November 17, 2015. On Kids, Trails, and Wagging Tails, by Debbie Clarke Moderow18 Nov 2015, by Uncategorized in
A few weeks ago I was invited to do a presentation at Anchorage’s Balto Seppala Park. Some fifty or so Turnagain Elementary School first graders would be the guests of honor at this celebration of a 600-foot interpretive trail recently completed through the Anchorage Park Foundation’s “Schools on Trails” program. “We’re hoping you and another Moderow musher or two, and maybe a sled dog, could bring our new trail to life for the students,” the voice on the phone explained.
“We’d be happy to do our best,” I replied.
Our family’s kennel was created originally for our young children—we adopted Salt, our first sled dog, when Hannah and Andy were in kindergarten and first grade. Talking to first graders would draw me back to the early days, when the four of us fell in love with our original huskies and the way of the dog mushing trail.
Andy and Hannah at one of their first races, early 1990s
Of course several decades—and thousands of dog sledding miles—have passed since our beginnings in mushing. Today Andy and Hannah are in their thirties. Both were out of state on business trips when the celebration day came. So Mark, Cheddar, and I headed to Balto Seppala Park, where we’d talk to groups of children about the historic Iditarod trail, its people, and dogs.
One of the signs on the interpretive trail, Balto Seppala Park
Mark took a sled and camping equipment to one end of the lovely wooded path, while Cheddar and I set off in the opposite direction, with arctic gear for her. Mark would talk about equipment, the fun of winter camping, and tell some brief stories about what it really means to travel in arctic weather. Cheddar and I would greet the children at the map of the historic Iditarod trail, where I planned to talk about the dogs.
It was quiet at the park when we first got there and set up our props. Then came the unmistakable sound of fifty happy first graders approaching. The children had walked the better part of a mile to get their local park. Accompanied by parents and grandparents, they were thrilled to be out and about. They fidgeted through a ribbon cutting ceremony, eagerly shouted “Schools on Trails” when prompted, then split into several groups to visit with us.
Mark talking to first graders from Turnagain Elementary
I was a little nervous at first, having not spoken to such a young audience in a few years. Mostly I hoped they’d go home with an inspiring notion or two. What I didn’t expect was the opposite: that I would be inspired by them.
The fact is, Anchorage’s youngest citizens already know much about our state’s history, our winter trails, and our founding dogs. They are familiar with the serum run delivery in 1925.
“Were there airplanes back then to fly the medicine to Nome?” I asked them.
“Oh no!” they replied in unison. “It was too cold and dark!”
Then another child added, “but there was a train!”
Those young bright eyes focused on the map of Alaska—they followed the railroad route to Nenana where the serum was passed off to the first musher. They quieted as I traced the route from Nenana to Nome with my finger. There was a moment when I looked at their faces—mesmerized at the story and the map—and I lost track of my own words. To think that these young children are already so engaged with Alaska, so versed in the stories of this northern place and the exceptional history that has gone on here before them—was more than I could process.
Debbie showing the map to Turnagain Elementary first graders
I fumbled for a moment, saying something like “Look at all of you!” Then I managed to get finish the story of the trail, and prepare to move along to the next interpretative sign.
I turned to Cheddar, standing patiently at my side. “Hike!” I said, and she pulled the leash as if there was a team behind her. The students followed us along the trail through the forest.
We stopped at the next wayside; they circled around us again, and together we talked about Togo and Balto, the canine heroes back in 1925. Then Cheddar cooperated—a little wide-eyed about begin encircling by so many children—while I dressed her in her arctic coat, and added a wrist wrap. Cheddar hasn’t been around little people often, and she’s shy by nature. But in the end I reassured her while fifteen or twenty students patted her gently, one at a time. She leaned against me throughout the process, and I felt her begin to relax. It was subtle, but ever so slowly her tail began to wag.
When the morning was done, Mark and I were thanked many different ways—but no thanks could ever compare to the gift the children of Turnagain Elementary gave to us. Their inquisitive eyes, their knowing questions, and their young local pride will always bring that park and its beautiful new trail to life for me.
Here’s a shoutout to everyone in the Turnagain community and the Anchorage Park Foundation, for creating one beautiful interpretive trail, in honor of another. The celebration at Balto Seppala Park reignited my own appreciation of the historic Iditarod Trail—and its lasting inspiration to connect people of all ages (and dogs) to this spectacular and and wild northern landscape.
Sharp Cheddar, my lead dog and partner at Balto Seppala Park