STOCKHOLM, N.Y. - Angelo Suriano ignores the penetrating cold as he sits on his plastic sled, using his arms to shuttle among his 18 dogs. He rubs their noses and ears and soothes their excitement with a calming voice, individually showing each animal his devotion.
He knows their dedication to him must be as unfaltering if he is to achieve his ultimate ambition to become the first paraplegic musher to compete in "The Last Great Race on Earth" - the famed Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.
"I want a strong bond with my dogs. Out there, I need them more than they need me," says Suriano.
Suriano knows precisely the risks involved so he is serious about the care and training he gives his dogs.
They have already saved his life once when, a few winters back, he was thrown from his sled during a nighttime run. The dogs ran off and Suriano called for them. Faced with the grim prospect of freezing to death, Suriano was ready to risk crawling out of the forest, when the dogs returned.
Suriano is up every day at 6 a.m to feed and water the dogs, sometimes breaking hundreds of yards of wooded trail through new fallen snow to reach the kennel.
"I tried a lot of different things but I've really found myself in my dogs and with the sledding," says the 43-year-old Suriano.
Doctors said Suriano would never walk again after a 1986 car accident paralyzed him from the waist down.
"You come to a point where you either sink or swim. Life is a one shot deal so I decided to swim. It's like anything else, you find a way to go on," he says.
Through 15 years of rehabilitation, Suriano has regained some use of his lower body. He can stand for short stretches and take a few steps using a cane. Mostly, he uses a wheelchair - or his sled if he's in the snow. Suriano lifts weights and works out daily as part of his training.
"He's in better shape than a lot of able-bodied people I know," says Dwight Tuinstra, a friend who volunteers time as Suriano's handler.
"I take a lot of inspiration from his resolve. There are times when I'm tired and cold and I don't want to be doing something. Then I think about Angelo. He'll be out there in the dark, alone for hours. It will be 20 or 30 below. What am I complaining about? He's pretty amazing," Tuinstra says.
"If I can do this, people with and without disabilities might be inspired," says Suriano, who grew up on the New Jersey shore and was planning to make big money in construction before the car accident.
Hunting and fishing were among Suriano's pleasures growing up. Author Jack London captured his imagination with his adventures in the Northern wilderness.
"I've always loved things about the North," says Suriano, who keeps his two-floor cabin at 50 degrees as part of his training - and because its cheaper.
Suriano moved from Florida to upstate New York in 1995 and took out a mortgage on a 40-acre run-down homestead in the woods.
Suriano says he was inspired to try the Iditarod after hearing a talk several years ago by Peter Rienke, a paraplegic who climbed Mount Rainier.
He lives off disability assistance and support from his family. Although his mother cannot understand why he wants to mush, she has supplied him with the harnesses and rigging lines for his dogs.
Others contributed equipment and supplies, including a sled from a Maine sledmaker who read about him in a mushing magazine, he says.
Wal-Mart donates damaged bags of dog food. His dogs eat 20 pounds of food a day; double that in the winter when they are mushing.
He got his first pup, a Siberian mix named Ivory, five years ago and trained her to pull him around in his wheelchair - a technique he now uses on all of his Siberians and Siberian mixes.
Today, Ivory is his lead dog. Suriano has named most of his other dogs, all homebreds, after constellations or Greek mythology: Hercules, Athena, Perseus, Ursa, Gita (Sagitta) and Cass (Cassiopeia), among others.
His first excursions were with three dogs and as his control improved, he added dogs until he was running teams of eight. In the Iditarod, mushers typically compete with teams of 12 to 16 dogs.
Suriano runs his dogs from two to fours every other day, using snowmobile trails and logging roads.
To qualify for the grueling 1,122-mile Anchorage to Nome race, Suriano must qualify in a 60-mile run then two, 250-mile races. Suriano hopes to be ready for the 2005 Iditarod.
Iditarod Race Director Joanne Potts said there has never been a musher of this extreme disability in the race (George Attla, who ran the Iditarod in the mid-1970s, had a leg stiffened by childhood polio). There are no restrictions against a handicapped person competing.
Suriano attempted his first step toward the Iditarod last Saturday in a 60-mile race at Sandwich Notch, N.H.
While Suriano performed well, he had to scratch when his team quit about 10 hours, 45 miles into the race. Suriano won the sportsmanship award for the race.
"He trains and practices hard. He studies hard. He's prepared physically and mentally," said Spencer Thew, who still mushes competitively at age 61. A local business executive, Thew finished 51st in the 1993 Iditarod and has become Suriano's mentor.
"If anyone can accomplish something like this, it would be Angelo," said Thew, who also will compete at Sandwich Notch.
Students and faculty in Clarkson University's Rehabilitation Engineering program have been caught up in Suriano's quest and helped modify his sled, said Leslie Russek, a physical therapy professor. They added a fold-down seat and a redesigned handle bar to ease the load on Suriano's arms and installed a hand-operated brake.
If he qualifies for the Iditarod, Russek said they have promised Suriano a custom-built sled.
"He's a real tough cookie. You would have to be, to be a paraplegic and ride a sled alone through the deep woods," Russek said.
"I know I have to prove myself," Suriano said. "People are probably scratching their head, saying 'Is this guy for real or what?' But I will prove myself."
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