COAL CITY – Months ago, third-grade teachers Lori Watson and Cris Bormet hatched a “pie in the sky dream” of bringing a professional Iditarod dog musher to Coal City Elementary School.
When they developed the idea, Watson and Bormet were teaching an Iditarod unit, in which they incorporated lessons about geography, weather, math and reading, and each student followed a musher from start to finish.
“Every day, the kids would come to school just so excited to see how their musher was doing,” Watson said. “Other teachers got involved. We had parents and grandparents calling us. The project turned out bigger and better than we ever imagined. It was incredible.”
The class project culminated into one event Tuesday when world-class dog musher Hugh Neff and his sled dog, Walter, traveled from Alaska to Coal City Elementary School and Coal City Public Library as part of his tour of the Chicagoland area.
Second- and third-grade students and elementary school staff were regaled with stories from Neff’s 16-year career as a dog musher. In that time, Neff has competed in more than 20 long-distance sled dog races, including nine Iditarods and 13 Yukon Quests, which are both more than 1,000 miles long.
School presentations are a regular for Neff, who carries a book in his sled every race to promote literacy and is known for wearing striped “Cat in the Hat” headgear during his races. This year, Neff carried his own book, “Tales of the Gypsy Musher: Alaska and Beyond,” which was published in September.
“They call me the ‘Cat in the Hat.’ I carry books in my sled to promote reading and literacy, and I use racing to tell kids about following their dreams,” Neff said. “Kids are my biggest fan base.”
In both of his presentations Tuesday, Neff talked about his experiences as a musher, but also encouraged kids to follow their heart, be a team player and appreciate the outdoors. Neff stressed that racing is not about the money, but about the experiences and the love he has for the sport.
“He was an absolutely amazing speaker,” Bormet said Wednesday. “He’s all the kids could talk about [today]. They already want to follow him in his races next year.”
Neff’s dog, Walter, also was popular among the second- and third-grade students. According to Neff, Walter has raced more miles than any other sled dog.
Third-grade student Jaiden Millot made her mom, Heather Millot, take her to Neff’s second presentation at the library after seeing him speak once at school.
“She loves the dogs. School wasn’t enough. We had to come for more,” Heather Millot said.
Millot, like many parents of the Coal City students who came to hear Neff speak, said she was pulled into the Iditarod excitement with her daughter this March.
“It was so exciting. We tracked it every night,” Millot said.
This recent Iditarod was particularly difficult for Neff, who had to be rescued well into the race after spending 10 hours stranded in Alaskan tundra.
Neff’s most popular story from both talks involved a 1,400-pound moose that sneaked up on him, trampled his sled and was pulled along the trail by his pack of sled dogs.
“I always tell that story to show that you can’t make this stuff up,” Neff joked.
Watson said the program was such a success this year that the entire elementary school will be involved in next year’s Iditarod project. Neff mentioned bringing his dogs next winter to offer rides.
“Getting him to come next year is another pie in the sky idea,” Watson said. “But we’re certainly going to try to do this again next year.”
ON THE WEB
• To learn more about Hugh Neff, visit sites.google.com/site/hughneffgypsymusher