ARLINGTON -- Fisher Elementary School's two fifth grade classes have been studying the Iditarod for several weeks, but the toughest race on Earth came to life when 2015 hopeful Gwenn Bogart came to visit.
"Instead of doing a certain routine," said Bogart, "I'd like you to ask questions, so don't be afraid to raise your hands." The students were happy to oblige, asking her about everything from her favorite mushers -- the name for the humans who run the dog sleds -- to how she deals with emergencies on the trail, to how they could became mushers themselves. The students had begun studying the race five weeks ago, and each were assigned two mushers to follow during the race, which ran from March 1 to 15.
Bogart, a former Manchester resident who attended Burr and Burton Academy, saw her first Iditarod in 2009, when some friends who lived in Alaska invited her up to witness the event. During that visit she met her future husband, and she moved to Alaska two years ago.
It wasn't long before Bogart was dreaming of participating in Alaska's favorite sport. That winter she began working with a team of six dogs, preparing herself for a chance to participate in the Iditarod, the world-famous 1,000-mile race across the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod commemorates the 1925 "Great Race of Mercy" when 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs relayed an antitoxin 674 miles to save the small town of Nome from a diphtheria epidemic.
"Never did I dream I would actually be mushing dogs," said Bogart, who got into the sport by calling mushers and asking if she could work for them. She caught on with Jason Mackey, who she describes as her mentor. "We're such good friends, I feel like part of his family."
She started out scooping the dogs' poop, a job which, she said, "is much better in the winter, because it's frozen and it doesn't smell bad."
When she finally got on the trails, Bogart said, she had some initial struggles. "It was crazy, they go so fast," she said of the dogs, who can maintain a speed of about 10-11 mph, "I crashed and crashed and crashed. I thought, I'm never going to be able to fulfill my dream." There were nights, she said, when she would come home, bruised, tired, and hurting, and her husband's pep talks were what kept her able to continue.
Those who wish to participate in the Iditarod must complete 750 miles of qualifying races, including a minimum of two 300-mile races, to qualify. This winter, Bogart participated in the Copper Basin 300, which is widely known as the most difficult 300-mile race in Alaska. After completing that race, Bogart felt comfortable pulling out of the Yukon Quest, another 300-mile race, in favor of the Northern Lights 300, which was closer to her home. However, when a heat wave caused the Northern Lights race to be canceled, Bogart worried that she may be unable to qualify in time for the 2015 Iditarod.
However, the Iditarod Trail Committee took pity on the rookies who were unable to qualify because the Northern Lights 300 was canceled, said Bogart, and are allowing them to sign up for the Iditarod, with their participation dependent on them completing a second 300-mile race before the event.
In her first race, said Bogart, she actually got lost and flipped her sled. However, she was able to right herself and finish the race. Later, she was able to come in fourth place in a 200-mile race, finishing ahead of former Iditarod musher "The Mushing Mortician" Scott Jansson, much to the disappointment of the student who had been assigned Jansson.
"Since I'm a new musher," said Bogart, "I don't have a lot of races.
The cost of participating in the Iditarod is around $20,000, said Bogart, including $3,000 to enter, and more than $6,000 for kibble alone. On the trail, the dogs eat primarily fatty meats such as caribou and beef, as well as dry kibble. The booties that the dogs wear to protect their feet cost $1 each, said Bogart, and she will often go through several thousand each season.
Bogart had some of the booties with her, and the students remarked how badly they smelled. Bogarts explained that the smell of the dogs was just something you have to get used to.
"It's like [the smell of] fifth-grade kids after recess, I have to get used to that," quipped teacher Jeremy Pratico.
Pratico came to Fisher Elementary 10 years ago, and immediately incorporated a unit on the Iditarod into his syllabus. "When my little sister was in the third grade, she came home all excited because her teacher was doing a lesson on the Iditarod," he said, "I started following the race, and I got hooked. I knew that when I became a teacher, I would include the Iditarod race in my lessons."
"The best thing for me is that it crosses across everything," said Pratico, "We can do math, we can do science, we can do social studies, we can do writing." The students have written letters to the mushers, learned about the rules and history of the race, and have used math to plot the racers' journeys. However, he said, "What excites them the most is the ownership of picking a musher [to follow]."
Bogart brought her full outfit along as well, and allowed students to try on the various articles, including the boots and mittens that were made out of beaver hide, before dressing one student up in the entire getup. She noted as she pulled a second coat over the girl's head that just the fur part of her second coat cost $500.
"You don't even think about, ‘Oh, gosh, how do I do it?' You just do it," said Bogart to close out her talk, "If you get an idea of something you might want to try, but its too hard, break it down into smaller goals. With each accomplishment, you're like, wow, I can do it, and suddenly you're doing to thing you wanted to do."
She left the students with a final quote, from South Pole explorer and Iditarod participant Norman Vaughan, who said, "Dream big, and dare to fail."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB