Making Connections in Nature – Bats, Moose, and Prickly Pear…Oh My!

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs

How could one teacher be so lucky?  This summer I was fortunate enough to come face to face with two special animals in the wild that have been on my “bucket list” of nature connections for, really, most of my life.

It was well past midnight as we drove through the Palmer Hay Flats in Alaska in late June, and with summer solstice in full swing, my eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the changes in light.  I was very sleepy as my friend, Sara Lamont, longtime Iditarod coordinator, drove me into the backwoods she knows so well.  We were on the hunt to spot moose in the wild, a lifelong dream.  I remember the feeling of elation when we spotted our first mother and calf.  I felt adrenaline all over my body as we pulled up slowly to see them grazing.  The mother was protective right away and turned and glided through the tall grass with her calf beside her and disappeared into the woods almost without a sound.  It was the most remarkable moment.  There is nothing like witnessing an animal in its own natural world.  As a human being, you feel oddly out of place in those moments, and as John Burroughs once said, I had “my senses put in order.”  It was all the more magical because of the falling darkness that felt like a strange, eerie twilight.

Coming home to Texas, I had my second animal encounter with a visit to Bracken Cave, outside of Austin.  “Keep Austin Weird” is the theme for our city, and with no wonder!  We love our Mexican-free Tailed Bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge during the warm months of the year.  Each summer night, over a million bats emerge from their safe, cozy roosts and fill up our city sky.  Each bat can eat 100 insects a night, so they are a welcomed site for “Austinites”.  Bat Conservation International was founded here in Austin, and on this special night in July, I was fortunate to be given permission as a BCI member to see one of the greatest bat emergences on Earth.

It was well over 100 degrees in the Texas heat as we walked past prickly pear cactus to the entrance of Bracken Cave. I gasped as I first noticed the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pups flying wildly outside the cave entrance, while their mothers had patience until sundown to join them, roosting on the cave walls.  They flew with wild abandon, like impatient children, but as the mother bats  joined them, the most remarkable change happened.  The wild, chaotic flying started to form a giant mass of one counter-clockwise formation, getting bigger and faster as night fell.  The mass of 20 million bats began to pull away from the circle and spiral into formations in the sky.  Joining the bats were their predators.  Hawks flew in and out of the spiraling mass, clutching bats with their sharp talons, a snake slithered along the cave ridge, hoping for an easy meal, and a mother skunk brought her babies to the cave floor, searching for unfortunate pups who had fallen to the ground.  This was strangely not a disturbing sight; it was the cycle of nature right before our eyes, and all seemed right.

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The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ in a bat selfie!

“Cup your hands to your ears!” my sister nudged me.  I noticed others doing the same, and even though I felt a little silly, I went along.   When I put my hands to my ears they turned into a natural headphone.  I squealed with delight.  The gentle, beautiful sound of 40 million fluttering bat wings was like nothing I had ever heard before.  There are no words to describe it.  It affected my soul, and I know we all felt connected to these animals in a special way.

This special gathering at Bracken Cave is the largest concentration of mammals on Earth.  Think about that!  I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I wish to return each summer to experience it with my family and friends.

Did you know?  There are bats in Alaska!  The Little Brown Bat, the Long-legged Myotis, the California Myotis, the Silver-haired Bat, and the Keen’s Myotis all make their elusive way into the southern parts of Alaska, and they are all important, as insect eaters, to the ecosystem there.

As a teacher I am always looking for ways to make connections with my students and the world.  Returning from my moose and bat encounters, I wondered if there was a way to do that.  It turns out, there is!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.18.28 PMiNaturalist is an incredible web-based site and app that allows anyone, child, adult, serious scientist or teacher, to make connections with the flora and fauna of their local habitat, then share them with the world.

The iNaturalist site describes its objective like this:

“From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists, and many of us record what we find. What if all those observations could be shared online? You might discover someone who finds beautiful wildflowers at your favorite birding spot, or learn about the birds you see on the way to work. If enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature.”

I set up my free account, recorded my photos of the moose in Alaska and the Mexican-free Tailed pup in Texas, and the site added the google map and scientific information for me!  Now my observations are there for anyone in the world to see.  There is also a space to journal about your experiences, much like an old-fashioned science paper notebook.  This digital application has remarkable opportunities for the classroom.  My class will be comparing and contrasting the animals and plants of Alaska and Texas, and since my students are under 13 years of age, I will set up a teacher account.   We can then use our class account to begin documenting our local wildlife.  Perhaps we can connect with a school in Alaska and share observations?  The opportunities are endless.

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Now, these rare and special moments with nature can be shared with others, bringing us all closer, and inspire others to care about the world a little more.

Reflections of Talkeetna: Moose on the Loose, the “Wildman,” and Mayor Stubbs

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Laura Wright, 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, and Stacey Cardy, Iditarod Communications Volunteer, take in the sights of Talkeetna.

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The Wildflower Cafe – downtown Talkeetna, Alaska

“Funky, fun, and friendly,” are words often found in guidebooks to describe the quaint, tiny town of Talkeetna, Alaska.  For me, Talkeetna felt a little like being back home in Austin.  It has a wonderful, quirky, appealing charm, and the teachers from the Iditarod Summer Camp were anxious to wander the main thoroughfare and take in the sights and sounds.  We had heard the rumors in our caravan on our way north from Anchorage; a cat for mayor, annual moose drops on July 4th and the famous Talkeetna Bachelor Auction. Could it all be true? Happily, Talkeetna lived up to its expectations for all of us.

We arrived and made our way to the lovely Wildflower Cafe for the annual Teacher Summer Camp luncheon created and prepared by “Wildman” Chef Jerome Longo.  Chef Longo is the real deal.  His passion for cooking and care in the kitchen led him to serve President Bush Sr. in the White House early in his career, an impressive pedigree.  Later, with a strong case of wanderlust and desire to climb Denali, he made his way to Alaska to pursue his dreams.  Chef Longo was a rookie Iditarod musher in 1997 and ran the last great race a total of 5 times, finishing an impressive 27th ranking in 1999.

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Two teacher campers wait for our seating at the Wildflower Cafe

The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman interviewed Chef Longo last year, and I loved his cooking sense and his values in the kitchen; sustainable, farm raised and local.  He shared with us his famous carrot cake, a staple in his sled in his old Iditarod days.  He granted us a little of his time from the busy kitchen, and was gracious enough to congratulate me and wish me safe travels on the trail in March.

Wildman Chef Longo Frontiersman article – (You are leaving a secure site)

Our group wandered onto the main street of Talkeetna, and separated to walk and shop the many attractions for visitors and locals alike.  Not only is Talkeetna the starting point for top climbers heading up to Denali, it is also known for its camping, hiking, and fishing.

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As we meandered down Talkeetna’s main avenue, I began to notice free-standing decorated and hand-painted moose statues.  Now this reminded me of home!  In 2011, Austin was honored with hosting the international charity, “Cow Parade” and I still remember fondly the decorated bovine statues all over our fair city.  The statues are auctioned off at the end of the host city’s year, and over $30 million has been raised world-wide from these events.  I love that Talkeetna has its own quirky version of the cows on parade, with moose of course!

Cow Parade Charity Site – ( You are leaving a secure site)

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A moose on the loose stops for a selfie with Laura Wright and Stacey Cardy!

According to the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce, the Denali Arts Council and the Talkeetna Historical Society work together with local artists to decorate the “moose on the loose” for display throughout downtown.  Inspired by the “Cows on Parade” the moose were auctioned off this past 4th of July with proceeds supporting local projects.  Following the auction, Talkeetna residents and visitors enjoyed a cardboard boat regatta, dunking booth, and finally the annual “moose poop drop” in the VFW parking lot.  Talkeetna is my kind of town.

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I felt inspired myself with the moose statues and the quirky, fun, charitable spirit of the town, and my teacher wheels were spinning.  How could I incorporate this project into my classroom, or even school-wide at my school?  I stumbled into a gift shop and found the Talkeetna moose pattern to share.  Whitfield’s is a wood pattern company offering not only moose patterns, but bear, eagles, bison, and many others; some are free-standing and others are flat.  What a great fundraiser for a school, and a fun way to bring an Alaskan theme to your campus.  Wood can be donated, and art teachers can work with classes to make them unique and later auction them off as part of a school-wide fundraiser.  Expect to see more about my “moose on the loose” project as we study this critter as a part of our Alaskan nature study!

The Whitfield Moose Wood Pattern (You are leaving a secure site)

Our group continued our tour, snapping fun photos, shopping at the gift shops, and some of us even sampled the local rhubarb crisp, in season, and a great Alaskan treat!  There was one special stop we had to make next; Nagley’s General Store.

Nagley’s is everything I thought it would be.  Founded in 1921, according to the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce, it is the “longest continually operated general store in the Northern Susitna Valley.”  This is a must stop for any visitor to the town, and locals welcome you warmly.  The history is thick in this place; it fills the air.  Every space is filled with a combination of grocery store, bar, ice cream shop, and Talkeetna museum.

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Mayor Stubbs of Talkeetna and Stacey Cardy share a moment by the ice cream freezer

Eureka! As we made our way around, quietly nestled in his sleeping nook on the floor, between the ice cream coolers, was none other than Stubbs, the honorary mayor of Talkeetna!  Moments like this do not come along everyday, and our teacher group was honored to spend a few moments with Talkeetna’s local celebrity and hero, having survived and bounced back from an injury last year.  As word spread of his injuries, donations and warm wishes flooded Nagley’s from around the world, and now Stubbs has his own mailbox on the floor.

Sometimes called “Alaska’s most famous feline”, Mayor Stubbs, now 17, lives a humble life at Nagley’s, and can often be found curled up in his kitty basket on top of the freezer.  His fame is well known by travelers who come to the store in the hopes of seeing him or taking a selfie.  Mayor Stubbs has his own Facebook page where folks from all over can keep up with local happenings in Talkeetna.

Mayor Stubbs on Facebook – (You are leaving a secure site)

Stacey Cardy, long-time Iditarod communications volunteer, requested an interview with Mayor Stubbs, and in between cat naps, he agreed to give us a few moments of his time.

Q: “Mayor Stubbs, thank you so much allowing us to speak to you!  We understand it is a busy time of year for dignitaries such as yourself.”

A: “Meow”

Q: “Mayor Stubbs, we are so happy that you have had such a wonderful recovery from you injuries last year.  How are you feeling?”

A: “Meow”

Q: ” At this point, can you tell us how you feel in general about dogs?”

A: “Hiiiisssss”

Q: “That is understandable, Mayor.  There is some talk that perhaps you may retire from your honorary position as Mayor of Talkeetna.  Can you give us an update?”

A: “Meow”

Q: “Thank you so much, Mayor Stubbs.  We love you, and we wish you well!”

A: “Puuuuuurrrrrrrrrr”

Photo of the Day – Tales From the IAF

Veteran IAF pilot Joe Pendergrass holds a cap with the official IAF logo he designed

The Iditarod race has many great stories to tell by the many men and women who help plan it, and travel the trail to help make it successful.  Joe Pendergrass is one of the many people who make The Last Great Race on Earth® what it is.  Joe is a member of a very special family; he is a veteran pilot volunteer for the Iditarod Air Force (IAF).  Within the inner workings of the race are the 28-30 volunteer pilots that are essential to its success.

Joe and a volunteer at Finger Lake 2007

They are a quiet group of folks who prefer to work inconspicuously in the background delivering the food bags in pre-race set, flying dogs safely back to Anchorage during the race and delivering veterinarians and essential volunteers to the different checkpoints along with anything else that can fit into their 4-seater airplanes with specially adapted skis.

Joe is a reserved, quiet man, unassuming and remarkable.  He talked to me a little about how it always amazes him that stranger will sit in his airplane with complete trust in him.  He felt that was a huge responsibility.  He wears his IAF cap with a lot of pride, and I asked him about the husky logo.  To my surprise he told me that he had designed it himself!  I asked him if the logo was available on other memorabilia.  He told me the fascinating story behind the patch and why it’s reserved just for the family of pilots who risk a lot and give up a lot to support the Iditarod behind the scenes.  Each IAF volunteer pilot is given the logo to use and a decal for the plane and even a special commemorative pilot handbook with a picture of their personal airplane on the cover.  It’s a special tradition.

IAF Logo – husky by Jon VanZyle photo from Iditarod .com

Here’s Joe’s accounting of the history of the design of the patch for the IAF.  “The patch, which is now the official logo for the Iditarod Air Force was originally the brain child of IAF pilot John Norris  It began as a design for a lapel pin in 2001.  John and I were co-Chief Pilots at the time for the IAF.  He explained to me what he had in mind and I designed the first draft, with the circle along with the words inscribed around it and the wings protruding from each side, it was obvious that I needed help in drawing the husky.  I took it to artist, John Van Zyle, who agreed to draw what we wanted on the condition that it would be four our own use and that we didn’t “sell” any of the pins.  He drew the husky with the goggle and scarf which were common for pilots to wear in the early days of flying in an open cockpit airplane.  I then gave it to my nine your old grand daughter, Jessica Parker, who filled in the appropriate colors.  We then sent it to a pin make and New York.  After a couple of proofs were sent back and forth, we got our pins and gave on to each pilot.  They were an instant hit.  A former IAF pilot, the late Bert Novak, took the design to a sign shop and had some “peel and stick” decals made.  They were also an immediate hit and they too were distributed to each of the pilots for identifying the planes that are part of the Iditarod Air Force.  At some point later, chief Pilot Bert Hanson had the design transferred to a cloth patch to be place on the hats and jackets of the members of the IAF.  It was at that time it became the new official logo for the Iditarod Air Force.” 

51DWHsqdvEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Want to know more?  Check out the wonderful book, Adventures of the Iditarod Air Force; True Stories about the Pilots Who Fly the Alaska’s Famous Sled Dog Race by Ted Mattson.  Its 29 chapters are full of the sometimes famously funny and sometimes daring acts of courage by the IAF pilots from its first year to the early 1990s.

I asked Joe about giving the Iditarod Air Force more attention for all the hard work they put into The Last Great Race® to recognize their dedication.  He simply shrugged it off saying, “Nope it’s about the mushers and the dogs.”  The Iditarod Air Force is a close-knit family that prefers to work behind-the-scenes and they like it that way.

Photo of the Day – The Sisterhood and the Brotherhood of the Traveling Sleeping Bag

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The Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ sleeping bag was handed over to me in a public ceremony at Iditarod headquarters Saturday.  It is a special and longstanding tradition, with 17 men and women before me using it on the trail all the way to Nome.  Erin Montgomery, the 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, left for home this morning, but she took a moment to connect with me and share some stories with me.  Erin has great integrity and has done a remarkable job this year sharing her lessons and passion for the race with teachers around the world.  I took some time to look at the patches on the sleeping bag that had been lovingly created by all the past teachers.  It made me reflect upon my year and my expectations for myself as the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™.  I have big shoes to fill, and I look forward to this amazing challenge!

Are you interested in taking on the challenge of being the Iditarod Teacher on the Trailˇ?  Check out the application process:

Application

Photo of the Day – Peg Stout

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Peg Stout and Laura Wright, the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, meet at the musher sign-up picnic

Taking charge of the legacy of the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ has given me the opportunity to meet some of the most remarkable people.  I have seen Peg Stout several times in the last few years, close by her daughter’s side, the legendary musher DeeDee Jonrowe, as I waited for an autograph or photo at the Musher Drawing Banquet.  Their love and connection with one another is obvious to all.  I was honored to finally sit down with Peg at the Iditarod Volunteer Picnic during the summer camp for teachers.  Peg had a vision early in her career for using the Iditarod as a tool to enrich children’s literacy in the public schools of Alaska.  Here we are, today, with 18 years of the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ program, reaching teachers and students all over the world, sharing Iditarod themed lessons that inspire children across curriculum and in all grade levels.   As I move forward this year, I am mindful of her early perseverance and dedication that has contributed so much to the history of the Iditarod and its outreach that has benefited so many children.  Thank you Peg!

Photo of the Day – The Rookie and the Veteran

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Dr. Larry Daugherty, rookie musher, and Mitch Seavey, veteran and champion musher, sat down for a visit during the Iditarod Volunteer Picnic today at headquarters.  One can only imagine the conversation.  There is something genuine and giving about the mushing community. The passing on of history and knowledge is a gift that veterans and mentors like Mitch embrace, which will ultimately help the Iditarod continue to be The Last Great Race on Earth® for generations to come.