Students meet Alaskan musher
Classes followed Iditarod race
By Angie Landsverk
The Alaskan Iditarod musher a Chain O’ Lakes Elementary class followed during this year’s race visited the students as part of his educational tour.
“I got to see you guys cheering me on – on YouTube,” Hugh Neff said during a May 16 school-wide presentation.
Neff first met with Lori Wolff’s kindergarten class.
Her class chose to follow him during the Waupaca Area Public Library’s annual IditaREAD Challenge.
The challenge involved keeping track of their minutes/pages of reading and and trying to beat Neff across the finish line by completing their reading log.
“We were lucky enough to get to see Hugh cross the finish line on our live feed from Alaska,” said Wolff, who captured the moment in a video.
Linda Fenton posted that video on the Iditarod’s educational site.
Fenton, a third-grade teacher at Waupaca Learning Center, was the 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.
That was the year the library started its IditaREAD Challenge.
The third-grade classes from Waupaca Learning Center joined the Chain O’ Lakes Elementary students for Neff’s presentation.
The parent/teacher groups from the two schools sponsored his visit.
After Neff saw the video of Wolff’s students watching him finish the race, he commented about wanting to meet them.
Each May, Neff does an educational tour, visiting schools throughout the United States.
A stop in Waupaca was arranged.
Neff and his wife, Olivia Shank, brought one of their dogs with them.
LeRoy is not quite 2 years old and just started racing with Shank this year.
The dog is named after Shank’s grandfather, LeRoy Shank, one of the founders of the Yukon Quest.
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile race between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska.
It began in 1984, and Neff won it in 2012 and 2016.
He has been racing for 22 years, with 2004 the first year he competed in the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
His best finish in that race was in 2011, when he placed fifth.
Neff grew up in Evanston, Illinois.
“When I was a little kid in Scouts, we made dog sleds,” he said.
Neff attended the University of Illinois and went to Alaska in the summers to work in a fish cannery.
He worked as a professional golf caddy before moving to Alaska.
He has a connection to Wisconsin and was a young child when he started going to the northern part of the state in the summer.
“Wisconsin is the reason I moved to Alaska. Do you know what? Alaska is a really big Wisconsin, with mountains,” he said. “It’s my playground. Every year, I travel around Alaska with my dogs.”
Neff and his wife have about 60 dogs, including pups and retired dogs.
“Where we live, there’s more dogs than people,” he said.
Neff brought along copies of his book, “Tails of the Gypsy Musher: Alaska and Beyond,” and gave Wolff a copy.
Each year he competes in the Iditarod, he carries a book with him to give to a library.
Neff told the students, “The more you take care of yourself or your loves ones, the better they’re going to perform.”
What is most important when they train their dogs is getting them to get along with each other, he said.
He puts an older dog next to a younger one.
“The dogs actually train each other. They really want to learn,” Neff said. “As we get older, we always have to remind ourselves – I still have so much to learn.”
Every time he finishes a race, he feels like a winner.
Neff said he wants to show people how “beautiful our dogs are.”
Neff said they do not own the dogs, rather the dogs own them.
“That’s the whole key to life,” he said. “Not owning something, but appreciating it and taking care of it.”
Wolff appreciated what Neff shared during his visit.
“I love that Hugh’s lesson to my class was not the importance of winning the race, but the drive to finish the race and all the life lessons learned along the way,” Wolff said. “He talked about being a great storyteller. He has now given my class memories and stories to tell.”