In Huslia it’s an absolutely gorgeous day. So balmy that community folks are wearing sweatshirts as they visit with friends and family and observe dog teams coming into the checkpoint. Noah Burmeister was bedding his dogs down as we talked about the harsh temperatures out on the river over the past couple of nights. He assured me that it had dropped to near minus 70 degrees. He has a thermometer on his sled that reads down to minus 60 and the red stuff was buried in the little bulb, not extending upward to even register the temperature.
A village elder, Gramma Rose Attla was seated outside the checkpoint in the warm morning sun watching Burmeister and other mushers working with their dog teams. I asked Gramma Rose what she thought the temperature might be. Gramma Rose removed one glove and held her out for perhaps 10 seconds, then she put her glove back on and declared the temperature to be 1 degree above zero. She would know, she’s lived her whole life in the village. Gramma Rose celebrated her 88th birthday earlier this week. The late George Attla, the winningest sprint musher of all time is Rose’s brother. When the George Attla biographical film, Spirit of the Wind, was shot, Gramma Rose played the part of their mother. This is an incredible film sharing the challenges of young George’s life, his battle with Tuberculosis, returning home to his village after spending many years of his young life in treatment and then finding himself through sled dogs. It’s a must see documentary and an excellent inspirational film for youngsters.
As mushers cared for their dogs this morning in Huslia, there were math lessons galore! A pre-school class came walking by the teams all holding onto a kid style gangline. They stopped in front of each bedded down team to count the dogs. They’d agree on a number then move to the next team and do the same. The teacher then asked if that team had more dogs or fewer dogs than the team before. The youngsters then made their way to Gramma Rose and wished her a happy belated birthday. Undoubtedly, Gramma Rose knew all the children as well as their parents, grand parents and perhaps even great grand parents.
Katherine Keith was caring for her canine athletes, massaging their shoulders and applying foot cream. The children were flocked around her as she worked through the team. They were asking countless questions. Then the practical math applications started. One of the young students asked how many dogs she had. Being that she and John Baker run from the same kennel she was talking big numbers. So here’s the problem she gave them. If I have 16 dogs here and John has 16 dogs here and together we have a total of 96 dogs, how many dogs are at home. These kids didn’t pull out there smartphones to use the calculator. They didn’t even pull off their gloves to use fingers. They did the math in their heads and came up with the answer of 64 dogs still at home in Kotzebue.
The two Team Baker teams were parked side by side. It was an interesting contrast as to team attire. Most but not all of Katherine’s dogs were wearing dog coats. There was a large black very wooly looking wheel dog that didn’t have a dog coat on. None of the dogs on John’s team were wearing coats. Katherine explained to the children why some dogs wore coats when sleeping and some dogs didn’t. Take the big black dog that has a very warm coat of its own, putting a coat on that dog would make it too warm. Likewise with all the dogs on John ‘s team. Clearly these mushers know their athletes very well.
At the same time as the math lessons were going on, the vets were holding a school of their own for youngsters call A-CHILL. That acronym stands for Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living. Through the dogs, the schools of the Alaska Gateway and Yukon-Koyukuk Districts will engage students in grades 6-12 to be inspired and learn valuable knowledge and skills related to the sciences, math, language arts and college and career readiness. This morning the students were learning the importance of proper hydration and signs and symptoms of dehydration. The project in action on the ground in Huslia this morning builds on and expands the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care Mushing Program started by George Attla before his death in 2015. A-CHILL not only educates students about the care of animals but also careers in Veterinary Science.
Rosie Simon of Huslia has been helping as a checker. When teams arrive, Rosie gets a bib number, counts the number of dogs on the team and also records the in time. Rosie has been at the Huslia banner to welcome many teams today. Other people of the village are very busy as hosts and hostesses for Iditarod. There’s the crew that’s heating water for the mushers. They keep a fire burning all day long and have hot water 24-hours a day. There’s the crew of cooks who prepare food in their kitchens then bring it to the checkpoint for the mushers and volunteers. One woman said she had brought pancakes, scrambles eggs and an egg casserole for breakfast. As we spoke, she said there was moose soup in her crockpot and another moose entrée in her over for later today. There’s the group who keeps order in the checkpoint hospitality center and the crew who maintains the dog yard. Does the fun and excitement of having the race in the village equal the many long hours of work to host a checkpoint? The women I asked said they loved having the race and they’ll remember the fun long after the race passes through. They say many hands make light work in Huslia.
Nicolas Petit was the second musher to arrive in Huslia approximately 6 hours after Mitch Seavey. Petit and team are camped out in the sun today at the far side of the dog lot. His huskies are soaking up the warmth. Nicolas was walking groups of three or four dogs at a time. It really looked like Petit should have skies on for skijoring with those dogs. Petite said he decided to try skijoring awhile back. He was on skinny skies with a four-dog team. It was a rocking ride and for future skijoring he’d prefer one or two dogs.