K.I. SAWYER - Excitement filled the gym at Sawyer Elementary School Tuesday afternoon as students welcomed some special visitors to the school: Banshee and Seamus, the mascots for the U.P. 200 Sled Dog race.
Brought to the school by their "daddy," Todd Hennigan of Skandia, the dogs were greeted with squeals of delight during two assemblies, the first for kindergarten through second grade and the second for the students in third grade through fifth grade.
"Banshee and Seamus don't race," Hennigan explained. "But they do (public relations) for the race. Last year, they met over 1,800 students in school visits."
Second-grader Julie Johnson pats Banshee, while her classmate Nora Jarrell waits her turn. Banshee’s brother Seamus and Todd Hennigan of Skandia, who is handing Julie a souvenir postcard, are also pictured. Banshee is retiring at age 12 after this year’s U.P. 200 Sled Dog Race. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
Hennigan, flanked by the dogs, talks to an assembly of students at the Sawyer Elementary School Tuesday. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
Banshee and Seamus are pictured. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
During an informative lecture, Hennigan showed the children projected images of the various breeds of dog used in the sport, including Alaskan malamute, which is Banshee and Seamus's breed.
"But if you look at them, you'll see they even look different from each other," Hennigan said. "Banshee looks more like a bear and Seamus a wolf."
Banshee, who is 12, is on her farewell tour this winter. She'll retire after this year's U.P. 200 and turn the PR work over to her younger "brother," Seamus, who's just 2.
Seamus, in fact, was anxious to make friends among the assembled children, quietly getting up at times during the lecture to wander over to the throng for a pat or two.
Hennigan explained the various races that are part of U.P. 200 weekend, then asked for a show of hands from those who had attended a sled dog race. About a third of the students and teachers raised their hands.
"I hope you all get a chance to see a race," Hennigan said. "The Jack Pine 30 starts out here in Gwinn. I think you'd enjoy it."
The Jack Pine 30, one of the three U.P 200 races, starts and finishes in the Gwinn area on Saturday, Feb. 16.
Hennigan explained to the students that volunteers - including him - are a big part of making the race possible.
"We have volunteers from this area, but we also have people who come from Alaska, Canada, Maine and Missouri who are part of the U.P. 200," he said.
Hennigan also explained to the children about how veterinarians check the dogs before the race; how the mushers communicate with their teams; and how the sled dogs have some special gear they wear during the race.
"Do you know what these are?" Hennigan asked as he held up some colorful knit apparel.
"Mittens," several children shouted in unison.
"Well, actually they're called booties," Hennigan said with a grin. "Dogs have to wear them sometimes to protect their paws while they're racing."
He also touched on the bond between mushers and their teams.
"Some mushers sing to their dogs," he said. "And some read to them. The mushers love their dogs very much."
At the end of the presentation, as the children filed out they each received a souvenir postcard featuring Banshee and Seamus along with the chance to pat the dogs.
Banshee was vocal during the farewell, yipping now and again as they youngsters walked by.
"She's saying goodbye," Hennigan said, gently stroking the dog's head. "She's going to miss seeing you kids."
At the conclusion of Banshee's farewell appearances, Seamus will serve as the lone official U.P. 200 mascot in the future.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.