I never decided this is what I should do with my life. I just started doing it. And the dogs wouldn’t let me stop.
In the year 2000, I began giving dog mushing presentations in schools and public libraries. 2020 was supposed to be our big 20th anniversary celebration—Noggin, Chloe, and I had planned on being on the road much of the year.
Indiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont—those were the states we’d either visited already in 2020 or had on the books for later in the year. In early March, we were just preparing to leave for 40 days worth of talks on the East Coast when the pandemic hit.
For every single person on this planet, 2020 was supposed to look one way—and suddenly, it looked another. Instantly, I was unemployed. I had never heard of Zoom. I’ve always hesitated to implement innovations just because they are new and available—ideally, I want technological advances to prove they’ll make my life and the world a better place, not just different. Zoom and other virtual platforms became essential overnight; I was leery, but with the training and support of teachers and librarians, I signed on.
Twenty years ago I began my career of public speaking after falling in love with Alaskan huskies and mushing, an ancient form of dog-powered transportation dating back over 3,000 years. My dream was to train a group of dogs to someday run the 1,049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race across Alaska. An event steeped in Indigenous subsistence cultures, mining and Alaskan state history, and a deep respect for working animals, Joe Redington, Sr. came up with the Iditarod—the Last Great Race—in the 1970’s when the widespread use of snowmobiles for winter travel threatened to make dog mushing obsolete. Along with the Iditarod, many other races in Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, and other countries such as Norway and Russia continue to keep the sled dog lifestyle active and vibrant across the world.
Since that first Iditarod Race in 1973, there have been many improvements that have made the age-old sport faster, safer, and better for dogs and humans, alike. But, overall, mushers know better than to rely on technology as savior—this is one of many reasons audiences of all ages are enamored with the idea of the Iditarod. It’s just a snowy trail, a team of powerful and enthusiastic dogs, a simple sled packed with food and basic survival gear, and you, a musher.
During my first four years of school and library talks, I traveled the country with my beloved dog, Borage, my first wooden toboggan sled and gear, 50 lbs. worth of arctic clothing (all I might need to stay warm on the trail), and my parents’ 1970’s Kodak Carousel 600 Slide Projector.
While my friends were busy buying the latest computers, cell phones, and GPS’s, I saved my pennies to purchase what most might consider needs-from-another-era (or planet) like a lighter-weight aluminum sled, an endless supply of dog booties, and new blades for the ban-saw I ran daily to cut up whole, frozen beaver carcasses donated by a local fur trapper to help feed the kennel. I never even considered replacing the Kodak slide projector I used for my talks with something more modern—this basic yet effective tool served its purpose just fine. If it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.
Carol Meeks, a teacher from North Manchester, Indiana, was one of the first to invite Borage and me into her classroom. Long before the Internet, Carol had been following the Iditarod Race with her students, relying on hard-copy newspaper articles a family member sent via USPS from their home in Anchorage, Alaska. Even though “the daily updates” Carol and her students read were often over a week old, their excitement upon opening each manila envelope full of newspaper clippings made every day of the Iditarod Race feel like Christmas. Eventually, Iditarod would go online and the updates would evolve from fans being alerted when a musher and team had safely arrived at the next checkpoint to constant GPS tracking, showing the world the exact location of every team out on the trail at any given moment.
The first time I gave a talk for Carol’s students, I placed my parents’ Kodak Carousel 600 Slide Projector on a desk in the multi-purpose room, plugged the machine’s short cord into a long extension cord plugged into a far wall, and aimed and focused the light on a white screen set up on the low stage. Earlier, I’d spent an hour double-checking each of the 70-some slides, making sure each image was arranged in the perfect order for my presentation. I also confirmed the slides were inserted into their slots on the rotary tray upside-down and backwards, assuring each picture would appear on the screen with the correct orientation. I didn’t want any upside down dogs sending the kids into giggling fits—Borage was already enough of a distraction. While I gave my talk, I allowed the gentle, blue-eyed husky to work the room, tip-toeing among the students seated all around me on the floor.
As often happens in life, during my early days of mushing talks I entered each new school or library worried one thing might happen—routinely, stage fright—and ended up startled by some strange mishap I never could have imagine if I tried. On this particular day, the lights were dimmed, the projector fan hummed in the background, and I stood up front near the screen, giving the thumbs- up sign every minute or so to a student assigned to press the lever, advancing the next slide from the carousel tray into view.
I didn’t think twice when I noticed a group of students and teachers quietly enter the back of the room, place brown sacks and cartons of milk on a lunch table, and sit down. But, Borage did. As soon as he heard the crinkle-crinkle of potato chip bags and Ding Dong wrappers, Borage—with his head held high and his pointy, radar-ears aimed towards the enticing sounds—trotted through the maze of children sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor. The kids, excited by the husky’s sudden, animated gait, cheered him on: “Borage! Borage!”
I couldn’t help but laugh along with everyone else until I witnessed my sidekick flip one of his big paws underneath the curled extension cord and yank my parents’ Kodak 600 Slide Projector straight off the desk. What followed seemed to happen in slow motion. Several quick-thinking students lunged to catch the giant black box in mid-air… but missed. The archaic device hit the hard floor with a cringe-worthy crunch. Upon impact, the plastic carousel ejected from the projector, sending that, too, flying into the air like an unwieldy frisbee. It soon landed with another, smaller crack and my entire presentation—70-some photographic slides—slid and scattered across the polished linoleum.
The crowd went wild as if this mayhem was part of our usual program. Borage adored encouragement—he took off running his free dog laps around the entire room. The more they clapped, the faster he ran. Eventually, one of his paws hit a stray slide and a foot slipped out from underneath his lanky body. Borage did the spilts, his four long legs splayed wide in every direction like a cartoon character with impossible flexibility.
“Ouch…” the audience winced.
Borage gathered himself up and came straight to momma, leaning his shoulder into my leg as if he hoped I could help burden some of his embarrassment.
I rubbed Borage hard behind the ears the way he liked it. Teachers and students were determined to pick up all of the slides and reload them in the carousel but I told them not to worry about it. It took me hours to organize the presentation—we didn’t have that kind of time.
A little girl raised her hand. “I know why Borage is a sled dog!” she declared before I even had a chance to call on her.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he really loves to run!” she said. “And he really, really loves you…”
I looked down at my partner who was staring up at me. Still panting from his performance, his pink tongue lolled out the side of his grinning mouth.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words—but, I know, a happy dog is worth a million.
My favorite part of public speaking has always been listening—I love visiting with people before and after our program and hearing their often-emotional or hilarious stories about the dogs they know and treasure. When we were forced to resort to Zoom back in March, I assumed the SCREEN dividing us would seriously limit the intimacy I cherish during those in-person/in-dog presentations. Yet still, we—animal-lovers of all ages—gathered virtually to share something that took our minds off our own situations for a spell. From their own kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, porches, garages, vehicles, barns, and yards, students and library patrons often joined in our virtual conversation with their own dogs, cats, and a menagerie of other creatures resting on their laps. More than one audience member removed framed photos from the wall or a desk to show everyone in attendance their beloved and dearly-missed dogs. Kids without their own pets brought and held their favorite stuffed animals. With my two dogs, Noggin and Chloe, always snoozing on the couch behind me, the virtual show-and-tell became a relaxing and healing part of our time together that I never would have predicted in advance.
Yes, when Borage and I started “visiting” schools and libraries twenty years ago, technology was totally different. But one thing—the heart of it all—hasn’t changed a lick.
Dogs are always the same.
If you’re interested in a virtual presentation (Zoom, Skype, etc.) now and/or an in-person/in-dog presentation in the future, please email us anytime using mymusher at gmail.com!