By late February, ask most Mainers planning a trip where they’re headed, and you’ll probably hear names like Florida or Bermuda. But Nada Lepper, a teacher of third and fourth grade in Brooksville, has her sights set on Alaska.
In 2005, Lepper led a group of third- and fourth-grade students from Brooksville on a 10-day trip to Alaska to view the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. In March, 2011 Brooksville students will embark on a similar trip.
“I don’t do many crazy things,” Lepper confesses, “but children become more enthusiastic about the Iditarod than anything else we study. That’s why I do this.”
For years, Lepper has used the Iditarod as unit of study in her classes. Each year, students follow the Iditarod and choose a musher, or sled dog racer, to study. During the Iditarod, students can follow their musher’s progress on the Internet. They use this information to write daily journals from the perspective of their musher.
“The quality of kids’ writing really improves during these exercises,” says Lepper. “I see things come out of students that don’t during other parts of the year.”
Call of the wild
The appeal of the Iditarod seems timeless. For both adults and children, the story of the famous race through the Alaskan wilds is as captivating as a Jack London novel.
Native peoples in Alaska have used dog sleds as a means of winter transportation for thousands of years. European settlers arriving in the area adopted the use of dog sleds, too. The chief route across Alaska that mushers followed was the Iditarod, a trail spanning more than 1,000 miles of wilderness that connected towns and cities.
In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria outbreak occurred in the Alaska city of Nome. Transporting the life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome was impossible because the city was unreachable by rail or automobile. Ice blocked ships from the port and air traffic was impossible.
Dog sled proved to be the only means of transporting the serum. Together, a group of 18 dog teams and mushers relayed the serum 674 miles to Nome along the Iditarod Trail.
As modern transportation use like snowmobiles increased, dog sleds and mushers began to disappear. In 1973, the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held to celebrate Alaska’s dog sledding history. The first Iditarod brought mushers from the Alaskan cities of Anchorage to Nome. The event is still held annually.
From Maine to Alaska
The connection between Brooksville and Alaska occurred by chance. One summer, when an Alaskan woman visiting friends in Brooksville learned that local students studied the Iditarod, she invited them to visit Alaska. The idea intrigued Lepper, who brought it up to parents and the school board. With their permission, the school began fundraising to send students to Alaska for a 10-day trip.
“I thought we might reach a barrier that wouldn’t let us go,” says Lepper. “But that barrier never arose.”
In March 2005, Lepper and several parent chaperones brought 13 third- and fourth-grade Brooksville students to Alaska. The group arrived in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, where they spent several days sightseeing. Students visited a musher’s dog kennel and a cooperative where musk ox, a large, horned mammal whose hair makes high-quality yarn, were raised.
After several days, the children saw the mushers and their dogs take off from the Iditarod’s start in Anchorage. Many of the students had the opportunity to meet the mushers they had written about in person. Students delighted in getting their autographs and petting the sled dogs.
From Anchorage, the group boarded a plane to a small town deep within the Alaskan wilderness called McGrath. Like much of Alaska, McGrath is only accessible by plane, snowmobile or dog sled. Due to its remote location, McGrath was once a stopover point for mushers on the Iditarod Trail. Today, mushers participating in the Iditarod race must still pass through a checkpoint in McGrath.
In McGrath, Brooksville students spent most of their time at the Iditarod checkpoint, where they saw the mushers they met in Anchorage for a second time.
“The kids and I spent many nights sitting in a snowbank at the checkpoint, looking up at the northern lights and just listening to the mushers talking to their dogs,” Lepper recalls. “It was the kind of experience that students just can’t get in the classroom.”
The trip to McGrath was an insight into a different culture for the Brooksville students. Most of those who live in McGrath are Native American. While in McGrath, the Brooksville children connected with students at the McGrath elementary school. McGrath students invited the Brooksville children to the Junior Native Youth Olympics, a series of competitions based on the skills that Native Alaskans once needed to survive.
Since 2005, Lepper has strengthened relations between Brooksville and McGrath. The two schools frequently hold live video conferences through the Internet, where students in Alaska can give presentations about Alaskan topics, like how to make mittens out of beaver pelts, to Brooksville students. The video conferencing allows students in Maine and Alaska to share their research projects.
“The video conferencing is great because it’s free and interests students,” says Lepper. “The Iditarod trip is a great opportunity to incorporate technology into the school curriculum. In 2011, Brooksville students will be blogging about the trip online to share their experiences with Mainers.”
Brooksville students have already raised $10,000 to fund the second Alaska trip. They must raise a total of $30,000, most of which will cover the expense of plane tickets. Children will sell goods at farmer’s markets this summer and put on various events throughout the year to raise money.
“The fundraisers help children become better communicators, build confidence and learn to work as a team,” explains Lepper. “Those are valuable life skills.”
“I love bringing school kids to the Iditarod because it combines the outdoors, animals, adventure, children and their families,” says Lepper. “Those are all things that I value.”
In the coming weeks, several fundraisers will be held to support the 2011 Brooksville to Alaska trip. The fundraisers aim to provide opportunities for everyone in the area to have fun.
The first is a fishing derby on Sunday. More than $1,000 in prizes will be given to participants who catch the largest fish from each of the following five species: brown trout, brook trout, pickerel, bass and perch. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children.
Fishing will occur on the following ponds: Pierce, Wights, Billings (1st), Douglas (2nd), Woods (3rd), Walker, Park and Snake. Weigh-in for fish will be 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at Brooksville Elementary School. Tickets for the fishing derby can be purchased at Northern Bay Market in Penobscot, Curves in Blue Hill, Yanni’s in Blue Hill, Eggemoggin Country Store in Sargentville, C & G in Sedgwick, Seal Cove Boatyard in Brooksville and Willey’s in Ellsworth.
After the fishing derby a supper will be from 4-6:30 p.m. at Brooksville Elementary School. The costs are $8 person or $20 for a family.
The second fundraiser will be a softball tournament on Feb. 27-28 at the Brooksville Athletic Field. The tournament will start at 8 a.m. each day. Concessions will be sold.
Additionally, a breakfast will be held Feb. 27 at Brooksville Elementary School from 7-10 a.m. at a cost of $6 a person or $15 for a family.
Those seeking more information about the Iditarod can attend a free event at the Blue Hill Public Library from 2-4 p.m. on March 6, when the Iditarod Race will begin this year. A live video of the Iditarod’s beginning will be shown as well as other videos about the race. Anyone interested in learning about the Iditarod and the Brooksville-to-Alaska trip is encouraged to attend. Refreshments will be served.
Those seeking more information about any of these events may contact Nada Lepper at 326-8500 or 359-2096 or e-mail at: email@example.com