Imagine having a best friend who’s always there for you, no matter what.
Who always protects you from danger.
Who would never, ever turn on you.
Who licks your face every chance he gets.
Sixteen-year-old Tawnya Cazier, who lives in northern Idaho, has a best friend like that, and she doesn’t even mind the face-licking part. Her friend’s name is Nephi, and he’s a 75-pound malamute, the leader of her dogsled team. Nephi has saved Tawnya more than once, and he came into her life at a time when she was in desperate need of a good friend.
At 13, Tawnya was diagnosed as having a severe case of diabetes. Her blood-sugar levels were so erratic she had to stay out of school for a year. Many times her parents took her for special treatment in a clinic more than a thousand miles away from their home near Spirit Lake. All this took its toll on Tawnya. “I complained a lot, and I became very lazy,” she said.
It hurt Tawnya’s father to see his daughter’s suffering. He’d been diagnosed with diabetes when he was younger too and knew what she was going through. He decided Tawnya needed something to perk up her spirits. He’d always had an interest in dogsledding, but had never been able to pursue it. He noticed that Tawnya followed closely Susan Butcher’s progress in the Iditarod, the world’s most famous dogsled race, and thought dogsledding might be a good hobby for Tawnya. Since they were living in a sparsely populated, wooded area known as “Frazier’s Icebox,” where snow lasts into June, he asked, “Why not?”
Tawnya loved the idea, so they began putting together a homemade sled with skis for runners. They also began acquiring dogs from friends and from newspaper ads that said, “Free to good home.” Nephi was the first and the best. He was a natural leader, loved to run and work, and had the strength of three dogs. He would prove this many times as they took him all over the Northwest for weight-pulling competitions, which he often won.
Although Tawnya loves competition, the weight pulls are the only contests Tawnya has entered. What she’d really like to do is enter her team in the 150-mile Junior Iditarod, held each year in Alaska.
“I thought that would be the most awesome thing in the whole world, since I can’t compete in the real Iditarod until I’m 18,” she says. “So I wrote for the information on it, and they sent me a packet. I was so disappointed when I learned it was held over a weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. I asked them if they could change it, but they wouldn’t.
“That was a big hang-up. I wanted to run it so bad. I really had to fight with myself. But I finally got to the point where I realized that this would go against everything I’d ever been taught. It wasn’t worth it.”
So instead of training for the big races, Tawnya is content spending a couple of hours each day after school with her dogs. In the summer, when there’s no snow on the ground and her sled is useless, she hitches the dogs to a three-wheel cart. On Saturdays she cleans the dog runs, but Sundays she reserves for church.
“I like to go to church, read the scriptures, nap, write letters to missionaries, and spend time with my family,” she says. “It’s the one day of the week we can be together and just relax and talk. Most of the other days we’re all going in different directions.” Tawnya is the oldest of nine children, and they live together with their parents in a large mountain cabin.
The dogs have been good for the whole family. The younger children enjoy helping Tawnya feed and care for them, and, of course, they love rides on the sled. The dogs, in turn, love the children, and are extremely gentle.
“They have been bred through the years not to bite,” Tawnya explains. “The Eskimos couldn’t afford to have a vicious dog that would attack other dogs or people. Many times the dogs lived inside with the families. These dogs have been bred to love being around people and to love pulling a sled.”
The enthusiasm the dogs have for pulling is obvious the minute Tawnya walks outside with harnesses in hand. The dogs prick up their ears and begin barking and jumping. They’re eager.
“I learn lots of things from these dogs,” Tawnya says. “Enthusiasm for what you’re doing is one of them. Another is obedience. You don’t use reins with them, just voice commands. If they didn’t listen to what I told them, I could have had some really bad accidents. Once, if the dogs had followed their instincts and kept running, rather than stopping right when I told them to, we would have gone right between a mother bear and her cub. I don’t think any of us would have survived that.”
Tawnya has also learned that physical handicaps, like diabetes, don’t have to keep you down. Although she gives herself blood tests and shots three times a day and constantly has to be aware of how the food she eats and her physical activity will affect her insulin level, Tawnya doesn’t let that limit her. She’s back in school now, achieves straight A’s, and goes to seminary early each morning. She also finds time to spend with her friends, who love her dogs as well.
One of Tawnya’s favorite Mutual activities involves taking the youth in the ward on a dogsled ride out to a spot where a large bonfire has been built. They sit around toasting marshmallows and singing. The dogs, who love it as much as Tawnya does, sometimes join in on the chorus. Tawnya’s hobby has become well-known in the ward. Even the bishop has been for a ride on her sled. “He loved it!” she says. The missionaries have enjoyed it too.
It would be hard for anyone to resist such an offer, especially coming from this girl. Tawnya is as warm and down-to-earth as they come. Unless she told you, you’d never guess she suffers from a life-threatening disorder.
“I used to ask, Why me?” she says. “I used to wonder why I have to go through all this—be sick, give myself shots and blood tests, watch what I eat, and all that. But then I realized that the Lord knew I could handle it. It’s a comfort to know that the Lord has confidence in me. It gives me the strength to go on.”
Tawnya says she’s grateful for the strength she also derives from the support of her friends, family, and of course, her dogs.
“My dogs teach me so much,” she says. “I learn how to treat people by watching how they treat me. At first I thought I had to have patience with my dogs, but then I realized they have to have patience with me. Nephi shows me so much love, even when I’m not at my best. I want to be able to show that to other people. Nephi really is my best friend.”