By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item
MILTON — Twelve students at the James Baugher Elementary School aren’t just getting a chance to track the progress of their favorite mushers in the Iditarod, now in its fifth day.
Thanks to a reading-based enrichment activity, these fourth-graders are taking a behind-the-scenes look at the more than 1,000 mile, nine-day race and the people who participate in it.
Hope W. Kopf, a retired Shikellamy teacher, is leading the sessions, where students are reading “Black Star, Bright Dawn” by Scott O’Dell and hearing from Kopf about her experiences watching the Iditarod while on sabbatical in Alaska in the 1980s.
Kopf said watching the race and talking to some of the participants taught her a lot about the athletic prowess of the dogs that run in the traditional race.
“Before, I thought it was all cruel,” she said. “I thought, ‘What do you mean they never come inside the house?’ ... But in reality, you need the coat. They work with these animals every day.”
Mushers must have 12 to 16 dogs at the starting line. They must have at least six of those dogs to finish the race. If they don’t have enough dogs at the end, too bad. Race rules say no new dogs can be added on the trail.
“These dogs are athletes,” Kopf said.
The respect and love mushers have for their animals is something Kopf hopes to pass on to her students through the lessons. Kopf, who wore a traditional Inuit “kuspuk” during part of Wednesday’s lesson, hopes to teach students a little bit about Eskimo — specifically Inuit — culture.
“I want to expose them to the Inuit,” she said.
Kopf said she still follows the race each year, and this year’s path has been particularly hard on mushers, especially in the Rainy Pass and Dazlzell area, where the lack of snow has taken its toll on even the most seasoned veterans.
“They have to do so much more to control the sled,” she said.
The 2014 race, which began Sunday, is expected to wrap up next week. Sixty-nine mushers began the race, though several already have dropped out.
Several of the mushers are second- or third-generation runners, Kopf said. There also are father-son pairs in the race.
“It’s a whole family thing,” she said.