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Cass Lake-Bena students study sled dog race

CASS LAKE -- "Gee! Haw!"

Fourth-graders at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School shouted out the commands that signal sled dogs to turn right and then left during a visit from some local mushers and their sled dogs last week.

The students learned these commands through a cross-curricular unit on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And as part of the unit, Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, and his wife, Sherri, brought some of their sled dogs to the school Friday.

"I have a couple of visitors," Moe told the fourth-graders when he arrived at the school.

He introduced the students to two of his and Sherri's dogs, a Siberian husky named Lucy and an Alaskan husky named Acorn, who is the lead dog on his sled dog team. Between the two dogs, he said, Acorn is a better racing dog, from her shorter hair to her calm spirit.

"She's really a very fast dog," said Moe, adding that Acorn is a strong and smart leader.

Moe showed the students the equipment he uses, the items he brings and the clothing he wears when running his sled dogs. He also told the students how he takes care of the dogs.

"I have 20 dogs and each dog eats about a pound and a half of dog food each day," he said.

The Moes' visit provided students an up-close look at what they have been studying in the Iditarod unit, noted fourth-grade teacher Erica Johnsrud.

During the unit, the fourth-graders drew the names of one or two Iditarod mushers to track during the race, Johnsrud said. She said the students also have been reading books about sled dogs and the Iditarod, building miniature models of dog sleds and learning about Alaska geography and history, including the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska.

The Iditarod commemorates the serum run, in which many mushers teamed up in relay style to bring lifesaving serum to children suffering from a diphtheria epidemic in Nome. The Iditarod finish line is located in Nome.

Johnsrud noted that the students really enjoy the Iditarod unit, which has been offered at the school for several years.

Every day during the race, the students in Johnsrud's class have been checking the status of their Iditarod mushers. With each new report, they move small paper cut-out sleds representing their mushers on a large map of the Iditarod route posted on a wall in the classroom. Other fourth-grade classes at the school have similar maps.

"They're just really excited," Johnsrud said. "They'll talk about, 'Well, where is your musher at?'"

In her class, the student whose musher is the last to cross the finish line in the race receives the Red Lantern Award, which is an Iditarod tradition, Johnsrud said. She noted that the small red lantern is passed down from year to year in her classroom.

Cheyenne Novak and Lauren Gale-Carlson are among the fourth-graders who have been tracking mushers throughout the race.

One of Cheyenne's mushers, Paul Gebhardt, took second place in the race. She also tracked musher Tim Osmar, who came in 33rd place. Meanwhile, Lauren followed mushers Ramy Brooks, who was disqualified, and Robert Bundtzen, who came in 43rd place.

Lauren noted that one of her favorite parts of the Iditarod unit has been learning about sled dogs.

Cheyenne added, "I like learning about the dogs, too."