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Getting warmed up for cold Alaskan race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been a cold, cold world at Ilchester Elementary School the past month or so. At least it has been for the first-graders in Robin Sharp's class.

The fourth-graders in Julie Bartel's class might say that for them, it's been somewhat of a dog's life.

But that will change tomorrow when the two teachers leave the shelter of the school building for colder climates and "ruff"-er challenges.

Bartel and Sharp have been preparing their classes for the teachers' departure to Anchorage, Alaska, where they will participate in the snow-covered state's best-known sporting event: the Iditarod sled dog race.

Children in their classes have been studying the Iditarod and using the race as a starting block for learning about sled dogs, Eskimos and Alaskan history, geography and culture. The fourth-graders have embarked on an ambitious project about the race and Alaska, involving Internet research, writing and graphing. First-graders have crafted a crayon-colored book about the flag, people and animals of Alaska.

But having their teachers leave them for three school days to work at one of the race's checkpoints should teach them more, Ilchester Principal Jackie Conarton said. "It's going to give them a lot more than what they read in books, more than what they see on TV," she said.

"To participate in a real-life event and bring back information for the whole school is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Conarton said of the teachers.

A fan of all things cold and snowy, Bartel has been using the Iditarod as a learning tool in her fourth-grade classes for four years.

This year, she was asked for the first time to participate in the race, and jumped at the chance. Conarton arranged for Sharp to go along.

The entire school community has been involved in preparing to send them off - staging fund-raisers and donating embroidered vests and coats. All the classes have monitored their lunch and recess behavior using cutouts of sled dogs on a virtual Iditarod race (first class to the end of the trail gets extra playground equipment at recess).

Race organizers wanted teachers to be a part of the race this year, Bartel said, because they hoped that by talking up their experiences in classrooms across the United States the teachers could quell critics who say the Huskies used in the grueling race are cruelly treated.

Despite the thought of long, dark nights and days with the high temperature only in the 20s, the teachers said they are looking forward to the opportunity.

"A lot of these people take better care of their dogs than some people take care of their children," said Bartel, a Husky owner.

She would have to be a dog-lover to do well in her temporary Alaskan gig, which begins tomorrow and ends at 10 p.m. Monday. At the Knik checkpoint, where she and Sharp will be working, they'll check in 68 mushers (sled-drivers) and more than 1,000 dogs.

"You actually have to physically stop the dogs," Bartel said, because "these dogs are born to run. They love it. Once they get started, they don't want to stop."

"This is supposed to be a very physically grueling trip," Sharp added.

Sharp's first-graders (with the help of a class mother) gave Sharp going-away gifts of a sweater and a scarf, autographed in colorful Puffy Paint by each child.

Both teachers also have stocked up on long underwear, parkas and wind pants, mountaineering socks and hunters' boots to survive five days of standing in the snow in a place where the temperature can drop as low as 30 below.

The race is an attempt to preserve Alaska's fast-vanishing mushing heritage - runs yearly from Anchorage to Nome, a distance of about 1,150 miles. The Knik checkpoint is the third of 26, and one of the most popular because it is the last checkpoint before mushers enter the ungiving and nearly inaccessible wilderness.

Both classes are looking forward to the daily e-mail their teachers have promised them, plus an all-school assembly with a slide show and artifacts when Bartel and Sharp return March 7, jet-lagged, but chock full of facts.

The only drawback of Bartel's trip, one pupil said, is "we'll have to have a substitute teacher for a couple of days."

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