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Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Get ready-get set-mush

By Margie Wuebker

Musher Austin Schlater, at right, guides his sled and team of "dogs" as Marion L. . .

MARIA STEIN - Four teams of dogs prance nervously at the starting line waiting to surge forward with their sleds - or in this case red wagons - in tow. Mushers (team captains) endure the excited barking intent on making sure everything is in readiness for an infamous trek around the Marion Local High School baseball field.
Fourth-graders and their teachers, under the direction of gifted and talented intervention specialist Wendy Moorman, brave brisk winds and 40-degree weather Wednesday afternoon in their own re-enactment - a far cry from the sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions their counterparts endured during the recently completed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"Dogs, stay with your teams," Moorman implores as 12 students clad in Marion Local Flyers or Big 10 starter jackets step into four sets of brightly colored harness ropes. "We don't want any lost dogs as we make our way along the nine stations."
Heads nod in agreement, but the designated sled dogs are chomping at the bit to be off and running. After all, they have been looking forward to this re-enactment since reading John Reynolds Gardiner's "Stone Fox," hearing other exciting tales and watching this year's winner Lance Mackey cross the finish line at the head of the pack thanks to television coverage.
Musher Luke Moorman checks out the contents of his Radio Flyer wagon - a pair of hot pink snow boots supplied by one student and a brilliant pink and teal sleeping bag contributed by another. Other required items include four pairs of socks to protect the paws of his trusty dogs, a veterinarian's book containing exercises to be completed at each station and the bib number identifying the team. Last but not least, he carefully inspects the fragile white-shelled egg packed in a peanut butter container and surrounded with mounds of puffy white cotton.
"We lose points big time if the egg breaks," he says never looking up from the task at hand. "It doesn't matter which team crosses the finish line first because points determine the winner."
The egg in each sled represents serum, according to the coordinator, and the actual Iditarod calls to mind a momentous dog team relay organized to carry needed serum to prevent a diphtheria epidemic. Twenty teams braved -40 temperatures and winds strong enough to blow over dogs and sleds in early 1925 to cover 700 miles in about six days, carrying the precious cargo from Anchorage to the isolated town of Nome and saving hundreds of lives in the process.
At Marion Local, 24 feet encased in sneakers propel the sled of musher Joel Goodwin toward the first station marked by a traffic cone and placard. The first task at hand is to match the 50 states with trivia ranging from nicknames to favorite sons.
Other students along the way serve as reporters and photographers. Goodwin listens intently as a reporter fires off questions including what he considers the most difficult task.
"The only thing we've done so far is matching the states," he responds. "That was pretty easy. As for winning, I think we might come in real close."
The trail stations offer math, language arts and geography challenges and ask students to recall Iditarod trivia they learned during the course of the Alaskan race on March 7. For instance, Joe Redington Jr. and Dorothy Page are considered the father and mother of the Iditarod in recognition of their efforts to save some of Alaska's vanishing mushing tradition.
Petite Megan Schoenlein, lead dog for one of the sleds, rubs her hands together in hopes of chasing away the cold while sharing her philosophy on teamwork.
"The main thing is pulling together and being ready to go at the same time," she says. "I have to be ready or face the possibility of getting run over. We're really doing good solving the challenges because Marion dogs do more than pull sleds."
Students work their way along the course putting booties on chair legs at one point and spreading trail mix over the asphalt to determine what fractions ingredients like pastel M & M candy, pretzel sticks, Goldfish crackers, miniature marshmallows and Cheerios represent.
"Oooh, what's on this marshmallow," one student asks in disgust while flicking away pebbles and other bits of debris.
"Dogs, don't eat the trail mix after you spread it on the ground," Wendy Moorman calls out as one tall pup looks longingly at the pale lilac and yellow candies. "Treats await you at the end of the trail."
Luke Moorman's team completes the course first with Goodwin's nipping at their heels. Teachers will now score the answers from each challenge and determine the winner following Easter break.
"We could do this next year as a fifth-grade project," one student suggests before being swamped by others sharing his sentiments. The teachers merely smile, knowing they have no plans to relinquish the educational experience to a higher grade.
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