Eyes wide, 14 second-graders sat in front of musher Doug Bruner on Friday morning as he told them everything they could possibly want to know about the sport of dog sledding … not that some of them needed much teaching.
This crew, you see, isn’t your typical second-grade class. In fact, thanks to teacher Kim Oldenburgh, all but two of the pupils had learned plenty about the sport – and its marquee event, the Iditarod – when they were mere first-graders.
Little kids, in other words.
Now, though, they’re bigger. As such, they’re dog sled veterans. Make no mistake about it.
They know how to tell a dog to turn right (“Gee,” in case you were wondering) or left (“haw”). And how to make all those frantically pounding paws skid to a halt (that would be “whoa”).
But do they know how dog sledding started?
Maybe … and maybe not.
Jake Koffman volunteered his version, which actually described the symbolism involved in the origin of the Iditarod race, and not the origin of the sport itself. Either way, it left his classmates nodding … and his teacher smiling.
“[Sledding started] when everybody got that disease and they had to deliver that medicine … to Rome, I think,” Koffman said.
“Nome,” Oldenburgh corrected, gently.
“Yeah. Nome,” Koffman agreed, before finding his stride again. “They had diphtheria.”
Bruner, the vice president of the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club, was on hand at Critterwoods Outdoor Recreation Center in Corinth on Friday to give the pupils from Orono’s Asa Adams School a primer on all things sled dog. Joining him was musher Kevin Hiltz, who took the youngsters on much-awaited rides behind a three-dog team.
Bruner said his club is instructional in nature, as opposed to clubs that focus primarily on competition. The nearly 80 members of the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club want to make entry into the sport easier, and to share tips with others.
Bruner, who used to live in Michigan and volunteered at local races, said he found out about the club four years ago.
“I saw a dog truck come up the road [with a sled on the top] and I followed it and ended up here,” Bruner said. “[I] found out what this club was like and I said, ‘This is my second home.'”
On Friday, Bruner and Hiltz took turns teaching and answering questions posed by a group that takes its sled dog lessons very seriously.
Among the questions posed during the hourlong indoor session:
“Do you know which ones are a boy and which ones are a girl?
Yes. Bruner does. And he wisely left it at that.
“How long do sleds take to build?
About 100 hours, Bruner said … although at least one second-grader didn’t think that total was very high at all.
“Well, you wouldn’t want to go 100 hours without sleeping, would you?” Bruner asked.
“Who invented the sled? Do they get a lot of money?”
Hmm. Next question.
The second-graders weren’t short on questions, and Bruner and Hiltz weren’t short on answers. And for more than an hour, all 14 sat patiently, riveted on the intricacies of a sport none had ever tried before.
Their teacher wasn’t surprised.
“Kids love dogs, and they love the outdoors,” Oldenburgh said. “It’s just a great way to combine the two and teach them about a place they don’t live.”
That place would be Alaska, site of the Iditarod. But when that race starts, Oldenburgh says her students will be keeping very close tabs on those distant mushers.
“The kids draw [the names of] all the mushers out of this hat,” she said, tapping her fur-lined bomber hat. “We have the trails out in our hall. Every day they get online and look at the statistics and find out which musher is where and they go move their musher on the trail.”
But this day wasn’t for tracking distant professionals. It was for listening, and questioning, and dreaming … and for finally riding in a dog sled.
“Almost all kids love dogs, and they want to play with them and pet ’em,” Bruner said. “So when you get them on a sled for the first time, especially if the team you have is a fast team and they take off down the starting chute, [the kids’] eyes [get wide with] the amazement on their face that dogs will run that fast.”
Amazement, yes. Some undoubtedly considered mushing as something they’d like to try themselves. And others? Well, several were content to just act like dogs for a day.
“I’m looking for a volunteer,” Bruner said, prompting 14 hands to shoot skyward.
The task at hand: Learning about the lines that the dogs are attached to. And to do that, Bruner needed a few imitation huskies.
The volunteers readily agreed, dropping to their hands and knees as Bruner laughed.
“You don’t have to get down on all fours,” he said … as if it would do any good.
These sled dog experts were eager, it seemed, to become one with their inner dogs.
“I want to be the lead dog,” Matt Fowler piped up.
“I want to be the lead dog in training,” Stephen Nelson added, testing the new phrase Bruner had taught them minutes earlier.
That meant that he got to line up next to his lead dog teammate, Fowler.
Behind them were two “swing dogs.”
And back next to the sled? The wheel dogs, played by Leah Averill and Becky Lopez-Anido, grabbed the lines and began taking Bruner’s demonstration a step farther than he’d intended.
In no time, they’d clipped themselves to the ropes, were pawing the air with their … um … paws, and were theoretically ready to help haul a musher across the Critterwoods lodge.
Then it was time for a part of the program Bruner knew the children would love.
“I’m gonna go out and get my assistant, and I’ll show you how to put a harness on,” Bruner said.
“I bet it’s a dog,” one girl announced.
It was: A beautiful 10-year-old female husky named Nanook.
Beautiful to all … but competition to some? Perhaps.
“Are you a lead dog?” the self-appointed lead dog, Fowler, asked the dog.
Nanook wasn’t answering, but Bruner allowed that she was, indeed, a real, live lead dog.
All of which delighted everyone … including Fowler.
“She’s a lead dog like me and Stevie!” Fowler said.
Just like him and Stevie.
In the fertile mind’s eye of a second-grader, perhaps.
And that was good enough for everybody.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 990-8214 or 1-800-310-8600.