Tourism musher finds more customers at schools

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- The sled dog tour business isn't what it used to be, so Doug Ruzicka is going back to school.

In the face of two seasons of adverse circumstances putting tourists on sleds, Ruzicka of Anchor Point is taking his sled to schools in the Lower 48 to give children a firsthand look at mushing.

He has found it more rewarding than leading adventure-seekers across 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 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.

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. Ruzicka's presentation helped them 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, Miller said, and 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 weather last winter 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 got a tip from Homer musher Loraine Temple, who said she had been visiting California schools for four years.

''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 said he had initial reservations. Traveling with a dog and a sled struck him as more trouble than it was worth. 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 but ended up doing 40 to 45 assemblies to pay for the trip,'' Ruzicka said.

Ruzicka's first trips were scheduled throughout his native state of Nebraska and surrounding states.

Plans for mushing tourism this year faltered again after the East Coast terrorism attacks. Meanwhile, Ruzicka has found more demand for his educational presentations.

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

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