April 17th, 2014
By Stephanie Choate
Spring is finally bringing warmer temperatures to Vermont—for the most part—but the climate was far chillier in Williston Central School last week, to the tune of 40 below zero.
Students who have been studying the Iditarod—the grueling long-distance sled dog race in Alaska—met with Gwenn Bogart, the first woman from Vermont to qualify for the overland race.
A group of eight students had been studying the Iditarod for more than a month. Before the race started in March, each student chose a musher to follow, closely tracking his or her progress, obstacles, strategy and ultimate finish or scratch.
“To them, this was like meeting a real life celebrity,” said Special Education Teacher Andrea Griffin, who led the project. “They went home and talked to their parents about it. They’re still talking about.”
Mushers and teams of 16 sled dogs race from Anchorage to Nome, more than 1,000 miles, usually in 9 to 15 days. Mushers face blizzards, debilitating wind chill, desolate landscapes, disorienting whiteouts, utter exhaustion and whatever else the brutal conditions of the Great White North throw at them.
Bogart showed students her gear, described her dogs and training, and detailed her experiences in distances races. The students were riveted for the hour and a half presentation, throwing out musher names and statistics and answering Bogart’s questions, as well as asking her questions of their own.
The students were studying the race as part of their language arts curriculum. Griffin said each student reads various articles and websites about the Iditarod, researches mushers, studies grammar and writes about their research.
“When students are engaged in the content, they’re willing to do the work,” she said. “I have a lot of students who reading isn’t easy for, but when you get them a topic they’re interested in, it’s amazing to see what they’re willing to do.”
Principal Jackie Parks said interest and engagement can motivate students to study and learn, and other topics can be integrated into the lessons, including social studies, science and math.
“I think the more integration and the more connections we help students make between the disciplines, the more they benefit,” she said. “That’s really what the real world experience is like. We don’t go out into the world and say, ‘Now I am going to do language arts….’ It’s a good way to show kids how to wrap around a project.”
‘THE LAST GREAT RACE’
Bogart—who now lives in Wasilla, Alaska—is set to compete in the 2015 Iditarod, though her path to the start line isn’t quite certain yet.
Bogart has completed the notoriously tough Copper Basin 300 and the Sheep Mountain 200. To qualify, rookies must complete 750 race miles, including two races of 300 miles or more.
Typically, mushers can’t compete in qualifying races the same year they are set to be in the Iditarod, but a lack of snow in Alaska meant several qualifying races were canceled. So, Bogart must complete one of the two 300-mile races she is signed up for in January.
More than 60 mushers enter the race each year—the vast majority of them Alaskans.
Iditarod competitors carry everything they need with them and stash the extra food and equipment at checkpoints. They can have no two-way communication with the outside world apart from handlers at checkpoints, and can’t receive anything from anyone.
That makes it a solitary effort—just the musher and their dogs against the elements.
Bogart is working on training 20 dogs. She’ll narrow that down to a team of 16 for the Iditarod.
When the dogs are training, they burn 10,000 calories a day, she said.
“How many Big Macs is that?” she asked, to the great enjoyment of the students.
Aside from dry dog food, the sled dogs consume large quantities of raw meat—ground beef, fish, chicken, pure fat doled out with an ice cream scooper and studded with vitamins, and moose and beaver when she can get it.
Bogart also showed the students what she would wear to face the brutal Alaskan conditions, and dressed one lucky, soon-overheated student in the full getup.
First, on went the custom-made snowpants, which Bogart would typically wear over down pants. Then, a fur-lined parka, which would go over two down jackets. Then, a baseball hat to keep a headlamp from slipping down, and a large fur hat. Small, cotton gloves slide on under massive beaver skin mittens. With the parka’s hood up, the student was obscured by fur and layers of technical waterproofing gear.
“Fur in Alaska is the name of the game,” she said. “It really keeps you warm. It’s very insulating and wind-proofing, and those things are really important. And the long hairs catch frost and keep it off your face.”
Bogart also passed around her boots—space-age looking monstrosities with a down liner and several layers of insulating foam liners.
She also has coats and little booties and blankets for her dogs.
“They’re all dressed up,” she said.
Bogart said she has no illusions that she’ll be in the front of the pack, and said her goal is to finish the race.
She said the weather and obstacles mushers face are always unpredictable. In the 2014 Iditarod, warm conditions on one end of the trail caused sleds to break apart and crash. At the other end of the trail, a brutal white-out blizzard on the banks of the Bering Sea caused veteran racer and four-time winner Jeff King to accept help, getting himself and his dogs to safety.
“It’s incredibly hard,” she said. “I just got a taste of it in the 300 mile race.”