Musher turns business into traveling educational show

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2002

Mushing isn't what it used to be. At least it hasn't been for Anchor Point musher Doug Ruzicka's sled-dog touring business, MushHusky!

His success has been marginal at best. But in the face of what has, to date, been two seasons of adverse circumstances for him, Ruzicka has learned the increasing benefits of an education.

Ruzicka has pared his touring schedule to travel Outside teaching school-aged children about dog sledding. And he has found it to be more rewarding than leading adventure-seekers across the frozen tundra behind a team of dogs.

"It's so much fun," he said. "I'd do it for free if I could. We've had such an immediate effect with the assemblies, we're going to shift our focus from touring to assemblies."

Ruzicka has traveled to Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas, putting on 45-minute presentations for schools that show off the history and background of dog sledding. He takes a sled, his lead dog, Dave, and a lot of the equipment he uses on the trails to give the students a hands-on view of what mushers really do. And the schools have been happy to have him.

"It was an enjoyable assembly that the kids really liked," said Gerald Menke, principal at Horizon Middle School in Kearney, Neb. "He was here last March or April and we're having him back again this year.

Menke said each spring his sixth-grade students study a section in their history lesson about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Ruzicka's presentation helped them to get a visual grasp of the subject.

"That brought some reality to it," Menke said. "They were very excited. They asked a lot of good questions about what they were interested in because they could relate."

Fifth-graders in Kimberly Miller's class at Hillrise Elementary in Elkhorn, Neb., were reading the book, "Woodsong," by Iditarod veteran Gary Paulsen. Paulsen's novel describes his adventures in the northern wilderness, including traveling via dogsled, and Miller said her class found Ruzicka's presentation a good way to bring life to the lesson.

"It was an excellent opportunity for students to hear it from another source instead of reading a book or seeing it online," she said. "They were doing some research for their end of the unit project, and used him as an interview. They asked questions about weather, the difficulties of dog sledding, food, what made the dogs respond, dangers that you could encounter, the equipment that's necessary and the degree of difficulty."

Ruzicka said he has been mushing for 10 winters and started visiting schools after last winter's weather dashed his success in the sled-dog tour business.

"Last winter, we had reservations at about 50 percent capacity," Ruzicka said. "But we didn't have enough snow until Feb. 1. I need a good base of two to three weeks to get the dogs in shape. And I don't do dry-land training."

He said he got a tip from Homer musher Loraine Temple, who had made strides outside of touring. Temple said she had been visiting California schools for four years, and she knew Ruzicka from teaching how to mush. She said it had worked for her and could work as well for him.

"There wouldn't be any competition," Temple said. "There were plenty of places for him to visit, so I didn't see why not."

Ruzicka admitted he had initial reservations, because traveling with a dog and a sled struck him as a lot more trouble than it was worth.

"I wasn't crazy about it," he said. "It seemed like a lot of logistics."

But when a family trip arose in the spring to see his oldest son, Benjamin, graduate from U.S. Army basic training in Fort Knox, Ky., the earning prospects in the face of minimal cash flow from touring didn't seem all that bad.

"We initially scheduled eight," Ruzicka said, "but ended up doing 40 to 45 assemblies to pay for the trip."

Ruzicka's initial trips were scheduled throughout his native state of Nebraska and in surrounding states. He would -- and still does -- visit a cluster of schools close to a home base of operations.

After the touring plans faltered again this year because of a drastic decline in tourism, MushHusky! needed some help.

"This year, I had a lot of interest (from prospective touring clients)," he said. "But when Sept. 11 happened, it just quit."

But Ruzicka found more demand for his educational presentations.

"It has really, really taken off," he said. "This school year we've booked around 150 visits."

He said when he started out, he would cold-call schools. But that has changed.

"Word of mouth is getting around," Ruzicka said. "Right now it's getting to a point where, when we call schools, they've already heard of us."

The only problem he is encountering is finding schools that can afford to bring him to them.

"About 99 percent of them say they want us," Ruzicka said. "But most of them don't have funding. Probably two out of 10 don't have funds."

Ruzicka said he still plans to run tours, but not on as large a scale as he originally planned.

"I do like the tours," he said. "The logistics are a lot easier. Maybe I'll do only one two-week tour to the Interior. I'll offer one high-class quality tour per year and just call it good. Probably go up to Mount McKinley."

But he is adding more states to his touring educational show, with dates set for the Salt Lake City area and plans to visit Arizona. More importantly, he is growing to like his new role.

"The more I do it, the more I love it."

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