The Pioneer School auditorium was quietly abuzz with energy. From kindergarten to sixth grade, 120 students were eyeing an honest-to-goodness Alaskan dog sled sitting on the school stage. Wonder filled the air. Anticipation was high, voices were low.
“Good morning!” Lorraine Temple called out, striding confidently onto the Quincy school stage, far from her home in snowy, wild Alaska.
“Who has heard of the dog Balto?” the blonde dog team expert asked. “Who has read about the Iditarod, the Great Race of Mercy where dog sled teams brought medicine to Nome, Alaska, to save children and families from a terrible diphtheria outbreak? Yes, it was 150 dogs and 20 drivers who made that historic journey. They traveled 674 miles through ice and snow, in only five and a half days, and they did it a long time ago.”
As part of her lively, popular “Alaska Husky Spirit” school assembly presentation, Temple had come to inspire the students.
“I did not start out in Alaska, my life had a very different beginning,” she said. “It’s about living your own unique lives. Know that you can do whatever you want to if you have the willingness and courage to follow your heart and dream big. Then do your best!”
Temple was born and raised in the Walnut Creek area of Contra Costa County. When she graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara, she began traveling and found her way to Alaska.
“First, I’m a dog musher,” she told the students. “Raise your hand if you know what that is? The term “mush” comes from the old French trappers who used to command their dog teams to ‘marché,’ which means march on or go!”
Temple talked about her wide range of job experiences: commercial fishing, boat captain, dog kennel cleaner and more.
“I even drove a taxicab for a while,” she laughed. “But by far, being a musher and driving my dogs is the most fun job I’ve ever had.”
Just then, Temple brought two of her dogs onto the stage, 6-year-old Willow with his bright red scarf, and 10-year-old Buddy, a shy fellow.
Choruses of “Ooh!” and “Aah!” rang out in unison.
The students were spellbound as Temple described her first time getting a chance to take a team of 10 dogs out on the trail.
“I came out to get the sled and the harnesses set up and every dog stood up, quiet as could be. Their ears were pointed up and alert, each one was watching my every move. They were excited. Huskies, that’s what they love to do, pull the sled!”
Willow, the lead dog, howled from the stage and the auditorium erupted in giggles.
Laughing herself and stroking Willow’s head, Temple said she took that first team out on the trail and recalled, “I was wowed! Ten dogs and me, we were racing into the wilderness, pulling the sled and running so beautifully down the trail. This was cool!”
In that moment, Temple discovered her calling. Now, she lives between Homer and the Kenai Peninsula, specializing in authentic wilderness tours and dog sledding adventures on glaciers, some of which have appeared in a national television news program.
Teaching the students the various commands that sled dogs learn in order to pull as part of a team, Temple explained that today’s sled dogs are no longer pure Siberian husky. The best sled dogs are a mix of huskies and other breeds that have been selected for their traits of endurance, speed and hardiness.
Next it was time for a demonstration and PCS teacher’s aide Katelyn Johns appeared on stage in full snow gear, complete with heavy boots, purple snowsuit, and a hat and gloves made of beaver fur.
Temple explained the importance of being open to learning new ways of doing things, being flexible in your thinking. She said she had tried living and working in Alaska wearing only gear that was NOT made from animal products.
“When I first moved to Alaska, people tried to tell me,” Temple said. “Then I got frostbite and three of my toes started to turn black, so I learned the hard way that that doesn’t work. There’s something about dense beaver fur that really keeps a person warm at those freezing temperatures.”
Johns took her beaver gloves and held onto the back of the dog sled, standing where the musher would be.
PCS Site Director Patrick Joseph kneeled at the head of the harness to keep the team’s line in place.
“Thank you, Principal Joseph, for being our lead dog today!” Temple joked, hooking up Buddy and Willow to show how a team works together.
The students learned that Willow showed promise from the start as a lead dog because he is strong and wants to be out front, running ahead for the rest of the sled team and keeping the other dogs evenly spread out.
Buddy had once been a sled team dog, but his best skills have made him a wonderful “therapy dog” now.
“Just like Buddy, every one of you has something special about you, something that you’re really good at,” Temple told the students. “Our state flag, with the Big Dipper on it, was designed by a 14-year-old Alaska Native boy. You have creativity in you, so create things.”
After showing the classes how a sled team operates, Temple noted that the dogs love a good snack after a run — especially a piece of moose meat or a nice, chunky fish head!
Closing her presentation, the entertaining speaker told the students that following their dreams might take them anywhere in the world and to stick with what they love.
As the students trooped back to class in their orderly lines, calling out their collective thank yous, a little girl whispered loudly to the dog musher, “Could you do this again sometime?”
Site Director Joseph expressed his appreciation, too.
Asked about the value of diverse school assemblies like the “Alaska Husky Spirit” presentation, Joseph said it is important to reinforce the skills students are learning in their classes.
“This kind of assembly focuses on the value of perseverance, being flexible, pushing your own limits, having a good work ethic and knowing the importance of loyal friends,” Joseph explained. “There are many ways to reinforce learning and it’s nice to have something to tie back into what we’re already doing.”