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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #44
February 27, 2008

Go,Dog, Go!

Balto + The Iditarod on the Internet

Young kids will love Balto, the animated tale of a plucky canine hero from Nome, Alaska. Since Balto is half-dog and half-wolf, he can't earn a place on any of the local sled teams -- the human mushers don't quite trust the wildness in him, even though he's quick on his feet. When a deadly diptheria epidemic hits their isolated town, and threatens to take the life of the little girl who owns the female dog that Balto loves, the town chooses the fastest dogs and sends them on a journey for help. Because of his unique half-breed qualities, Balto is the only one who survives the trek from Anchorage to Nome, returning with the antitoxin that saves hundreds of lives. Based on a true story about a sled dog that became a national hero, the film thrilled us in the chase scenes and touched our hearts with its message about the value of being different.

Balto's real life chase through the wilderness is re-enacted annually in one of the world's most unique sporting events, an 1150 mile sled dog race called the Iditarod. Given that the race course runs through Alaska's wilderness, there is no better way to track the progress of these incredibly athletic dogs, and their mushers than on the Internet. We are tracking this year's race by following specific dog teams during the two week race that starts on March 1, reading updates online from dog "bloggers" who report in from the trail, and watching video footage from the checkpoints. There are over 95 mushers registered this year, and 1500 dogs. By watching pre-race videos online we learned that while some mushers achieve a certain level of fame (especially those who have won more than once), there are dynasties of dogs who are renowned for their speed and competitiveness. A lucky musher with a sled-dog who loves to run like Balto might find him or herself riding "the magic carpet ride", a phrase that reminded our kids of a basketball player talking about being "in the zone".

Film Title: Balto
Directed By: Simon Wells
1995, Rated G, 74 minutes

Our Buttery Bit of Wisdom about this film:

  • Why It's Worth It: This film stands the test of time for its sincerity, simplicity and old-fashioned storytelling. Very young viewers may not completely understand the plot but are likely to enjoy the talking goose, the excitement of the race, and the tour of Alaska, including a sighting of the beautiful Northern Lights (which help guide Balto home at the end of his adventure). Good for kids 5 - 10.
  • Red Flags: There are some aggressive encounters between Balto and his arch-enemy, an arrogant sled dog who is determined to steal his spot as "leader of the pack," and to steal the heart of the female dog whom Balto loves. But these conflicts are not prolonged. The good guys and bad guys are clear and there is plenty of comic relief.
  • Voice Casting: The key parts in this film are voiced by Kevin Bacon and Bob Hoskins; other notable names in the cast include Bridget Fonda (Balto's puppy-love, Jenna) and singer-drummer Phil Collins, who provides the voices for a pair of polar bear cubs named Muk and Luk.
  • Further Viewing: Snow Dogs, a perpetual favorite in our homes, is a comedy about sled-dogs in Alaska. Older kids will appreciate the dogs in Eight Below, a thrilling tale about sled dogs who get left behind in Antarctica. And, our favorite is Never Cry Wolf - a must-see for kids over nine. Much is told without dialogue so it helps to watch with the kids and provide some explanation.

Our tips for talking with your kids about this film:

  • Literary Savvy: Balto is what is often called a picaresque adventure: the story of a person (or, in this case, a dog) who starts a journey and is unsure of who he is. He is tested along the way - and, by the end of the journey - learns what his place is in the world. Another example: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
  • History Savvy:  Basing a sporting event on a historical event is colorful and unusual, offering families a chance to discuss the ways in which Alaska differs from the lower 48. After exploring the Iditarod websites, ask the kids who grew up in 'the lower 48' about their impressions of Alaska.


Tracking the Iditarod on the Internet

Time Allotment: one hour
Age Recommendation: all ages

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom for this adventure:

  • What Worked for Us: In fifth grade, one of our sons tracked a dog team as part of his curriculuum, and he had such a good time that we decided to do it again as a family this year. After researching the teams online, each of us has choosen a few teams to follow (sometimes, a team "scratches," so we advise following more than one team to avoid disappointment). We checked in a few times a day to see how our mushers (and dogs) were doing. An interesting benefit is that keeping progress of the race on line helps kids learn how to conduct computer research. Click here for fabulous teacher (and parent) resources.
  • Choose a Musher to Follow: Click here to find profiles of all the mushers racing this year. And here, from a KOTC subscriber who lives in Anchorage, some racers to watch: Lance Mackey is a long time musher, who won the Yukon Quest race and should place very high. Martin Buser is a clean cut, Scandinavian who is a multiple winner. John Baker is one of the few Alaska Native mushers who is a consistent top ten finisher. Rachel Scadoris is a legally blind musher from Oregon whose entry a couple of years ago stirred the question about what assistance it is appropriate to offer a musher; she has since proven to be a good competitor. Dee Dee Jonrowe is a well-loved local favorite, a breast cancer survivor who has never won but usually finishes strong. Zack Steer is a young up-and-coming musher who made headlines by proposing to his now wife at the finish line a few years ago; his sister is an Olympic biathelete.
  • Click here to follow standings: The race standings will be posted on this page, but click on the map for "interactive standings".
  • The Anchorage Daily News: Click here for the paper's detailed Itidarod section, and daily coverage.
  • Zuma, the Official Canine Reporter: Click here to read Zuma's blog posts.
  • Behind the Scene Videoclips: Click here to view brief postings by reporters that help kids feel they are on site -- most of the postings require a $20 access fee, but they can see an 18 minute summary of what is anticipated this year by watching "The 2008 Itidarod Insider".
  • Iditarod Blog: Click here to visit a blog about the race that is sponsored by clothing manufacturer Cabelas.
  • COOL FACTS: The first official Iditarod was run in 1973. The current record for the fastest time is 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds (Martin Buser, 2002). The closest finish was a one second win (1978), when the winner was decided by the first lead dog's nose to cross the finish line. The Red Lantern Award goes to the slowest musher of the year. The youngest musher to compete was Ellie Claus at 18 years old and the oldest was Col. Norman Vaughan at 88 (he passed away in 2005 at 100 years old).

Our tips for Extending this Adventure:

  • History of the Iditarod: The journey of Balto and his team is reenacted every year in an event called the Iditarod. The race covers 1,150 miles of wilderness terrain. The National Historic Trail was a mail-and-supply run that linked coastal towns to interior mining camps throughout Alaska -- mail went in, and gold came out!  One of the most famous uses of the trail took place in 1925, when kids living in Nome, Alaska came down with diptheria, and the only available serum to treat the kids was heroically delivered by dog sled from Anchorage -- Balto's tale! 
  • The Junior Iditarod: A one-day version of the race was run this past weekend and the winner nosed out the competition by two seconds. Click here for more detail.
  • Huskies: It takes between twelve and sixteen dogs to pull a sled.  Sled dogs are not a "pure" breed.  They're usually huskies, but unlike dogs you might see at the Westminister Kennel competition, these dogs are mixes of different breeds. To learn more about huskies and sled dogs visit PBS online and search for the nature program, Sled Dogs:  An Alaskan Epic which includes a story called The Making of a Sled Dog.  This site also has information on Balto (including a picture of the real-life hero dog!).
  • You Go, Girl:   Women have made their mark in the mush world.  Six women have finished in the top ten, including Susan Butcher (won 4 times) and Libby Riddles (first woman to win in 1985).
  • COOL FACT: Huskies have a special diet that sustains them during their long treks across the Alaskan terrain.  In winter, when they are working, they burn 10,000 calories a day, in summer it is closer to 800; humans eat about 1,000-2,000 calories a day!

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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