An educational adventure of a lifetime


Keeping the late Webster Elementary School teacher Bea Poole’s dream alive, a teacher’s aide takes students and parents to Alaska to track a race that follows old dog sledding routes from the Gold Rush days.

By Betty Bailey/Special to The Malibu Times

When the 64 mushers running this year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race crossed the finish line, they were carrying some special cargo; a photograph of late Webster Elementary teacher Bea Poole. Poole taught a curriculum rich with Iditarod history. Her students would track the mushers’ progress along the 1,049-mile route from Anchorage to Nome by radio and Internet. When the last musher had made crossed the finish line, her class would celebrate.

Susan Cooley, the teacher’s aide who worked with Poole for 13 years, said the historic race is the perfect teaching tool.

“The kids just take to it because Alaska is such a far away place and because of the dogs,” Cooley said.

It was Poole’s wish to take her students to Alaska to see firsthand the race that follows old dog sledding routes from the Gold Rush days, including the trail of the 1925 serum run when a diphtheria epidemic struck the remote city of Nome.

“She wanted to expose the kids to a completely different culture and to be able to take them into classrooms and allow them to see the children in their own environment,” Cooley said.

When lung cancer took the life of Bea Poole in late November, Cooley decided to keep Poole’s dream alive. In early March, she led a group of 13 parents and students on the educational adventure of a lifetime. Their first stop was Anchorage and the Millennium Hotel, which serves as Iditarod field headquarters during the race. The students tracked the mushers’ progress on the leader’s board set up in the lobby and visited with the dropped dogs.

“They were cute and really playful,” said Rebecca, a fourth grade student.”

“They (dogs) were sad because they wanted to finish the race but they were hurt so they couldn’t,” said Nick, a fourth-grade student on the trip.

After a tour of Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla and a visit to Portage Glacier, most of the group headed to remote the village of Unalakleet, which is a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. Students watched mushers come and go along their 1,049-mile journey and had a chance to try out a sled.

“We got to go dog sledding on a lake,” said fifth-grader Heartleigh. “We just sat in a basket and the musher took us across a river.”

A few group members skipped the Unalakleet checkpoint and headed to Nome, with a stopover in Kotzebue, a remote Eskimo village north of the Artic Circle. The Alaska Airlines crew presented them with Arctic Circle Club membership upon landing.

“I really liked walking on the frozen ocean up there,” said fifth-grader Cody. “It was really cool. We usually don’t get a chance to walk on top of water.”

“When we got home, my Mom showed me Kotzebue on the globe,” said fifth-grade student Kelly. “It was neat to see where I had been.”

The group met up at the Iditarod finish line, a large, wooden arch, located at the end of Front Street in Nome. When mushers arrived at all hours of the day and night, Webster students were there to greet them.

“I liked watching Robert Sorlie (the 2003 Iditarod Winner) come in and I liked it when the last musher came in and threw me and Cody up in the air,” Kelly said.

One special musher, Dee Dee Jonrowe, underwent chemotherapy treatment in her battle against breast cancer weeks before the race. Jonrowe, who had written to Cooley and the students before the race, had hugs and smiles for them at the finish line. She and many other mushers had carried a photograph of Bea Poole with them along the trail, symbolically helping her make her last trip to Nome. For Jonrowe, crossing the finish line was more than doing well in the race.

“It was a reclaiming of my health,” she said. “There is nothing more valuable than your faith and health.”

Although Nome is a small city now, the children got a glimpse of its historic Gold Rush days. They visited the local museum and took a tour of the outlying area.

“These kids will have show and tell for life,” said tour guide Richard Beneville.

The final event of the 2003 Iditarod was the Awards Banquet, where students had a chance to meet the mushers and gather autographs.

“It was really cool getting to meet all the people and getting their signatures,” said fifth-grader Eunice.

Before heading to the airport, the students made a stop at Nome Elementary School where they took part in classroom activities during a cultural exchange. The Malibu students fielded questions from the curious Nome students.

“Do you have bananas in California?” was a frequently asked question as was, “Do you go swimming in the ocean every day?”

“They do a lot of things differently than we do,” said fifth-grader Jackson. “They have different games and they don’t have as many rules.”