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Chambersburg teacher recalls 1991 Iditarod race

March 14, 2001

Chambersburg teacher recalls 1991 Iditarod race



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

Urtha LenharrPhoto: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - About 75 New Franklin Elementary School students sat wide-eyed Tuesday afternoon as Urtha Lenharr talked to them about driving sled dogs across the Alaskan Arctic wilderness.

Lenharr, 51, a Chambersburg Area Middle School teacher, spent 17 years in Alaska teaching Eskimo children in their far north migratory hunting and fishing camps.

He also drove a 16-dog team across the frozen north in 1991 when he competed in the Iditarod, the famous dog sled race that starts in Anchorage and ends 1,200 miles away in Nome. Iditarod is a native Eskimo word for a far distant place.

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It took him 22 days to finish, including five different days when he had to hole up in his sled to wait out blizzards that dropped temperatures to 60 to 80 degrees below zero. Temperatures that cold can snap the metal parts on a dog sled, he said.

"That's why sleds are held together with nylon cord," he said, showing the construction of his sled to the students.

Lenharr's props for his presentation, in addition to the sled, included snowshoes that he used to break a trail through deep snow by walking ahead of the dogs. He also showed the kids samples of booties that he attached to the dogs' feet to keep them from getting cut up on the sharp ice.

He said he bought 3,500 booties for the start of the race and used up 2,100 before he reached the finish line.

Lenharr said it costs about $20,000 to run the Iditarod. The money pays for food for the racers and their dogs that is dropped off by plane at checkpoints along the route. "We stopped at checkpoints every three days to pick up more food and supplies," he said.

Meat from beaver, moose, caribou and salmon are cut into one-inch chunks and put into portion-size plastic bags for each dog, he said. Lenharr said he mixed the meat with dry dog food, then cooked it before feeding it to the dogs.

He said he lost about 35 pounds during the race. "It's the second-most strenuous sport next to mountain climbing," he said.

An average day's run was 15 to 20 miles. The dogs run for six hours, then rest for six hours.

At night, the dogs burrow into the snow to keep warm while their drivers climb under the nylon tarp that covers their sleds. Lenharr said that some days he awoke to find a foot of snow over the sled and no sight of the dogs until they popped their heads out of the snow.

The breed chosen by Iditarod racers and Eskimos who still use the sleds are Alaskan huskies, Lenharr said. "They're short-legged, muscular and have long endurance," he said.

Lenharr said the first Iditarod was held in 1973. At the time Eskimos were replacing their dog sleds with snowmobiles and it was feared that the old ways would be lost. Lenharr became interested in the race in the late 1980s.

He was born in Waynesboro and moved to Alaska in 1973 "for the adventure. I planned to stay a year," he said.

He ended up in Nome, where he taught school for five years before returning to Waynesboro when his father became ill. He returned to Alaska when his father died in 1980. That time he got a job teaching all grades for the Northwest Arctic Rural School District. He lived in Kotzebue, a small village 33 miles above the Arctic Circle.

"My students were so spread out that it would sometimes take me a half day to reach them in their camps between villages. I taught them in their homes," he said.

He returned to Waynesboro to care for his mother four years ago, he said.

He has returned to Alaska twice for visits, most recently last week when he went to Anchorage to help out with the start of the 2001 Iditarod.

He said he would run the race again if he can get a year off to train a team of dogs and find sponsors to put up money for the expenses.

Carol Barr, a third-grade teacher at New Franklin Elementary, coordinated Lenharr's visit. She said Lenharr's visit was made in conjunction with a class project involving the reading of a book titled "The Bravest Dog Ever." The book, based on a true story, tells of a husky named Balto who was a lead dog on one of five relay teams of sled dogs that raced for 800 miles across the snow to pick up some serum from a snow-stranded train. The serum was needed to save thousands of Eskimos suffering from a diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

A bronze statue of Balto was erected in New York's Central Park in honor of his deeds, Barr said.

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