Iditarod musher, lead dog impress Quail Run students

Quail Run School students, including fourth-grader Abby Cohen, right, lean in to pet Cheddar, an Alaskan husky, who competed in this year's Iditarod dog sled race last month in Alaska with his owner, Clint Warnke. Warnke and Cheddar visited the school Wednesday for a presentation on his competition in the race.

Last month Clint Warnke and his dog, Cheddar, were on an adventure at the top of the world: the 2007 Iditarod dog sled race.

They faced temperatures of minus 60 and winds of 40 to 70 mph. They operated on two to four hours of sleep a day. They marveled at the beauty of the Yukon River by day and the Northern Lights by night.

“This year was a really, really tough year,” Warnke told a group of Lawrence students Wednesday. “The snow conditions weren’t the greatest. The trail was rough. And 10 percent of the fields were wiped out in the first three checkpoints.”

But after a grueling race that lasted more than 10 days and took them more than 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, they were among the 58 competitors who finished what is known as the Last Great Race on Earth.

“Snow, rocks, ice, grass, dirt – you name it, we went over it,” said the 36-year-old “musher,” the term used for the humans in the race.

Iditarod competitor Clint Warnke talks about some of the gear he wears in the race as sixth-grade teacher Nancy Dietze, left, tries on the attire for a demonstration.

Warnke brought his own story, some of his gear and many photos to show Wednesday morning to about 100 students at Quail Run School.

And he introduced Cheddar, his 3-year-old Alaskan husky, who led his team of dogs.

“The older he gets, the better he gets,” Warnke said.

As many of the youngsters petted Cheddar, Warnke explained how the 16 dogs he used were positioned along a “gang line,” with Cheddar at the front.

“Cheddar is the steering wheel,” he said. Cheddar turns right when Warnke calls out “Gee” and turns left when given the command “Haw.”

He showed students the coats the dogs wear and the booties for their feet.

Warnke also dressed up Nancy Dietze, a sixth-grade teacher, in the heavy boots, inner liner, outer shell and face protection he wore during the Iditarod.

“It’s not heavy,” Dietz said, holding her arms out wide underneath all the clothing.

Warnke, who is from Two Rivers, Alaska, showed students slides that included a map of the race, photos of his other dogs and some of the sights along the way.

He explained that the race is done each year, in part, to commemorate a 674-mile run done in 1925 by sled dogs to bring medicine to fight a diphtheria epidemic in Nome.

Warnke, who finished in 34th place, plans to run it again for a fifth time in 2008. He ran his first race in 2001, the same year he started working with Dr. Sonny Kind and the Veterinary Educational Team.

VET, a nonprofit organization based in South Carolina, teaches children about northern breed sled dogs and the Iditarod. Warnke was in Lawrence as part of a visit to several Kansas City-area schools.

“It was really cool learning about all the different rules and how they race,” said Luke Lesslie, 12, a sixth-grader. Luke said he had read Jack London’s “White Fang” and has seen the Disney movie “Snow Dogs.”

“I never knew about Alaskan dog races, like the Iditarod,” said Kelly Leatherman, also a sixth-grader. Kelly said Cheddar was “very cute.” She said she had thought sled dogs would look more like wolves.

Emily Sadosky, another sixth-grader, said Cheddar “was very sweet. I didn’t really ever think about dog racing until now.”

Fletcher Koch, also a sixth-grader, seemed inspired by Warnke’s adventure – and said he might like to someday enter the race himself.

“I think it would be fun,” Fletcher said. “If I ever have a chance to do it, I might take it.”