Two former Eden Lake Elementary teachers are sharing their passion for sled dog racing with elementary school students across the metro area.
Longtime friends and colleagues Sheryl Cater and John Clay retired from teaching a couple of years ago. Now, they are volunteering some of their free time to educate children about the sport they love.
Last month, as part of a community outreach effort by organizers of the annual Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby, Cater, Clay, and Lakeville-based musher Cheri Beatty visited Excelsior Elementary School. They brought a sled, racing gear, and two Alaskan Huskies from Beatty’s kennel.
“The most important thing for the children is that they actually get to see a sled dog and pet one, rather than just reading about it,” Cater said. “They get to participate in what it would be like to run a sled dog team, by actually standing on the equipment and in the team positions.”
She added, “It’s learning about the importance of team building, not just for the animals but for the children, too. They learn it’s not just one single person or entity that makes something happen at the end. It takes a group of people.”
Cater showed the students what mushers wear and explained the functions of special parkas and mittens, and how they allow mushers to regulate their body temperature as they are racing.
The kit Cater showed the students was extra special, having been donated to her by the late author and sled dog racer Gary Paulsen. The gear included a signed bib which Paulson had dedicated to Eden Lake Elementary, plus mittens and a parka.
The students were excited to see Paulsen’s gear since many said they had read his books, including the popular survival tale, “Hatchet.”
Cater said that meeting Paulsen in Alaska years ago through an educational initiative is what sparked her interest in sled dog racing, and led her to develop strong friendships within that community in Minnesota.
“I’ve always been involved in teaching children about adventure and particularly the Arctic,” Cater said. In turn, she interested fellow teacher Clay in the sport, which for many years, he incorporated into lessons for his Eden Lake students.
Students learned team dynamics
Next, Clay led students in an interactive activity to teach them about sleds and how mushers and their dog teams work together.
Clay organized children into different roles, starting with the musher, who controls the dogs. “The first rule the musher needs to remember is: hold the handles,” he said. “The primary goal is to never let go. It doesn’t matter if the sled runs into a tree, the musher has to hold on, because the dogs like to run. If the musher loses control, the dogs could get hurt.”
Students had the chance to stand on a sled and learn how it operates. The first lesson was on how to use the brakes to adjust the speed of the sled depending on the kind of race being run.
On races like the 1,000-mile Iditarod, Clay said, “These dogs will run 20, 22 miles an hour, but then they get too exhausted too fast. You want them running between 8 and 12 miles an hour on these long races. On shorter races, you want them going as fast as you can.”
Clay also taught students about the different roles dogs play on a racing team, starting with the wheel dogs. “They are the strong dogs — they have to get the sled going,” he said. “Team dogs are happy dogs. They just want to run. They don’t care if they’re at the end, middle, or the very front — they just want to be part of the team.”
“Point dogs are smart, intelligent, and strong, but theres one other trait they need to have — they’re bossy,” he said, to student laughter. “Lead dogs are the brains, the intelligent ones. They’re also very good at figuring out where they need to go. If the musher is lost, they need to lead.”
Clay also talked about how harnesses and gang lines work, and the children had a chance to try out dog commands and role-play a race.
Beatty then introduced her retired sled dog, Pearl, a 12-year-old Alaskan husky that ran the Iditarod when she was 4 years old.
“Pearl was a lead dog,” Beatty said. “She was the dog at the very front, who was the brains of the whole operation. Pearl is very smart and she was a very good lead dog.”
After the Iditarod, Pearl moved to Minnesota and, for several years, raced as a lead dog for Beatty’s twin daughters, Carlie and Chloe. “But then Pearl decided she was going to retire, and not race anymore,” Beatty said.
She explained that sled dogs are incredible athletes who only pull sleds if they like it. “You never, never make a dog run, and you can never, never make a dog pull,” Beatty said. “That’s just what they want to do until they don’t want to do it anymore. And that’s how we know when it’s time to find them a different job.
“But Alaskan huskies like to do a job and like to work,” she said.
Pearl now works as a therapy dog at Beatty’s kennel and as an educational dog. “Pearl really loves to take care of other dogs, and she really loves to come to schools,” Beatty said. “Those are her two main jobs now, and she’s really good at them.”
Beatty also talked about how much sled dogs love the cold weather. “When it’s 20 degrees below zero, that’s when it’s time to run,” she said.
The children were charmed to have the chance to pet Pearl and meet Mr. Jefferson, an 11-week-old Alaskan husky puppy.
“He’s a young puppy and a really big boy. When he grows up he will probably be a wheel dog, because his paws are so big,” Beatty said.
Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby Feb. 3-4
Cater also talked to students about the fourth annual Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby, a free event happening Friday, Feb. 3, and Saturday, Feb. 4.
Most sled dog races take place in the woods, but the Klondike Dog Derby will begin and end in downtown Excelsior on Water Street, which will be covered in snow for the event.
“It’s fun to see all the dog teams leave — it’s pretty exciting,” Cater said. “The starting chute is by Excelsior Brewing Company, go down to the end of the street, take a left where the docks are, then go down onto the ice by the commons. The course then consists of two 20-mile loops on Lake Minnetonka.”
Cater will be a handler for her good friends, the Frekings, who are competing in the race, helping them get their team ready. “They are a mushing family from northern Minnesota,” she said. “Elena, who is 11 years old, and her dad Blake, a former John Beargrease champion, are racing.” The Frekings also competed in the John Beargrease 40-mile race last weekend in Two Harbors.
Beatty’s daughter, Chloe Beatty, will also be competing in the race.
Special events in the afternoon on Friday, Feb. 3, include a chance to meet mushers and their dogs, a sled decorating contest, food trucks, hot cocoa, music, and more. Visitors can also watch over 300 sled dogs, including Siberian and Alaskan huskies, get their pre-race checks.
Saturday is race day. The opening ceremony is at 9.30 a.m. on Water Street; the race starts at 10 a.m. Teams will end the race at intervals between noon and 5 p.m.
“It takes them about three to four hours to make that 40-mile loop,” Cater said.
Spectators can view the race from various points along the course. Dog sled rides will be offered at the Historic Excelsior Commons. In addition, food trucks, bonfires, s’mores, beer, wine, games, and other activities will be available.
Find all the relevant information for the Klondike event on its website. Learn about the event’s history, timing, course layout and key details. Get a glimpse of the excitement from last year’s race by viewing a recap video.
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