Driving toward Willow, Alaska to Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm for the 2015 Iditarod Summer Teacher’s Camp, I reflected upon the ongoing situation with the Sockeye wildfire. As of this posting, the fire was not totally contained in the thousands of acres affected, but the hard work and dedication of many people continues. A few days later as we ventured north of Willow on the Park’s Highway, we couldn’t help but notice the burnt fir trees on either side of the road. We saw many homemade signs along the highway thanking firefighters for their brave efforts to save homes, many belonging to Iditarod mushers. It was touching and thoughtful and reflected well upon the community of Willow and the people of Alaska.
As our car pulled into the Dream a Dream Dog Farm, we were greeted by dozens of happy husky dogs and 19 eager teachers from around the country ready to learn and share lessons, ideas and give a little inspiration to one another as we camped out together in this special place.
In 1983, our host, Vern Halter, ran his first Iditarod, and for 21 years he raced the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. He placed in the top 5 of the Iditarod three times and the top 10 eight times. Vern is the 1990 Yukon Quest Champion and the 1989 Yukon Quest runner-up. Now he is dedicated to raising, training and racing the Alaskan Husky and guiding rookie mushers who live and train with him such as Cindy Abbott, the 2015 Iditarod Red Lantern winner. I had the honor of meeting Cindy at the Winter Teacher Conference when I attended with a group of teachers from my school. We all felt drawn to her strong spirit and “can do” attitude. Vern prepared her well.
Vern’s musher conference room is a treasure trove of Iditarod history and memorabilia. His experience and memories are on display for all to see, and every single teacher was inspired and excited to learn more from this veteran musher mentor. We laid out our camping gear on our beds in the loft and came downstairs for a meet & greet.
The teachers at the conference are from all over the country, and flew in from thousands of miles away from states such as Florida, Minnesota, and Texas. We all became fast friends. For some teachers it has been a lifelong dream to make the trek to Alaska, and we all felt privileged to be here. We gathered our group and quickly made our way out to the dog yard and greeted dozens of happy huskies with hugs and kisses. It was “dog heaven.” For the majority of the teachers present this was their very first experience in a dog kennel, and their faces said it all. Dogs jumped and howled with excitement as we made our way around to each dog house petting and hugging each and every husky. There was a whole lot of joy at the dog farm this evening!
Speaking of veterans, Terrie Hanke, the 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ was our camp cook this week. Terrie is dedicated to the Teacher on the Trail™ program, and during the Iditarod she will visit checkpoints at the back of the pack and share her adventures and report on the site. She is a real treasure to the program, and I consider her a mentor as I travel the trail this year. After supper it was time for some puppy love! Right now Vern has six 3 month old puppies from his spring litter, and he gave them all names that reflect Cindy Abbott’s journey to the Red Lantern this year. This continues a long tradition in the mushing community, and is a great testament to the respect and admiration that the Dream a Dream Dog Farm has for Cindy.
Bounding through the wild trail behind the kennel, we tried to keep up with the rowdy pups as they made their way over tree stumps and roots all the way to the wooden bridge over the babbling brook. This took a little coaxing from the teachers, but they stumbled their way to the other side. It was simply adorable to watch. They are young huskies in training for the future, and under the care of Vern Halter and his team, we may see them in The Last Great Race® one day.