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Alaskan Iditarod musher visits Cannelton

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Students interview sled-dog racer; he urges kids to read

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

CANNELTON – Students at Cannelton’s Myers Grade School have been conversing with, helping and following the exploits of Iditarod sled-dog-race participants since early 2009. They got to meet one last week when veteran musher Hugh Neff visited them.

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He and his team, named Annie’s Army after his lead dog, Annie, finished in ninth place this year, teacher Joan Goble said. “He and his dog team have been in several Iditarods in the past several years, among other long-distance races.”

Neff spoke to students at the city’s community center about his Iditarod adventures and about the importance of reading, writing and “following your dreams.”

Members of the Cannelton Media Club, led by Goble, are creating a Web site about the Iditarod and interviewed Neff for it.

One asked him whether he sees the Northern Lights while on the trail.

“Oh yeah, we see the Northern Lights all the time,” he replied. He compared them to fireworks, and said when watching them, “you’re usually laughing, because it’s so cool, green and purple and red and all different colors, the whole sky.”

“What is it like living in Alaska?” another club member asked.

He likes the cold, he answered, “so I like it up there … it’s a lot tougher to live up there than it is down here, probably, but there’s a lot of freedom, too. We don’t have too many stop signs where I live.”

“When did you decide to become a musher?” Neff was asked.

That occurred when he moved to and met some natives of Alaska in approximately 1995, “before you guys were even thought of,” he joked.

“This was my seventh Iditarod,” he said in response to another question, “and then I’ve done the Yukon Quest 10 times.” He finished second in 2009, according to the Web site for that event.

“Nobody in the world races more than I do,” he boasted. He participates in seven or eight races annually, compared to the two or three most mushers do. “I just don’t want to get a real job,” he added.

The students plan to include Neff’s interview on their site, which will be entered in the upcoming International Student Media Festival, an annual event where  the club members’ sites routinely excel.

Club members signed up for an Iditarod “Bootie Brigade” in January 2009 and made booties to protect the feet of another musher’s dogs. They made a “Flat Ramey” the following March for that musher, Ramey Smyth, who coincidentally finished ninth in that year’s race.     

“We made booties for Hugh’s dog team this year, as well as booties for Iditarod rookie Michelle Phillips,” Goble said in an e-mail message to The News. Each of those mushers took a “flat” image of themselves with them on the trail, sent to them by my fifth-graders.”

Neff said he’s visiting a number of schools to talk to their students.

He promotes literacy, Goble explained, and this year represented Read Across Alaska, part of Read Across America, which is celebrating reading in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

“He decided to really show his support by wearing a Cat in the Hat hat at the official start of the Iditarod in Anchorage,” Goble said, explaining he gave the media club permission to use a photo of it on their Web site.

As a surprise for Neff, Goble’s entire fifth-grade class donned their own red-and-white-striped top hats as soon as Neff was introduced at the community center.

They also surprised him after his talk with a gift of 100 booties students made in the preceding week for him to use for his next big race.

Media-club projects can be viewed at www.siec.k12.in.us/cannelton/elementary/technology/internet.

More information about Neff can be found at his Web site, www.laughingeyeskennel.com.