When the wretched winter drags on forever and the cold rain turns the dirty snow into dirty slush and the news is all bad and war looms and severe depression begins to seem like the only sensible lifestyle -- at times like this, it's refreshing to know that somewhere out there a squirrel is water-skiing.

The squirrel's name is Twiggy. Twiggy No. 5, to be specific. This weekend, she is skiing at the National Capital Boat Show at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly.

But right now, Twiggy's in her trailer outside the Expo, waiting for showtime.

"You've gotta keep the door shut because the squirrel's running around," says Lou Ann Best, 47, Twiggy's coach, trainer and surrogate mom.

Best disappears into a back room of her 40-foot Winnebago, searching for Twiggy. "I've found her," she says, and then Twiggy bounds out, jumps up onto the couch and climbs into the overhead cabinet where she likes to sleep.

Best sits in a recliner and reveals the secret of training a squirrel to water-ski. "It's kinda like training a husband," she says. "You have to give them a lot of love and affection and tell them the same thing over and over again."

It was her husband, the late Chuck Best, who trained the first Twiggy. That was back in 1978, when the couple ran a roller rink in Sanford, Fla. One of Chuck's skating students gave him a baby squirrel that had been blown out its nest during a hurricane. He named it Twiggy, nursed it to health, then taught it to water-ski behind a little remote-controlled boat.

Chuck Best had some kind of genius for teaching various animals to water-ski. "He taught two miniature ponies, two French poodles, an armadillo and a toad-frog," Lou Ann says, and then she pulls out an envelope of photos to prove she's not kidding.

Somehow it was Twiggy who caught the public's attention. In 1979 the Orlando Sentinel published a story on Twiggy's skiing prowess. United Press International sent the story all over the world, which led to TV appearances, which led to gigs at boat shows.

"From then on it just went crazy," Best says.

Over 24 years, she and the various Twiggies have done hundreds of shows. "I've been to Paris, France, I've been to Bermuda, I've been all over the United States and Canada."

The show stopped only when Chuck died in 1997. He dived off his boat to save his stepfather from drowning. He saved the old man but suffered a heart attack and died.

"I was devastated," Lou Ann says. "I quit doing the shows for months. But then I got calls from Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal and a lot of boat shows. I thought maybe the Lord is telling me he wants me to keep going."

So she went back on the road with Twiggy -- it was Twiggy No. 4 by then -- dressing the squirrel in a tiny lifejacket and adding a plea for water safety to the performance.

"Twiggy's gonna be the Smokey the Bear of water safety," Best says. "Maybe the next president or the next Billy Graham will be saved because Twiggy taught him to use a lifejacket."

All five Twiggys have been orphans, the last four given to the Bests by veterinarians and the Humane Society. All but one -- Twiggy No. 3 -- have been females. "It's easier to train females," Best says. "They stay more docile longer. The males, when the testosterone kicks in, they get feisty." It takes almost two years to train each squirrel.

They water-ski until they are about 4 years old, then retire to live out their golden years in a special room in Best's Sanford house, where the floor is covered with mulch and there are plenty of oak branches to climb. In the wild, Best says, squirrels live three or four years; in captivity they last eight to 10.

"They run around the house, get into closets, make nests everywhere and hide nuts everywhere," says Best.

Now it's almost showtime, but where's Twiggy? She's not in her favorite overhead compartment. She's not in her cage. Where is she?

Best and her son, Chuckie, 21, start pulling out drawers, opening cabinets, tearing covers off the bed. No Twiggy.

"Twiggy, where are you?" Chuckie calls out.

Twiggy doesn't answer.

Best looks over in the corner where Twiggy No. 6, now in training, rests in her cage. "She's not show-ready yet, but we'll make her show-ready," she says. "You got to do what you got to do in a pinch."

But first she decides to see if Twiggy 5 is hiding in the bed. She starts taking it apart with an electric screwdriver. When she pulls off the board underneath the mattress, voila{grv}, there's Twiggy napping in a pile of clothes in the bed's storage area.

Best laughs, kisses Twiggy, then sticks the squirrel down her shirt and heads off to do the show.

Inside, a crowd gathers around a pool that's 24 feet around and six inches deep. Best puts on a microphone and introduces Twiggy as "the only water-skiing squirrel in the world."

She straps a little red lifejacket onto Twiggy and delivers a lecture on water safety. She puts Twiggy on a little pair of skis that are mounted on a little raft of clear plastic. Twiggy's little hands clasp a metal handle that's attached to a rope, which is attached to a Nautique boat. Chuckie presses a button, the boat zooms forward -- and Twiggy is skiing!

She looks happy there, calmly scratching her nose as she circles the pool.

It's amazing! It's incredible! Nothing restores your faith in humanity like a water-skiing squirrel.

Twiggy zips through the water at the National Capital Boat Show in Chantilly.Best, her son, Chuckie, and Twiggy head for the water.