Noggin, Chloe, and I just wrapped up another unusual season. With vaccination certificates in hand/paw, loads of hand sanitizer, and extra masks, we road-tripped across Kansas and Colorado, giving talks in schools and public libraries. Because of Covid, many of our presentations were given outdoors. We had large turn-outs even at night in 30-degree weather. Everyone was bundled up, and hot chocolate was plentiful. What fun we had! Librarians and teachers are a resilient and creative bunch. I have enjoyed working with them over the last 22 years. I look forward to many more library and school visits in the future.
Now, our sights are aimed up the trail towards 2022 SUMMER READING. OCEANS OF POSSIBILITIES is the next summer reading theme and, believe it or not, this makes a talk about dog mushing the perfect match. Did you know that a great portion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog takes place on frozen bodies of water? Dog teams traverse frozen lakes, rivers (including 250 miles on the mighty Yukon), and the awe-inspiring BERING SEA! Karen provides a unique perspective to OCEANS OF POSSIBILITIES with stories from her travels across sea ice by dog team to the historic gold-rush town of Nome. Climate change is also a topic that is ever-present when learning about the sport of mushing and Alaska. Email Karen at mymusher at gmail.com for more information and to save a spot on our calendar.
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!
Dog mushing is all about knowing when to run and when to rest.
NOW is the time to stay put, tending to those we love while keeping safe and healthy those we’ll never even meet.
We’re all on the same trail—we must care for each other.
Since the first known case of coronavirus was announced on January 21st in Washington state, I’ve been closely watching the news to see how this all would unfold. In an attempt to make an informed decision about my travels around the country, I searched for any and all information on the coronavirus. It was an extremely frustrating process. So little could be found. Our country’s leaders were acting like nothing was happening. But it worried me.
On Sunday, March 8th as mushers were packing sleds and harnessing dogs, setting off on their 1000-mile Iditarod journeys to Nome, I began emailing this letter to schools and libraries.
Dear Teachers, Principals, and Librarians,
I am sorry to have to write this letter, but I wanted to give both schools and public libraries as much of an advance warning as possible. After much thought and consideration of all of the variables involved in a 40-day talk tour throughout the states of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts during the ever-changing COVID-19 outbreak, I have decided it would be best to cancel my March/April 2020 trip. It took me 6 months of hard work to plan and schedule this trip. I am heartbroken about it!
In order to keep my prices as low as possible for schools and public libraries while still covering my own high travel costs (Airbnb rentals and hotels, truck maintenance, gasoline, etc.), I always need to book as many talks as possible. This means that my upcoming travel itinerary has my dogs and me visiting schools and public libraries in over 35 different towns and cities, the majority of them in New York state.
Even before New York declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak, I was closely monitoring the news, trying to obtain as much information as possible on the ever-evolving situation. Unfortunately, the lack of information and testing makes it difficult for the public to know how extensive this outbreak truly is. To be on the safe side, I feel it is best to suspend the upcoming tour. I am sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you. The dogs and I are just as disappointed as you are! It was a difficult decision to have to make, but I feel it is the right one at the moment.
I do want to offer options for still having your talk(s) at our scheduled time(s) via SKYPE and/or rescheduling talks for Summer 2020 or Fall 2020, depending on when it is safe for travel. Please refer to these options listed below and let me know if any of them interest you. If you have other thoughts or ideas, please share them with me!
***For space reasons, I have omitted the options from this blog post. Email me at mymusher at gmail.com if you are interested.
Again, I apologize. We’re so sad to not be coming your way in the next few weeks and months but, like a musher running her dog team down the Iditarod Trail, we all must adapt to the unfamiliar terrain before us. My main concern is the health of all. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been honored to visit both small and large communities across this country to share my beloved dogs and stories of the Iditarod Trail with fans of all ages. We look forward to continuing this in the future!
Please let me know you’ve received this message. And then we can talk about your own ideas and needs.
Noggin, Chloe, and I traveled to five states in 29 days, giving 25 presentations to thousands of students, library patrons, and mushing fans. We met so many wonderful people! Thank you to the schools and libraries for inviting us to your communities and to all of the enthusiastic dog lovers who attended our talks!
We’re home now, doing laundry, cleaning out our truck, and repacking for our Midwestern and East coast adventures. Interested in a SUMMER READING talk? We’re booking now for May, June, and July. For more information, email Karen at mymusher at gmail.com.
What a great time we had on our last Iditarod Public Library and School Talk Tour of 2019 and THE DECADE! Thank you to Grand County Public Library (Moab, Utah), Montrose Regional Library (Montrose, Colorado), Mesa County Libraries (two presentations at the Grand Junction, CO central branch and one at the Fruita branch), Bemis Public Library (Littleton, Colorado), Erie Middle School (Erie, Colorado), Erie Community Library, and Eaton Public Library (Eaton, Colorado).
TO CELEBRATE MY 20th YEAR OF IDITAROD DOG MUSHING TALKS, we’re planning a MEGA ROAD TRIP around the United States for 2020! There’s a good chance we’ll be IN YOUR AREA! For more information, email Karen at mymusher at gmail.com … or… mymusher at yahoo.com.
Great Bend Public Library, Great Bend, KS. Photo by Susan Thatcher.
Kansas Reading Roundup, Garden City, Kansas.
Kansas Reading Roundup, Hugoton, KS.
Basehor Community Library, Basehor, KS.
Jefferson County Library, Windsor Branch, Barnhart, MO.
Lemmon Public Library, Lemmon, SD.
Jefferson County Library, Windsor Branch, Barnhart, MO.
Chloe, Noggin, and I have been on the road for almost three weeks now. So far we’ve given 16 talks in Missouri, Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Lots of driving, sharing stories, dog-petting, and laughing!
Libraries are awesome in any season, but SUMMER READING is always special! We are honored to be a part of so many exciting and creative summer reading programs. Thank you, librarians!
This morning Noggin had a difficult time staying awake during our Skype session with students at Meeteetse Branch Library in Wyoming. I imagine the poor dog thinks I’m just sitting on the floor (in front of the computer) talking to myself! She sees no reason to participate in such nonsense.
When I’m Skyping, Chloe always looks concerned for me…
Little do the pups know how much fun I have talking with the students. Their awesome questions make the hour fly by!