Fairbanks, AK - Mushers and race organizers on the Yukon Quest need to know how to read maps, measure distance and time. They also need to know how to communicate well. Those are all reasons why some teachers in Alaska use the race as a teaching tool this time of year. One fourth grade class in Fairbanks is gearing up to follow this year’s race.
23 fourth graders stand in a circle in front of Woodriver Elementary School in Fairbanks. In the midst of the frenzied huddle, there’s something black and furry.
“Come here, Yukon, come here, come here," calls musher Brent Sass. This is Yukon, a three-year old sled dog. The Eureka musher stoops to comfort the dog as tiny hands reach in from all directions to scratch Yukon’s ears and pat his fluffy coat. “He’s a little bit like ‘Oh, what’s going on here,’” laughs Sass.
Sled dogs and fourth graders don’t often mix, but when teacher Joe Cox moved to Fairbanks four years ago, he set out to make sure this kind of thing happens in his classroom every year. “In fourth grade, Alaska is our focus, so we’re learning about the different regions of Alaska," says Cox. "The different peoples of Alaska and climate, and the Yukon Quest, because it covers so much distance, we get to bring in all the things we’re learning about throughout the rest of the year and it just kind of wraps it up into a nice neat package for the class.”
Cox says a group of boys in his class have taken to memorizing the trail map. They know it so well they’ve started asking questions even he hadn’t thought of. “Mr. Cox, when was this town formed, what goes on there, how do people make a living there?" he says they ask. "They see places on the map that are seemingly isolated and they wonder if there’s a road that people can get to, who do they get their mail there?”
And he’s sure the girls in his class could win the race if they tried. “Not everything is about racing. We’ve talked about exploring and just doing fun trips," explains Cox. "The girls are amazing at planning and the boys are just ‘Grab a jacket! We’re ready to go!’ and the girls are have lists and lists of all the things they need. They think of things I would never think to bring. Extra batteries for a head lamp. I would have never thought to bring that. Extra socks because if you get sock wet, you’re gonna need that.”
Woodriver Principal Grant Guy remembers learning about both the Quest and the Iditarod when he was in school. HE's in his 30's now. “Before I moved to Fairbanks, we were out in Galena and the Iditarod stops there and we got to go out and meet the mushers so that was a lot of fun," smiles Guy.
Guy says today’s technology has vastly improved the way kids learn from Alaska’s two great races. “Google Earth allows us to map the trail a little bit better and keep kids up to date in terms of routing. I didn’t have Google Earth when I was in school so it was just kind of pinning it to the map," he says. "They’ve really started to do more with technology integration whether it’s live updates or just using computers to track where they all are and get pictures and things like that.”
Back in the classroom, days of discussion have prepared Joe Cox’s fourth graders for a Q and A with Brent Sass. They want to know what's in his sled bag, how many booties he needs, who his wheel dogs are, if his dogs eat rocks and whether their eyelashes freeze in the cold, among other things.
This is the second time Brent Sass has helped Joe Cox in the classroom. The students have also sponsored two of his sled dogs, including today’s visitor, Yukon. After nearly two hours, it’s time for Sass and Yukon to head home for one of their last training runs before they make their way toward Whitehorse for this year’s 30th running of the Yukon Quest. “Thank you!” call all 23 kids as they wave.
As for Joe Cox, he says he can only hope his students remember the lessons they learn from the race. He jokes that there may be a budding musher in his class. "I hope that they’re connected enough. This is the perfect place for that. That is the environment we live in. I think it’s fantastic!”