Brambley Completes Iditarod Trail Teacher Program
Herb Brambley’s background boasts a life of adventure. He’s been employed in a variety of avenues ranging from a tool and die maker to farrier and blacksmith. It is his current occupation as technology and environmental education teacher at Southern Fulton Elementary, however, that has brought him the biggest and most memorable adventure of his life in serving as the Target 2010 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.
Having recently returned to the classroom following a monthlong stay in Alaska, Brambley shared with the “News” the difficulty he encounters in putting the trip and all that he saw into proper perspective.
“Nobody could have described to me what I was about to actually see and experience, said Brambley, 53. “I can’t compare it to anything I’ve done, even though I think I’ve done a lot in my lifetime ... .”
Brambley stated prior to the actual ceremonial start of the 2010 Iditarod on March 6, he took time to visit with various elementary and middle schools in the larger cities such as Wasilla and Anchorage to share his message with students. Brambley relied on music, one of his true passions, to help deliver his message. Armed with a guitar and a variety of toe-tapping tunes personally penned about the Iditarod and sled dog racing, Brambley’s songs included “Musher Blues,” “150 Huskies,” “God Must Be a Musher,” “Nine Days on the Trail” and “One Chance.”
Brambley, a resident of the Breezewood area, noted that in many ways the schools in Alaska are comparable to those back in Fulton County. The student populations were similar to Southern Fulton in the larger cities, but in venturing out onto the trail the student numbers dropped anywhere from a total of 15 to 40 kids for an entire school district. Available technology and facilities were also comparable even though the “teaching situation is totally different,” with many teachers overseeing several grade levels out of one room.
Using some of the available technology, Brambley used a program known as “Skype” to converse with every grade level at Southern Fulton as well as his daughter-in-law’s middle school students at Chestnut Ridge. During his discussions, Brambley stated he fielded a variety of questions regarding sled dogs, the people and the weather conditions in Alaska, where temperatures ranged from 38 degrees to minus 45 degrees.
Furthermore, unlike local students who board a van or school bus to attend school, Native Alaskan children often rely on a much different means of transportation to get them to their final destination. As villages aren’t accessible by roads, students utilize skis, snow machines, all-terrain vehicles and the occasional dog sled to get them to and from school, said Brambley.
Meanwhile, Brambley relied on bush plane to get him from check station to check station. “I wasn’t scared at all,” Brambley said of travelling over remote parts of Alaska by bush plane. “I loved it. You could see a great distance, and it allowed you to take great photos. The pilots were very accommodating, professional and skilled at what they do.”
According to Brambley, most schools are on spring break when the Iditarod occurs annually, but he was still greeted by students along the trail – some gathering at their school to receive a much appreciated donation of new reading books. “The people in Alaska are very friendly,” said Brambley. “When one person knows you’ve arrived, the whole village knows.”
Check station visits were as short as two hours or could last up to two days, depending on existing and predicted weather conditions. Regardless of the time frame, Brambley still had plenty of opportunity to meet with village residents, teachers and Iditarod volunteers, mushers and dog handlers.
During the longer stays, he bedded down along side mushers wherever space could be found in schools and other public buildings. Iditarod participants frequently arrive from and return to the trail at all hours of the night and sleep was spotty at times for the local teacher. Fortunate enough on occasion to reside with some of Alaska’s finest teachers on the trail, Brambley stated he was always treated like a member of the family and even allowed to borrow the family snow machine for his journeys through the villages.
“It’s not just about the race and the dogs, said Brambley. “It’s the Native Alaskans. It’s the Iditarod workers – the veterinarians, the dog handlers and the volunteers from all over the world. Meeting all of those people was a huge part of it. Everyone was working together to achieve a common goal.”
Brambley also took notice of the “self-sustaining” lifestyles of the Native Alaskans, who rely heavily on fishing and hunting to put food on their tables instead of the canned goods and items that line the shelves of village stores. “It’s not a constant stream of goods coming into the stores. They’re not making lunchmeat sandwiches like at the Dott Store, and items are most expensive the further out you go on the trail,” Brambley said.
Having learned so much about the lifestyle, culture and people of Alaska, Brambley hopes to integrate more of these issues into his curriculum at Southern Fulton. “They (Native Alaskans) live with so much less than we have, but yet are so outgoing, friendly and willing to share. I think that’s a lesson we could all learn from,” he concluded.
Since returning home to his wife, Jamie, executive director of the Fulton County Library, and their multiple cats, mule and five huskies named Lobo, Dexter, Lilly, Willow and Scout, Brambley has been giving much thought to returning to Alaska someday. Until that day, he has resumed his duties at Southern Fulton, which include gearing up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house for the newly renovated nature trail that includes an amphitheatre and informational kiosk. Through his grantwriting efforts, Southern Fulton has received more than $115,000 in funding for its growing environmental program and the new additions to the trail.
Brambley, a member of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club, has also resumed his sled dog racing activities at home. He reports his dogs are back into the full swing of things in spite of an unfortunate encounter with a porcupine. In addition, as a result of an incident involving the tracking of a lost dog, he is currently considering having one of the huskies trained for use in emergency rescues and tracking efforts.
In the meantime, however, he remains firm in his stance that he will continue looking toward the future where his next big adventure is undoubtedly awaiting.