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Sixty years ago, the desire to serve in the Alaska Territory consumed schoolteacher Anna Bortel ’47. She knew it as the Lord’s call, but the prospect meant driving more than 3,700 miles from her home in Ohio to Valdez, Alaska, where college friends had invited her to assist with planting a church. Her father cautioned against the 2,000-mile drive on the rough Alaska-Canadian Highway.

“I’d rather see you cross the ocean to serve in Africa,” he said.

Her mother warned her to watch out for bears. Even as her unconventional journey challenged expectations for a young single woman in 1954, Anna’s calling bolstered her. She taught a friend to drive, and together the women ventured north, where Anna soon taught students ranging from kindergarten to high school.

“I loved it!” Anna now recalls. “I wanted to do it.”

Later, she felt drawn further north to Tanana, an Athabascan village on the Yukon River. Anna sold her car and shipped her belongings by river barge to Tanana, where her students included Naomi Gaede, the physician’s daughter.

Curious about teaching in a remote Nunamiut village, Anna accompanied Dr. Elmer Gaede’s medical team to Anaktuvuk Pass, well above the Arctic Circle and accessible only by airplane. The village had no school, and the few children who attended boarding school were homesick and unhappy.

Called north again, Anna moved to Anaktuvuk Pass, with its infrequent supply airplanes and 50-below temperatures. She paid $200 for a sod house and held classes in the small Presbyterian log chapel. Though she faced dangerous weather and isolation, she found purpose in her work.

“My days and nights were busy, and I loved it. I knew that I was serving where God wanted me to serve, and with that knowledge, I experienced great joy.”

Anna collaborated with her former student and writer Naomi Gaede-Penner to gather her stories of pioneer teaching into a book, A is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory, which was published in 2011.

In the excerpt that follows, a group of eighth grade boys give Miss Bortel and other teachers, including GC alumna Harriet Amundson ’58, the gift of a dog sled race.

Elias, the school janitor and the eighth grade boys decided that the schoolteachers needed to compete in a dog race. We were skeptical about our ability, but only temporarily resistant to the contest. It was agreed that the teachers would ride down river in the sleds and then exchange places with the experienced driver, the student, on the ride back.

We gathered below the riverbank in front of the hospital, where Doc had kept his airplane tied down.

“Miss Bortel, come, hang onto Blackie,” Tom, one of the eighth-graders instructed me.

Somehow the dogs, which usually howled on top of their doghouses, or curled into tight ear-to-tail balls, had been transformed into powerful, raring beasts. They pulled and yelped as Tom tried to straighten out their harnesses. My heartbeat quickened as I sensed that this wasn’t just a simple joy ride, but more like being tied to a rocket ship. Perhaps I should have stayed home and graded papers.

My instructor’s final words were not reassuring. “No matter what, just hang on tight,” he yelled. He grabbed the sled handle and shouted “Mush” to the dogs. For a moment he ran behind, letting the dogs pick up speed, and then he jumped onto the sled runners behind me.

I was too busy paying attention to my own dilemma to watch Herman or Harriet maneuvering into place. Before I felt prepared for this launch down the Yukon River, the straining dogs pitched forward and we were off. Away we flew. I screamed and hollered. The wind knocked back my parka hood, and a blast of cold air shot down my already tingling back. Tom laughed. I’d imagined a smooth gliding sensation. The river pathway, however, was a rugged trail of ice upheavals and wind-crusted drifts. I hung on. This was nothing like my Sled Dog song, which merrily conveyed a sense of tranquility while enjoying the beauty of nature. I was petrified.

When we got to our turning-around point, Tom and I exchanged positions. Now I was supposed to have learned from and be able to get the team back to the finish line in front of the village.

After only a few minutes, Harriet’s team passed us and our two teams tangled in their harnesses.

“Hold the brake! Hold the brake!” the eighth-graders shouted.

I stepped down as hard as I could while Tom tended the dogs. Then he jumped back into the sled. “Mush, Miss Bortel!”

Forty minutes later, trailing behind Herman and Harriet, Tom and I straggled back to the finish line.

“What took you so long,” joked Herman, the winner. He tossed his head in exaggerated pride.

 “I think you had the advantage when our dogs tangled and you passed,” I teased.

My heart pounded in my ears, but now that I’d arrived safely back at the finish line, I burst out, “I loved every minute of it! Even if I get an F in dog-mushing.” From now on, watching dogsled races would be from a more appreciative perspective.

To thank the eighth grade boys for their wild and unusual graduation gift to us, a few days later, I made cherry pies, and we all sat around with pie and cocoa, reliving our sledding experiences. When we recounted the events, exaggerated twists and turns added to the humor and close-calls were turned into near-death possibilities. Harriet, Herman, and I dramatized our terror. The boys threw themselves back in their chairs and chortled uproariously. Regardless of the outcome, everyone had had an unforgettably good time.


To learn more about Anna’s Alaskan adventure, visit 

Anna Bortel

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of The RECORD.

This story was published on July 09, 2014

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