Spring break on ice

Unique college course sends students mushing and biking the backcountry

Miranda Sheely, one of this year’s instructors, participated in the Winter Multi-Sport Expedition last year (Photo by J. Besl / University of Alaska Anchorage).
Miranda Sheely, one of this year’s instructors, participated in the Winter Multi-Sport Expedition last year (Photo by J. Besl / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Feeding sled dogs under a starlit sky. Biking 40 miles to a backcountry lodge. Piloting a snowmachine along the Iditarod Trail.

These are not typical spring break experiences. Nor is this a typical college course.

The Winter Multi-Sport Expedition, offered by University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), is probably one of the most memorable two-credit courses available anywhere in higher education.

For the second year in a row, UAA physical education major Robert Forto will lead a weeklong winter expedition for his classmates, serving as adjunct professor. Enrolled students will travel between lodges along the frozen banks of the Yentna and Skwentna rivers by snowmachine, fat bike and dog sled.

“It’s just sharing what I do everyday,” said Forto, who has mushed dogs since 1994.

Along with his wife Michele, Forto runs a mushing kennel while training “bill-paying dogs” for service and obedience. From their living room, Forto and Michele host Dog Works Radio, a mushing show available online and on-air in Willow.

Forto obviously loves mushing. He just didn’t think he could study it in college.

When his youngest daughter enrolled at UAA, Forto decided to earn a second degree. “I didn’t want to buy a Corvette so I went back to school. It’s the same amount,” he joked. He eventually convinced Michele to enroll, too, and the couple now drives 80 miles from Willow twice a week for class.

Forto originally planned to study biology, but switched after discovering the physical education degree, where students style their studies around their career interests. Graduates go on to health-focused careers in physical training, fitness leadership, sport nutrition and outdoor recreation, among others.

“At the time, I didn’t realize I could tailor just about every project I did to mushing,” he said of the program. “Almost every paper I’ve written, almost every project I’ve done, I have somehow worked in mushing.”

That includes his degree-required internship, too, which resulted in the Winter Multi-Sport Expedition course last spring.

“The internship is designed for that first step into whatever career you want to go into,” he explained. While other students interned with physical therapy groups or cardiac rehabilitation units, Forto forged his own course. To his knowledge, he’s the only student to design an internship from the ground up.

“Who’s going to hire an intern at 45? I didn’t even search,” he laughed.

Forto debuted his course in 2017 after nearly a year working with his advisor, T.J. Miller, director of UAA’s Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. They built a six-day trip where students travel between remote lodges by bike, dog and diesel. Forto wrote a syllabus, scheduled assignments, reserved lodges, coordinated food, and developed contingency plans. What if it didn’t snow? What if someone quit? How would they communicate when participants were stretched out along 15 miles of frozen riverbank?

The course starts weeks before break, with a classroom component to introduce gear and safety. Students next travel to the Fortos kennel in Willow for a boot camp training weekend. Here, they test equipment, study the itinerary and learn how to handle the coordinated chaos of a wailing dog sled team. Students run a 23-mile loop in Willow’s Haessler-Norris Trail System, outside the Fortos back door, and return to banana bread in the oven, coffee in the pot, and ample floor space to roll out sleeping bags before the wood stove.

A UAA student harnesses a dog before the 2017 Winter Multi-Sport Expedition (Photo by J. Besl / University of Alaska Anchorage).

By spring break, students are ready for the woods. The course covers a 160-mile route, and students rotate transportation and chores daily. Some rise at 6 a.m. to prep the sleds under a blanket of frost; others stay out late feeding and bedding the dogs.

While the class is open to any student, the expedition is undeniably a challenge. The days are long, and the dogs and weather are unpredictable. To minimize risk, this year’s class is capped at six participants. Fellow physical education major Miranda Sheely, who took the course last year, will join Forto as an assistant instructor.

Both Forto and Sheely graduate this spring, but they plan to continue the course and expand enrollment in the future.

It’s an unmatchable academic experience for students, one that’s rarely possible outside Alaska. But it’s also an incredible academic outlet for the instructors, who serve as an adjunct professor while still a student.

“I’m grateful,” Forto said. “All the stuff I’m learning about logistics and trip planning, I’m able to use in a class like this.”