As I’ve mentioned in this column before, one of my all-time favorite movies is “Balto.” And when I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have a dog who loved winter.

Jake was a Newfoundland mix — big, fluffy and dumb as a bag of hammers. Truly a dog for whom the phrase “bless his heart” was invented. He didn’t have two brain cells to rub together, but he was a sweet boy and very patient when 7-year-old Victoria would tie a sled to his collar and pretend to mush him around the backyard.

Of course, lots of little girls dream of being mushers. Most of them, like me, grow up to be fairly boring, 9-to-5-job-having, indoors-oriented people. But one girl didn’t.

The Yukon River to Kaltag, Alaska, in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Saturday, March 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Loren Holmes) AP

Cute dogs, gorgeous landscapes and poignant prose are Twitter gold for Blair Braverman, Colby College class of 2011. As a professional dogsledder and writer — imagine a female, cheerful Jack London — she has amassed thousands of followers, who became fans, who became a family. And out of one grumpy tweet thrown at her — someone said, “Go back to your ugly dogs, Karen” – something rare and wonderful happened. A positive internet community was born.

They (OK, OK — we) call themselves the #UglyDogs, as a mark of pride and proof that they have a sense of humor. (I suspect we can all agree that no dog is actually, truly ugly. Because I’ve certainly never seen one.) They use that hashtag to tweet news at each other, bits of their lives that have nothing to do with sled dogs — a baby taking her first steps, a new puppy learning a trick, a child getting into college.

This year, Blair Braverman set a big goal for herself and her team. They were going to run the 2019 Iditarod — one thousand miles across Alaska. And she did it, in 13 days, 19 hours, and 17 minutes.

The Ugly Dogs tracked her every move, coordinating with race volunteers on the ground in Alaska, cheering when she passed through every checkpoint, theorizing about her race strategy. (How will she pace herself? When will she take her mandatory breaks?) The fans fretted when one dog had to be dropped mid-race — withdrawn and left with volunteers to be cared for until Blair could pick him up after the race. (The dog is fine. He got into the supply bag and ate 15 pounds of chicken skins. Truly a pup after Jake’s own heart.) And we all panicked when Blair’s GPS tracker malfunctioned, leaving us in the dark about her whereabouts. Was she safe? Lost? Eaten by a moose?

You know when you leave a dog alone for too long, and they freak out and think you are never coming back ever again, and so they react by chewing up the couch? Well, the Ugly Dogs on the internet did the same thing while Braverman was offline and on the trail. Except they didn’t chew up a couch. They raised over $100,000 for rural Alaskan schools.

It happened organically, randomly, starting when someone checked DonorsChoose.org, a website that raises money for public school teachers for specialized projects or materials – things like field trips, musical instruments and science kits that there is no room in the school budget for, but that students need to enhance their education. (All projects are vetted and, when funded, the supplies are purchased by DonorsChoose.org directly and given to the classrooms, so there is no possible misuse of funds.)

There were rural Alaskan schools seeking extra funds all along the Iditarod trail, and some Ugly Dogs started posting projects on Twitter. They got retweeted. Five dollars here, 20 dollars there, spread across a thousand miles and thousands of people on the internet — and, well, as Braverman tweeted, “A few hundred miles into the race, teachers started hugging me in villages. ‘We haven’t been able to buy new glue sticks in six months, but now my classroom will have a garden and a project to get girls into engineering!’ one woman told me. I happy cried all the way up the Yukon.”

The Iditarod trail follows the path that a relay team of mushers raced in the winter of 1925, ferrying diphtheria antitoxin medication across Alaska to Nome, where an epidemic was nascent and the small town’s children were all in mortal danger. It seems appropriate that this Iditarod inspired armchair mushers all across the world to come together and give children chances, opportunities and experiences that they may not have had before.

The internet can be a dark and scary place full of horrible things. Online communities can radicalize individuals into killers, as we saw with the New Zealand massacre. But sometimes? Sometimes, it can be a conduit for people to come together, do some good and give us jaded commentators a reason to not write off humanity completely.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]


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