ALASKA — Local musher Mark Ibsen brought some of his dog sled team to Helena Middle School Thursday morning, hoping to instill in students two key points: Dog is God spelled backwards, and dogs are worth loving because they are people too.
Ibsen is one of 11 mushers competing in the 25th annual Race to the Sky dog sled race. The 350-mile marathon, which begins Saturday at Camp Rimini, is a qualifier for the 1,150-mile Iditarod. A new 100-mile junior race beings Sunday in Lincoln and has five teams.
Sixth-graders at HMS were able to ask questions, look at the sledding equipment, and pet the dogs.
Students often wonder about whether the boxes the dogs are kept in are too small, Ibsen says.
He told the group of enthusiastic middle-schoolers that if the vehicle is going down the highway at 70 mph, a small container is safer so they donâ€™t get jostled around. Ibsen also noted that a dog is a den animal, and therefore doesnâ€™t mind small spaces.
Noel, Jack, Luna and Blizzard offered wet dog kisses to the sixth-graders as they gave them affectionate pets in front of the school.
â€œAre they mutts?â€ one student asked.
â€œAll these dogs are descendants from wolves,â€ Ibsen told them. â€œThey are all mutts but trained to do a job, so they are purebred.â€
Sixth-grader Levi Hill has never seen a dog sled race but said he was intrigued by the concept.
â€œItâ€™s amazing how (the dogs) can run so long without getting tired,â€ he said.
Hill was impressed with the dedication mushers have for their dogs.
â€œThey have to know a lot about the dogs and care about them,â€ he said.
Classmate Brooklynn Lundberg described the dogs as sweet, strong-willed and nice.
â€œThey seem happy with the job they are doing,â€ she said.
Lundberg has never been to a sled dog race, either, but is considering mushing in her future.
â€œI love racing, Siberian huskies and being pulled,â€ she said.
A musher must be strong, willing to put in the time to train the animals, and enjoy a canine companion, Lundberg said. The dogs must listen well to commands and be friendly, she added.
â€œThe dogs need to stop when you want them to or if there is danger, like a moose in the road,â€ she said. â€œMushers need to train themselves and be able to live in the cold. It means putting your dog first â€” they are your leader, but they are dependent on the trainer.â€
Lundberg says sheâ€™s a good candidate for the job.
â€œI really am loyal to any dog if the dog is loyal to me,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m patient and like to do activities with them and most importantly I love to race.â€
Ibsen began mushing in 2001 after handling the dogs for a number of years prior. He enjoyed the school visit for many reasons â€” first and foremost because he likes to talk and answer questions about a sport he thoroughly enjoys.
â€œItâ€™s a great sport that almost died when snowmobiles came out, but with the strong commitment for the way of life of mushers, it caught back on now,â€ he said.
He says thereâ€™s a certain magic that happens on the snowy trail on a sled pulled by a team of dogs.
â€œThat (magic) happens whenever the dogs are running in the dark and flying down the trail and itâ€™s quiet in the sunset with a cloud of dog breath,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a spiritual thing.â€