each other. Taylor has made a great connection with her dogs in the short time she's been here, and they definitely approve of her."
Conway and Taylor will race against one another.
"Our main goal right now is to get the best two dog teams possible to the start of the race, so it's more of a team than competition," Conway said. "Once the race starts, however, she's on her own."
Conway joked he didn't reveal all his secrets, though.
Taylor said the sport is physically and mentally demanding. Besides working with the dogs, Taylor has to keep herself warm, fighting against facial windburn and frostbite on eyelids.
"You just got to know what you're doing," she said. "You got to know how to run dogs. You got to keep the speed balanced."
Taylor said scratching is when a musher does not finish the race for a variety of reasons, including illness.
She said snowmobiles follow the mushers in case of an emergency. Mushers cannot carry rifles, and are not permitted any outside communication during races, she said.
During the race, the mushers and their team of dogs take a 10-hour break, Taylor said. In that time the dogs rest, and Taylor must cook and care for the animals, including bedding them down for the night. The mushers then enjoy a camp-out.
At that point, the mushers learn their position in the race so far, and then head back out on the trail, she said. After the race a banquet award ceremony is held.
The winner receives a $5,500 scholarship, a new sled, computer and tickets to the adult Iditarod race awards banquet Sunday, March 17 in Nome, Alaska. The adult race takes place March 2 and 3.
A pre-race known as the Willow Junior 100 Sled Dog Race will take place Feb. 8 and 9.
The top five mushers to place in the Junior Iditarod race get at least $1,000 each, Taylor said.
Although racers win prize money, clothing to protect the musher in the cold temperatures and equipment are expensive. A dog and a sled cost $5,000 each, she said. Pants cost $300, while a parka costs $1,000, said Taylor, who is borrowing from the Seavey family.
Her father, Sam, supports Taylor morally and financially, he said.
Sponsor donations cover gas money to get to races, she said. She has a wish list of items listed on the webpage www.gofundme.com/17olxg, where she is also accepting donations.
Taylor, who also plays piano, shows at 4H and runs, has always loved animals, she said. Seeing the dogs happy makes her happy, she said.
Alaska's landscape is a bit different than Taylor's native Pennsylvania.
Running into the occasional moose does occur, Taylor said. There are two types of moose - "mean" and "scared," she said. A mean moose will charge, but a scared one will just run off, she said. A musher just has to wait the moose out, she said.
The temperatures vary from day to day, she said. January is the coldest month with temperatures at -30 degrees, she said. The views can distract from the cold, though. The terrain in Alaska is beautiful, she said.
Taylor has people rooting for her back home.
Taylor buys her sleds from Johnn and Nancy Molburg who run the 18-year-old business, Arctic Star Dog Sleds, in Tyrone.
"For a teenage girl she is remarkably focused for what she wants to do, which is she wants to run sled dogs," Nancy said.
The Molburgs and Taylor belong to the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club.
Nancy said of the 150 members in the group, a lot are families, and less than 10 are from the area.
Johnn said Taylor has natural skills and is totally dedicated to dog sledding. Now, she is gaining experience at a higher level, he said.
Julie Steele marveled at what 15-year-old girl wants to go to the cold and rough Alaskan terrain. She is proud of her daughter in many ways, but also worries about her, she said. While she wants her to live out her dream, the mom in her still sees her as her baby.
Her mom said whether she wins does not matter. She is proud of the effort she has put forth.
Taylor has to be physically strong to do the work involved with racing such as carrying 50 gallon buckets, she said.
"She's 100 pounds of fighting fury. That girl is strong as a horse," her mom said. "There's no stopping her."
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.