The Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race is more than an outdoor sport and a local cultural event. For many area students, it’s an educational experience.
“We generally educate on the definitions (associated with sled dog racing), what the mushers do and what they’re required to take with them,” said Mary Kay Pace, education coordinator at Race Central — the Cloverleaf Hall in Enterprise.
Kids from preschool through elementary school visited Race Central last week while the race was either getting prepared or underway. Students also got to visit some of the mushers and their dogs at the veterinarian check stations in Enterprise — by the Wallowa County Courthouse — as well as stations in Joseph and Wallowa.
At the Enterprise vet check, Amya Dodd, 7, met Alaskan husky Tango, co-owned and handled by Charmayne Morrison, of Bozeman, Mont. Morrison would go onto participate in the race.
After Tango startled Amya by jumping on her — while sister Allie, 2, backed up quickly — Amya decided it wasn’t so bad.
“They’re cute,” she said. “They go fast and they’re friendly.”
The girls are the daughters of Ashley and Reed Buhler.
Morrison explained that while her Alaskan huskies don’t have the classic sled dog appearance of some like Siberian huskies, her dogs are more of a “type” rather than a breed.
“They’re purpose-bred dogs based on what they can do,” she said.
At Race Central, kids did a variety of craft activities, including word searches, coloring, picking words off a word board, saw an antique sled and viewed items the mushers took with them.
They also saw photographs from past races and posters created by area school students to alert mushers along the trail.
“They decorated them colorfully so they’d show up in the snow,” Pace said.
Pace, who is new this year as education coordinator, replaced Kris Fraser.
“I just stepped into her shoes,” Pace said.
On Wednesday, third- and fourth-graders made the nearly hourlong bus trip from Elgin to Enterprise. Pace said that while Wallowa County students get exposed to various aspects of the race, in previous years students also have come from La Grande. None were expected this year.
Lisa Lathrop, a fourth-grade teacher from Elgin Elementary School, said the kids were excited to make the trip.
“They love it,” she said. “It’s one of their favorite field trips.”
She noted that some fourth-graders came last year as third-graders so they got to make the trip two years.
Lathrop said in their school, they have units that directly tie into the ECX.
“We teach a unit on dog sledding and mushers, we read books in our literature and writing units” on sledding, she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the kids to see this winter sport.”
Lathrop said the grade-schoolers also get to identify a race contestant to be “their musher” and make a poster to cheer him on and watch his progress on the online map.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said.
For the youngest visitors — the kids from the Enterprise Head Start Preschool — all they had to do was walk across the parking lot from their classroom to the Cloverleaf Hall.
Pace and aides from the Family Career Community Leaders of America chapter at Enterprise High School led the preschoolers through activities designed for their age. They made dog-face masks, colored and, probably the most fun, dug small toy dogs out of “snow” made from corn starch and water.
Long-time lead Head Start teacher Fraser, who used to be education coordinator, said the kids also do race-related activities in class. Teachers read dog-related books to them and each time they complete a book, they move a musher ahead one mile on their map of the race.
Fraser said they also learn numbers, what’s involved in being a musher, about dogs, temperature changes, science, literature, social studies, nutrition — what both mushers and dogs need to survive such a race — and picking out letters in key words related to the race.
“We do a lot of learning activities,” she said, adding that she hopes to get the kids “interested in their community and the outdoors.”
And the kids seem to be learning.
“I like knowing stuff,” said 5-year-old Thomas, who wants to become a musher one day. “I like the dogs.”
Four-year-old Trinity also likes the “friendly” dogs. As for the activities at Race Central, she said, “I like making stuff.”
Fraser, who has been working with Head Start for about 30 years, is even seeing the results of her efforts in some former students. Katrina Haines, one of the FCCLA aides last week, was one of Fraser’s Head Start students.
“It makes me thrilled to see the kids grow up to be involved in the community,” Fraser said.