February 7, 2008

NIBEM 7: Geel! Hawl! Dog Sledding at the Beach

I met a real life adventurer yesterday. A 21st century mix of Thor Heyerdahl, Sir Edmund Hillary and a smidge of Davey Crockett all combined in a energetic Alaska resident named Lorraine Temple. Lorraine is a woman of many talents–licensed boat captain, dog musher, tour guide–the list goes on and on. While I haven't personally experienced most of her career choices, we do have a few random things in common. She grew up in Northern California near my hometown of Lafayette, and she lived in Goleta for a few years while attending UCSB.

I have had a longtime fascination with Alaska. My favorite geography class in college focused on the 49th state and I also had a quirky great aunt, Helen, who made frequent pilgrimages to Alaska, towing her well-traveled Airstream trailer. I think that's why I was so excited to receive Lorraine's phone call about arranging an assembly at school. She explained her program and shared her Alaska Husky Spirit website. I checked it out and I was hooked. It would be neat for the beach-bound kids of Brandon School to meet real sled dogs, see a real sled and be introduced to a woman with a very unique job and an adventurous spirit.

Lorraine and her co-stars Buckeye and his daughter, Cabo, did not disappoint. Okay, Buckeye's tendency to interrupt Lorraine with random barking was slightly distracting, but the dogs were a handsome pair and very tolerant of the adoring pats of about 250 students. We learned a little bit about life in Alaska, the history and reality of the Iditarod and also about Lorraine's former business–dog sled tours across glaciers.
Patrons were helicoptered in, outfitted with the requisite gear and sent out with a team of dogs to travel to the edge of a glacier. The essentials of dog-sledding fashion were modeled by a gracious volunteer, fifth-grade- teacher Hugh Ranson, and included beaver hat, wolf-fur-trimmed parka and huge, paddle-like mittens equipped with a patch of black nose-wiping fabric on the outside of one of the gloves. Lorraine made it clear that she was not condoning the killing of animals for fashion, animal fur is simply much warmer in the freezing Alaskan temperatures. We even learned that the fur trim around the hood serves to deflect howling winds as well as add warmth.

Later, I got to help harness up the dogs to demonstrate how they pulled the sled. I had to put Buckeye's harness on while keeping him in place by straddling his body with my legs. Don't know how much Buckeye enjoyed the experience. He didn't step into the leg holes very willingly even though he has been harnessed hundreds of times. Maybe he sensed a novice musher. Once harnessed, the dogs tolerated a reenactment of sled travel while I demonstrated my braking techniques. We all learned the three most important rules of dog sledding: 1. Never let go of the sled. 2. Never let go of the sled and 3. Never..., well I think rule #3 is obvious. I didn't let go of the sled, and all ended well on my trip across the stage of the multi-purpose room.

From the first moment I met Lorraine in person and was introduced to the dogs my mind starting focusing on how to share this story in a children's book. I asked her if she had ever contemplated writing a book herself, and she nodded. As with all of us, time demands had prevented her from starting a writing project, but she indicated she was now ready for a creative outlet. A quick thought I had was to title a non-fiction, heavily pictoral book, Traveling Dogs. Lorraine's dogs not only sled, they travel in planes, helicopters (the dogs have to get to the glaciers, too) and also a more conventional big red van. The dogs and Lorraine travel all over the western regions of the lower 48 during the harshest months of the Alaskan winter, visiting schools and sharing their story.

As fascinating as it was to learn about dog sledding, I think an equally important benefit of the assembly was to let children know there is life outside the box. Lorraine is an intriguing role model. She's a risk taker, an adventurer, and her life thus far has been spent following her passions. I don't think she's done yet. She's toying with the idea of trading her sleds in for boats, and returning to life near the ocean. Personally, I'm hoping she'll stay in Alaska a little longer. I think Buckeye and I might have an appointment on a glacier.

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