Archive for Thursday, April 19, 2007

Alaskan musher mesmerizes Marion Springs audience

April 19, 2007

He hasn't run the Iditarod or encountered a wolf, but Doug Ruzicka did entertain Marion Springs Elementary School students for nearly an hour Friday afternoon.

The Nebraska native also informed the students about dog sledding and his current home state, Alaska. MSES is one of the many schools that he presents at during his time in the lower 48 states.

"We will do between 100 and 120 shows a year," Ruzicka said. "In the spring, I will come down about the first week of March and I will stay into May. Then I also come out in October for two to three weeks in the fall. It comes out to about 10 to 12 weeks a year."

The students weren't the only ones interested in learning information Friday, as several MSES staff members asked questions after the presentation.

"I enjoyed it greatly," MSES Principal Gus Wegner said. "I even learned some things from him. It was wonderful."

Ruzicka's emphasis was on dog sledding as he travels with his Alaskan husky puppy named Nightlight. The dog drew the attention of the children with her large blue eyes and colorful fur coat.

Nightlight is traveling this year, because she isn't old enough to be a full-time member of Ruzicka's sled team.

"I brought her because she is a puppy and I haven't really needed her in my team this last winter," Ruzicka said. "She just got a real basic training this winter. She won't be coming anymore, because she will be a full-blast member of the team. I always try to bring a young dog, because I don't want to take away from my team."

The dog wasn't the only thing for the students to look at. Ruzicka also brought along a dog sled and all of his equipment for show-and-tell.

Included in his equipment were two pairs of snowshoes, two pairs of mittens, two pairs of boots, axe, headlamp, cooker, dog harnesses, stocking hat and coat.

Ruzicka explained how each piece of equipment was used, but he emphasized the hat and coat, which has a fur hood. He used those two as examples of how to stay warm when temperatures drop well below zero Fahrenheit.

"It's amazing how much it helps," Ruzicka said. "This winter I went out and I wore a different coat. I didn't have my hood. All I had on was my really heavy stocking hat. I went through some 35 below weather and I frostbit my cheeks right underneath my goggles. I got them pretty good. So the hood is priceless."

He also said his beard helps keep him warm during the frigid winter.

"It's amazing how it helps," Ruzicka said. "I didn't have any problem with my beard that night. I went home black and blue and my wife said it looked like I was in a fight that I lost."

Throughout his presentation, Ruzicka cracked jokes, often using himself as the target. He also shared many stories from his adventures sledding or ones his children had experienced.

One story involved his 14-year-old daughter Rebekah when she was on a practice sled run and encountered a real-life and much meaner version of the cartoon character Bullwinkle.

Rebekah came around a corner and found a moose standing directly in the sled path. She stopped her team of dogs just in time as her brother Mark hopped off the snowmobile and tried to scare the much-larger animal away.

"Normally they run off, but sometimes if they are hungry or in a bad mood, they want to fight," Ruzicka said. "Mark ran in front of the dogs and began waving his arms and hollering to get the moose to run off. That moose was going to have none of that, because the hair on the back of its neck stood straight up and its ears went down. Then it came right after Mark.

"When he turned around to start running, Rebekah was already on the snow machine," Ruzicka said. "She said the moose ran right down the middle of the dog team and tripped on the sled. When the moose went down, Mark said its nose hit the back of his boot. She didn't care about the dogs. She wanted to kill Mark. It's that simple. In the end, it made a good story, but it could have been really bad."

After the presentation, Ruzicka said he has seen many moose and some caribou during his 17 years in Alaska. But two animals he has never seen are wolves and wolverines, although he has heard wolves howling at night.

Wegner, who used to live in Minnesota and North Dakota, understood why Ruzicka has never encountered those animals.

"In recorded history, there is not an instance were a wolf killed a human," Wegner said. "Wolves have a reputation, but in the woods the moose are the most dangerous."

Although he mostly talked about dog sledding, Ruzicka did briefly talk about Alaska and answered questions regarding the state.

"One of the reasons I do it is because I want to share Alaska with students," Ruzicka said. "When I was young, this kind of thing would have been really exciting to me. A lot of people don't know what Alaska is about and there are all kinds of myths that surround Alaska. It's just a good educational thing about Alaska."

Some of those myths were asked about Friday. One student asked if Alaska had any roads.

"There are roads in Alaska, there just aren't very many of them," Ruzicka said. "I do live on the road system though."

Ruzicka was born and raised near Omaha, Neb., but moved to Alaska nearly 17 years ago. He immediately took up dog sledding and has been involved ever since.

"It was just a place I always wanted to go," he said. "It was just a simple reason. The opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of it. Within about the first two weeks I got there, I got a dog team. I didn't have the foggiest idea what I was doing, because it was all new to me. It's been a learning process."

He owns approximately 22 dogs, but will be having a new litter of puppies born soon.

His Alaskan huskies are crossbred with German shorthair pointers to make the dogs faster for racing.

"She is a cross-breed, but we call her an Alaskan Husky, because an Alaskan Husky has to have certain northern qualities and one of those is the double coat," Ruzicka said. "The purer Alaskan Husky has incredible endurance, but they don't have any speed. Mushers have been experimenting for decades with which cross will make these dogs faster.

"They started out with greyhounds but that didn't work, because they weren't able to maintain that double coat," Ruzicka said. "Then they found out that the German Shorthair Pointers are a really good cross. They work really well. We breed it down to about one-eighth cross, maybe one-quarter at the most."

Wegner said he hopes to bring Ruzicka back in three years, because the students impressed him by paying attention the entire hour.

"He really tied everything together really well," Wegner said. "His stories were good. It was an hour long and I think every child was focused on him. As an educator, it was nice to hear the good questions that the kids asked. That was excellent."

After the show, Ruzicka did say he has never raced in the Iditarod, but may be planning to enter the 2009 contest.

"I've never run the Iditarod and I've never wanted to," Ruzicka said. "It's a very expensive race to run. It's about a $10,000-$15,000 investment just to run the race. I've never had the interest in spending that kind of money to compete in it. I do have to say that working with my kids in the Junior Iditarod during the last few years has really got me excited about maybe doing it. We haven't committed yet, but we are talking about doing it in '09. But we'll see, because that's a long ways away."

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