Lessons from the trail

Dog musher motivates Jonathan Valley students
By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | May 25, 2014
Photo by: Jessi Stone Students at Jonathan Valley Elementary School surround Walter with love at a special assembly on Thursday.

Most people will never know what it is like to race 1,000 miles across Alaska at night in below freezing temperatures, but dog musher Hugh Neff brought the experience closer to home for Jonathan Valley Elementary students on Thursday.

Neff has raced more than 20, thousand-mile races, including the annual Yukon Quest and the Iditarod Great Sled Race. He won first-place in the 2012 Yukon quest and has placed high in the Iditarod race as well.

When he isn’t racing, he is traveling around the United States talking to students about leadership, the importance of reading and other life lessons.

While Neff’s experience is beyond impressive, the real superstar at Jonathan Valley on Thursday was his dog, Walter, who has completed 12 thousand-mile races in his 10 years. Walter is a husky-hound dog mix — a perfect combination for a mushing dog.

“That’s more than any other dog,” Neff said, adding that it was now time for Walter to retire from the racing business.

Students were anxious to pet the hard-working dog and also hear about Neff’s unusual career path. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Neff grew up near Chicago, Illinois, and then moved to Alaska when he was 27 years old to learn about dog mushing.

He lived with an Indian tribe that taught him and paid him by giving him one dog each month he was there.

“They taught me how to train my dogs by keeping my mouth quiet,” Neff said. “Dogs like Walter do most of the training.”

By putting a younger dog next to an experienced dog, Neff said the new dog learns the right way to do things through repetition.

But Neff told students that dogs don’t start out as leaders — they have to learn how to be leaders from a young age. Walter started as a “wheel dog” doing most of the muscle work at the back of the sled and worked his way up to the front of the sled as he got older and smarter.

“He’s my smartest dog,” Neff said.

Neff also told students what happened to dogs that didn’t work as a team with the other dogs — they get sent home and aren’t allowed to finish the race.

These types of races are demanding on the dogs and the musher. The dogs are fed lots of fish to keep them going and they have to wear special dog booties to keep their paws from getting injured on the trail. He usually goes through 1,000 booties with each race.

When they take a break to sleep, Neff said he massages his dogs’ muscles to keep them in shape and also just to make sure they are happy.

“You need three things to keep your dogs happy,” he said. “Attention, food and exercise.”

Even though Neff has several wins under his belt, he said racing is not about winning for him — it’s about the journey and living life to the fullest. His job allows him to travel all over the world and also be around his best friends — his 40 sled dogs.

“People who just do it to win end up quitting because they don’t have the passion for it,” he said.

Students had tons of questions for Neff, especially the fifth-grade classes who followed Neff’s Yukon Quest race online in February. Students compiled a database and had lessons in class related to the race. The Yukon Quest website even offers lesson plans for teachers to utilize in the classroom.

Neff visited Maggie Valley last year and met with Mayor Ron DeSimone, who gave him a Maggie Valley Police patch to attach to his parka during the Yukon Quest. That patch was prominent on his right shoulder during many online interviews throughout the race.

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