Teaching Leadership and Team Building though Dog Mushing at UAA

One of our key missions with our sled dog team, Team Ineka, is to share our passion and our lifestyle with the community. 

Our own, Robert Forto and his wife and daughter, Michele and Nicole have taught dog mushing to the two local universities in Alaska for the last few years. 

“It is an opportunity that we are honored to have. I believe we may be  the only colleges in the country that is offering an immersive dog mushing course,” says Robert. 

This past weekend eight students from the University of Alaska took the course. 

The class started on Thursday night for a three-hour hands-on session to learn all about the gear, the dogs, history, and more. 

Saturday the students took a bus to Willow, about an hour and a half from Anchorage. It was minus 27 degrees. 

“This is the coldest that we have ever done this course. It is my job to keep them warm. I always have soup and snacks up at the house and the fire going,” Michele Forto exclaimed. 

First, teams have to be established. Robert uses poker chips in a hat and the teams are chosen that way. “I do this for a reason. Most of these students do not know each other and there is a big outdoor leadership and team building component in this course,” says, Robert.

Teams of three are set–a musher, a “pit chief’ and a ‘pit crew’. These teams will work together the whole class and switch roles. 

The morning was spent getting their “snow legs” and then the fun began. 

Two mushers went out at a time  with their team of five dogs. It was very cold and it took a bit for everyone to dial in their gear. 

The first four runs went off without a hitch. Very few crashes and a lot of smiles. 

Lunch is served up in what is aptly known as Forto’s Fort and the crew warmed up over warm soup and good conversation. 

The afternoon runs were supposed to be much the same but these frigid temperatures cause just about everything to stop working right. 

About halfway through the second runs the lead snow machine, a 2022 Skidoo Expedition 900 SE stopped dead in its tracks in the middle of the trail. 

It took some creative mushing to get the two teams and everybody back to the kennel. 

Remember this is the first time these students have been on a dog sled! 

Robert had to head back out with his old 2006 Skidoo Summit and tow the big machine in with Nicole. 

The day ended with the last team having a successful run and the students headed back to Anchorage  as it was getting dark.

Sunday was still cold but not nearly as chilly as the day before. 

After a morning of searching for a solution to fix the Expedition machine with no luck they had to change things up a bit for the second day of runs with the dogs. 

Typically Robert will lead out the first team with the ‘pit boss’ on the back of the snow machine to be his “eyes’, then the second team will hook up and follow Nicole who is on the second machine. “We do this so if someone crashes we are right there to help. It works really well,” Nicole said.

Since the Expedition was out Robert and Nicole would be manning the machine and two teams would be right behind them. “This required a little more driving and self reliance,” Nicole said.

The day went off without a hitch and everyone had a great time. It warmed up and even started snowing for the last set of teams.

The two days in the field ended with a game called Body Part Debrief where the group chooses little, rubber body parts like an eye, heart, hand, and foot and they talk about something they saw, what made their heart feel good, where someone gave them a hand, etc.

They also share stories about their favorite dog and they talk about how a dog team can provide leadership and team building lessons in ‘real life’.

The course ends with a two hour classroom session on Monday back in Anchorage. “That will prove ineresting,” Michele said, “we got at least a foot of snow over night.”

It will be just two weeks before the next college course starts, with a group of students from Alaska Pacific University who is out at the kennel for a month of Saturdays.

“I hope we can get the machine fixed! It only has 450 miles on it. I hate snow machines, I will take a dog team over one any day,” exclaimed Robert.

Life is always an adventure with a team of sled dogs and we are so glad we can share this with people who would never get a chance.

As one student said in her debrief: “I cannot believe that I was able to do this. What an amazing experience!” 

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