Dec. 18 , 2006

Dogsled team mushes its way to Delano

By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

DELANO — Delano Middle School sixth grade teacher Desireé Waage got reacquainted with her childhood passion Wednesday afternoon in the middle school gymnasium.

There, spread across the hardwood floor, sat 16 Siberian Huskies, each accompanied by 16 of Waage’s students.

The dogs and their masters Dave and Bonnie Lundberg of Monticello, make up a dogsledding team.

They were guests of Waage’s to help inform the students about mushing and the sport of dogsled racing. Waage is using the sport she, herself, grew up loving as a way to teach her curriculum.

“I grew up with sled dogs — my parents had 60 sled dogs in our kennel. They raised and trained them from the time I was 5 years old until ninth grade,” she said. “This is something I can carry over, and teach the kids social studies, math, science, language arts, and all that stuff. I can tie sled dogging and mushing into the whole curriculum.”

Waage said she first introduced her idea of including sled dog racing in her teachings to her students in September, but is just now starting to strongly incorporate it.

The class will follow Dave Lundberg in January, when he races in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which starts in Duluth and finishes in Grand Marais. Starting March 3, the students in Waage’s class will adopt a musher in the world famous Iditarod race, which covers more than 1,150 miles of Alaska. The Iditarod runs from Anchorage to Nome.

“Because it was such a passion of mine, I wanted to bring it to the kids,” Waage said. “They were excited when I first started introducing it to them. It’s different. It’s something they don’t get to see down here as often.”

And the students’ excitement grew even more Wednesday when they got to see, firsthand, the dogs, a sled, the equipment and attire, and an actual musher in person.

Lundberg has been running teams of dogs for 14 years. His presentation included a brief history of the sport, an explanation of the sled and equipment, and an introduction to each dog.

“One of the reasons I accept these opportunities is I like to show off my dogs,” Lundberg said. “I have a good group of dogs that are well-socialized. Siberian huskies are pretty good people dogs.”

And, Lundberg said, they are good to work with.

“They are not livestock, they are closer to buddies than they are cows,” he explained.

“They are not just something you hook up to win races. They are something you are a team with. And you are just a small part of that team. You throw out a command here and there, but the dogs learn a lot more from each other than from me. I’m more of a guide and they are the horses.”

And the dogs are, no doubt, the stars of Lundberg’s show.

“We kind of overlook the information giving, because I can tell, and I could tell from the very first demo I gave, that the kids really aren’t listening too much to me. No matter how interesting I think my stories are, they are all just looking at the dogs,” Lundberg said. “We decided pretty early that we needed to decide how to get the dogs and the kids together. That’s what we did with the harnesses and the booties. That gets them right there in the dog’s face. They get to see why we like these dogs so much.”

Finding volunteers to help the 16 handlers put booties and harnesses on the dogs wasn’t difficult.

“What I would like is 16 more handlers,” Lundberg said to the audience in the bleachers.

Before he could finish his sentence, the air was filled with raised hands connected to students anxious to get selected.

Two more groups of volunteers were selected before the presentation was over. With help from the Lundbergs and Waage, the students learned how to properly put the booties on the dogs and how to slide a harness over the dog’s head.

“You have to get the harness over his head fast, so he doesn’t bite it,” said student Ashley Simenson, who was helping prepare “Nunavut” as if the dog was going to pull the sled.

“Nunavut” and most of the other dogs took the presentation in stride, lounging on the floor while Lundberg spoke to the crowd. That all changed when Lundberg picked up a harness.

“When they see the harnesses, they think they are going to run,” Bonnie Lundberg announced.

“No bark,” she would command each time the dogs would start a chorus of whines and the dogs instantly became silent each time.

“Nunavut” was one of the more vocal dogs, which kept Simenson busy.

“He was very hyper, and he kept standing on his back legs and howling,” she said.

But Simenson didn’t seem to mind, nor did the other couple dozen students who had a chance to sit with one of the dogs.

“I learned a lot about dogsledding, and it was a lot of fun,” said Derek Malecek, who handled “Stehekin.”

That’s music to Waage’s ears.

“This is our kickoff, and I’m hoping this (presentation) will instill more of a passion (towards dogsledding) in them,” she said. “Maybe they will follow it when they are done with sixth grade.”

Although Waage hasn’t much lately — “I have a Yorkie now,” she said with a laugh — her passion for the sport was still evident Wednesday.

She was still a natural when putting the booties and harnesses on the dogs, and had a clear bond with the dogs.

“I honestly got choked up,” Waage said of her initial reaction to seeing the team of dogs. “The minute Dave and Bonnie came around the corner was so exciting. I got choked up because I was able to share something with these kids that I had growing up.”

Waage has a strong background in the sport of dogsledding.

Her mother won the Beargrease 190 in 1989, and her father raced in the first ever Beargrease race in 1982. Waage’s parents sold their dogs when she was a freshman in high school, but the family stayed active in dogsled racing.

Waage didn’t race much herself, but she said running the dogs was just something the kids in her neighborhood did to keep busy.

“I didn’t play video games. What we did when we were bored — we never were bored,” she quickly corrected herself, then continued, “We went out and hopped on our sleds. All of us in our area had dogs, so when we got bored running on these sleds, we hooked the dogs up to the little plastic sleds. That’s what we did for fun.”

But, undoubtedly, the most fun Waage had on a dogsled was as a seventh grader, when she ran the second sled behind her idol, Susan Butcher, during one of Butcher’s Beargrease 500 races.

“That’s the equivalent to being Tiger Woods’ caddie,” Waage explained.

Waage and her family cared for 20 of Butcher’s dogs after they sold their own. Butcher was a four-time winner of the Iditarod.

“Susan Butcher was a huge idol of mine,” Waage said. “She came to my school when I was this age, and brought her dogs in. I’m carrying on the tradition.”

Butcher passed away this summer from leukemia at the age of 51.

Waage was obviously thrilled, herself, to have the Lundbergs and their dogs at school, but she also took note of the students’ reactions.

“Just seeing the kids’ eyes right now, this is so exciting,” she said.

That reaction from the kids is something Dave Lundberg has noticed since he started talking to students.

“When we first pulled up, there was a kid with autism who, when he saw us, lit up,” Lundberg said. “You could see it as they were raising their hands. It kind of gets manic, but you see that the kids are having fun, so you don’t care.”

When the dogs were asked if they, too, where having fun, most answered with a simple, “Yup.”

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