Ready to mush? Students find out how hard it is to be a sled dog

News-DemocratMarch 14, 2014 

Richie Camden visited second and third graders at Douglas School in Belleville on Friday afternoon to speak about his dogsled racing adventures. He brought two of the dogs from his team, Fleury and Koivu, both five-year old Siberian Huskies. The students have followed the famous Iditarod Doglsed Race in their studies.

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— Wearing a green shirt and a purple tutu, third-grader Heaven Uhuru, 9, sported a dog harness and learned how hard it is to be a sled dog when she and other classmates pulled a sled Friday afternoon.

The sled carried a real sled dog named Fleury, who, for once, got to be the musher.

"It was awesome. I can't believe I got to pull a sled with a dog on it," Heaven said. "It was pretty fun. I wish we could do this every single day."

Fellow sled dog in training Brent Chapman, 7, said it was a "little weird" and a "little scary," but "actually really fun."

Fleury and teammate Koivu, who is also a 5-year-old Siberian Husky, were at Douglas Elementary School in Belleville on Friday with their musher, Richie Camden, of St. Louis.

By day, Camden is a dog trainer at Murphy Animal Hospital. By night, Camden is training Koivu, Fleury and his six other sled dogs -- who are all rescue dogs. During the peak of racing season in the fall and winter, he said his dogs run 30 miles a night.

Without an ample amount of snow in the area, Camden said the dogs pull him around sharp turns, down hills and across bumpy terrain while he sits on a go-cart rather than on a sled.

"I let them run as long as they want to run," he said. He compared the dogs to athletes and described himself as their coach.

Koivu is the lead dog, and Fleury is a wheel dog, who runs at the back of the sled. "The wheel dogs are a lot stronger," Camden told the students gathered in the gymnasium.

This season, Camden and his dogs participated in three races with the longest being 90 miles. During his first race in 2012, he placed last and his dogs kept running into the crowd of onlookers. "It was really embarrassing," he said. "They (my sled dogs) really, really like people."

Camden discussed the importance of teamwork. "It's very important everyone works together on a sled dogs' team and in the classroom," he said.

Camden taught a handful of second- and third-graders how to harness the dogs and place booties on the dogs' paws. He said the booties are essential during races so the sled dogs' paws don't get injured.

Koivu is not a huge fan of the booties. After Camden placed one bootie on a paw, Koivu proceeded to hobble around on three legs while holding the bootied paw up in the air, which garnered laughs from the children.

Camden talked to the kids about the Iditarod, the annual 1,000-mile sled dog race in Alaska, which requires a 16-dog sled team. He told the students it's like traveling from St. Louis to Disney World in Florida on a sled pulled by dogs in just eight days.

The second-graders at Douglas recently completed a unit on the Iditarod, which finished earlier this month. Second-grade teacher AmyJo Mueller said all subjects are incorporated into the unit including math, language arts, science and social studies.

She explained the students learn about telling time and switching to Alaska time, reading a map and researching dog mushers. "It's a great lesson for the kids," Mueller said.

Camden and his dogs visit at least one school in the St. Louis metropolitan area every month during the school year to teach students about sled dogs in hopes of shedding positive light on the sport. They will visit Scott Elementary School in the coming weeks, he said.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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