A First-Grader’s Alaska Story


Alaska is very very cold.

My grandma has ben there lots of times.

There are husky dogs there in Alaska.

You have to race on sleds.

The dogs pul the sleds so you can go.

There are 62 people on the sleds.

There are 992 dogs puling you.

Written by a 1st grader, typed here as written

This first grader took herself to the computer at home and wrote this story. She asked questions about the number of dogs and people and how to spell people. That’s it. I discovered the story in the printer tray. Engaged in the topic of the Iditarod and Alaska, this young writer produced the basis of a seven page picture book.

"You have to race on sleds."

Where could you take this story? Illustrate each sentence, publish the work, and now you have a published author. A thermometer showing cold temperatures on page one, sleds on page 4, and it would be fun to see how young authors illustrate 992 dogs pulling. Hold an authors’ reception complete with ice cream sandwiches, sno-cones, or milkshakes.

What national standards (NCTE) would this meet?

NL-ENG.K-12.4 Communication Skills

Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

NL-ENG.K-12.5 Communication Strategies

Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

NL-ENG.K-12.6 Applying Knowledge

Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Communication–How It Happens on the Trail

Comms volunteer, Nancy, uses a walkie talkie to receive and confirm information from the race checker upon a team's arrival in Eagle Island.

How many forms of communication did you use today? Generate a list. Were all of the forms on your list electronic, or did you include forms like sign language, writing, or speaking? Make a chronological list or timeline of the development of all the forms of communciation you used in one day.

Now, think about how quickly or slowly these forms of communication worked. Did you have to repeat any of them in order for the person receiving them to get the communication?

During the Iditarod, a group of volunteers works a job called Comms, for Communications. Comms volunteers work at every checkpoint and send information such as musher arrival or departure dates and times and the number of dogs they arrive or leave with to the Comms department in Anchorage. This process is how the race standings are updated by the Anchorage Comms volunteers. Comms also communicates messages from people at the checkpoints to others elsewhere.

In Alaska, Comms is challenging. The Iditarod runs through remote Alaska, and after leaving Willow at the start, the race is off the road system, as they say in Alaska. That means there is no road connecting the villages and checkpoints; flying, snowmachine, or dogteam are the only ways to reach them.

The remoteness affects communciations–race checkers and checkpoint Comms volunteers may use walkie talkies to communicate arrival and departure information to each other. Using cell phones to transmit race details to Anchorage Comms is not reliable because there isn’t cell service in all areas; Internet service may be available via ethernet cable connection or wireless, but usually it isn’t wireless.  Sometimes the Internet is only accessible by satellite, and sometimes a sat phone (satellite phone) is all there is to use, like in Iditarod checkpoint. In Eagle Island, information is sent by data sat–that means a satellite phone is attached to the laptop and an antenna outside the Comms tent gets satellite signal to transmit the communication. In a day and age when people are accustomed to almost instantaneous communication, this could seem to be a delayed process.

And, all of us who use email or text messaging have experienced sending a message which disappears into who knows where, and the intended recipient doesn’t receive it.

My phone was off and packed after Skwentna because it didn’t get service; no phone for me for about 3 weeks. I used ethernet cable and wireless at other places, and in a couple of places, there was no Internet for me to use because it was more important for Comms to access it than me. And, I got down to basic communication as well, just asking and talking, instead of calling or emailing.

In the photograph, notice the heater and laptop in the tent. Clothing is hanging in order to dry–wearing sweat-soaked clothes in cold weather chills the body, something to be avoided. Find out why this should be avoided and explain it to someone else.

Back in Anchorage 3.22.11

Last night the last group of volunteers, except those working in the dog lot in Nome where teams rested awaiting their flights home, returned to Anchorage. The group included cooks, dog handlers, vets, trail sweeps (people who follow the end of the race on snowmachines), Iditarod Insider crew, ITC employees, and me.

On Sunday, an enormous number of volunteers set up the Nome Recreation Center for the finishers banquet. Staff from the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage came in to help prepare the Alaskan king crab legs, halibut, beef, vegetables, salads, and strawberries which were arranged in dog sleds on the buffet tables. 800 tickets were available for the event, and I didn’t notice empty seats, or empty stomachs after that meal! Someone from Little Diomede kindly showed me how to crack the crab legs and get that delicious, sweet meat to dip in butter. (Check the map to find out where Little Diomede is and what is on that island now.)

Monday found me at Nome Elementary School and the Head Start program presenting to all the grade levels. The school is a beautiful building and is filled with student projects including hatching salmon and bulletin boards of newspaper clippings about the Iditarod.

Monday was a windy day with snow falling. By recess, though, the snowfall had stopped. Students played outside on the playground equipment and pushed snow around into piles with their hands, as if in a sandbox making sandpiles. Compare and contrast your recess time with the description and photos of the Nome Elementary recess time.

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After being interviewed by a high school student and visiting with a high school English and journalism teacher in Nome, I was dropped off at the church where I’ve been staying and I packed my gear bag, readying it and me for the flight to Anchorage.

This isn’t my last post, though, so return to the blog to read new posts.

Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights 3.19.11

Nome, cloudy skies, some snow, perhaps drizzle falling today

Northern Lights, McGrath, AK


In Takotna a week ago, the Northern Lights appeared brightly, shimmering green. A friend sent me photos he took of them that night; to photograph these, a tripod is necessary because it’s difficult to hold a camera still enough.

This site, http://www.gedds.alaska.edu/auroraforecast/, gives aurora borealis forecasts as to how “good” the night’s show will be. The night I saw them, the forecast was a 4. These lights are a natural light display in the sky, caused by the collision of charged particles directed by earth’s magnetic field. They are especially easy to see in the polar regions.

The Northern Lights were named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas.

The science of these lights involves photon emissions from ionized nitrogen atoms which regain an electron and oxygen and nitrogen atoms changing from an excited state to a ground state. Solar wind particles excite, or ionize, these atoms when they collide. Oxygen emissions produce green or brownish-red lights and nitrogen emissions produce blue or red lights.

Chemistry classes—research this light phenomena, illustrate the process by which it happens, visit the site above for information on the Northern Lights. 

Northern Lights, McGrath, AK

Wattie McDonald’s Team & Handlers

Wattie (pronounce the a in his name like “ah”) is back again for his second Iditarod. He’s from Scotland. Notice the flags being carries, the kilts, and the dogs’ coats.

St. Patrick’s Day in Nome 3.17.11

Temperature 16 degrees F, feels like 2 degrees F

People sported green for St. Patrick’s Day in Nome, attended their parade, and took their pictures under the burled arch finish line attired in green. Kelly Maixner finished his race today in a St Patrick’s Day top hat.

Kelly Maixner, DDS finishes his first Iditarod.

 Did you figure out what the four people in yesterday’s post had in common? Besides running the Iditarod, all four are native Alaskans.

An event at the mini-convention center was a reading of Robert Service poems by Richard Beneville, including The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. These poems’ inspiration came from Service’s time spent in the Yukon Territory in the early 1900s. The Cremation of Sam McGee has a surprise ending. Study it with your students and discuss their different interpretations of the ending.

Photos 3.16.11

What do these mushers have in common?

Close Finishes and Broken Records 3.16.11

Temperature in Nome 0°F, winds 3 mph

Last night there were some CLOSE finishes which is very unusual in a sled dog race. Ken Anderson and Jessie Royer raced into the chute at the same time, Ken’s team taking 9th position by 3 inches of dog nose. In close finishes like this, it’s the dog that gets under the arch first that is the winning team, and sometimes a team wins by a nose, just like in horseracing.

Shortly afterwards, we thought we were standing at the chute waiting for DeeDee Jonrowe to come in, and were surprised to see Aliy Zirkle come in ahead of DeeDee. Aliy takes 11th place and DeeDee is in 12th. Read these 2 paragraphs again to figure out what position Jessie Royer is in.

The fastest race time record held by Martin Buser was broken by John Baker this year. Calculate how much faster John’s time is than Martin’s.

2002 Martin’s record–8 days 22 hrs 46 min. 2 seconds

2011 John’s record—8 days 18 hrs 46 min. 39 seconds

John Baker holds the distinction of being the first western native Alaskan to win the Iditarod, a fact that fills Kotzebue, his hometown, and native Alaskans with pride, a recognition of running dogs as a traditional way of life for these people.

Other native Alaskans in this year’s race include Paul Johnson, Mike Williams, Jr., Robert Nelson, and Ramey Smyth. Please note this list may not be complete.

What are you proud of in your family or town?

Koyuk to White Mountain to Nome 3.15.11

Children in Koyuk check the GPS tracker with race volunteer, Troy.

Koyuk is a beautiful, peaceful village. Under bright sunshine, the river ice sparkles. During the night, we stood outside and spotted headlamps coming across the ice. During the day, we spotted the teams, dark caterpillars moving along the trail. Children played near the checkpoint and people visited inside. When John Baker was there late at night, people quietly visited so as not to disturb his, or other mushers’, sleep.

Sunday I left Koyuk ($18 for a 22 quart container of Tang at the Native Store) for White Mountain. Flying into White Mountain, I got this aerial photo of John Baker coming to White Mountain.

John Baker and team shadows running into White Mountain

White Mountain is where all mushers take an 8 hour layover. As they do every time they rest the dogs, mushers spread straw, removed booties, and fed them before coming into the White Mountain checkpoint. Faces red from wind and sunburn, the sleep-deprived mushers slept for part of their layover, leaving wakeup calls with the volunteers working Comms (communications). Crowded with mushers, volunteers, and vets, people slept all over the floor in the library, the gathering room, and in chairs.

Native Alaskans are very proud of John Baker’s win, a native Alaskan. At the finish under the burled arch, drummers wearing native dress celebrated with songs of their culture.

The burled arch on Front Street in Nome.

Price a 22 quart container of Tang where you live. What is the difference in price of it and the Tang in Koyuk? Is it twice as expensive, or more than that? How many containers of Tang can you buy where you live for $18?

Dropping In

3.12.11 Anvik temperature 8 a.m., 8 degrees F

3.13.11 Unalakleet 10 a.m., 5 degrees F, winds 5 mph 

Shageluk, Grayling, and Eagle Island—I dropped in on these three checkpoints briefly over one day. The principal/teacher’s daughters were bestowing rubs on Justin Savidis’ and Paul Johnson’s teams as they rested, in Justin’s case, or bootied up, in Paul’s case. Paul, who ran the Iditarod in 1986, headed for Anvik as we prepared to fly to Grayling. Paul is Middy Johnson’s brother and is running the team Middy ran last year. Ed Stielstra’s team came off the approximately mile-wide Yukon River into Grayling, past St. Paul’s Church, to rest for a while. Vets from New York and Maryland examined the dogs while Ed took off their booties and fed them. Eagle Island is not a village, but set up at a fish camp. The race volunteers here set up heated tents, a restroom (unheated), a checker’s tent, and the drop bags and straw for mushers. On the banks of the Yukon, also, this checkpoint is definitely a camping experience.

GPS Tracker, Hugh Neff First to the Yukon 3.11.11

Temperature in Anvik 3.11.11, 21°F, winds 5 mph. Search for the formula to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius to calculate the temperature.

All the mushers have a GPS tracker strapped to the front of their sled or inside their sled bag. Slightly angled on the sled, these trackers update automatically every fifteen minutes or so. When you follow the mushers on the Iditarod Tracker, you can see their location by latitude and longitude and where they are on the trail. Miles per hour is given, too.

The tracker I carry is exactly like the one the mushers have on their sleds. It weighs about 2 pounds, and I’ve wedged it in my backpack’s side pocket. When I’m flying, you can compare the miles per hour I’m traveling to the miles per hour of the teams. You can locate my latitude and longitude on a map. At different checkpoints, people tell me they use my tracker position as a point of reference to make it quick to read the list of mushers and their positions. My nickname is “the TOT” or “the teacher”. So, people look at the tracker list and say, “Here’s the TOT. Where’s Hugh Neff right now?”

Can you compare the latitude and longitude of Anchorage and Grayling?

Hugh Neff earned his first race award today when he arrived in Anvik first. The First Musher to the Yukon award is presented by the Millennium hotel. The chef from the hotel flew to Anvik and cooked a fancy meal for Hugh to eat. Hugh also won $3500 in cash. After taking his 8 hour layover (mushers have to take an 8 hour layover somewhere on the Yukon River), Hugh left for Grayling, the next checkpoint. Look at the GPS tracker to see where Hugh is now.

Out of Takotna 3.10.11

 Temperature in Takotna, 8 a.m., -12°F, no wind 

Mushers left last night beginning at 2200 (can you convert that to a 12 hour clock?) with Martin Buser. A few mushers who had taken their 24 hour layover in McGrath blew through Takotna and headed to Ophir. All the mushers have to declare a 24 hour layover during the race and McGrath and Takotna are popular places to “24” as they say in race lingo. Trent Herbst, a 4th grade teacher, reached Iditarod, the halfway point of the race first and won $3000 in gold nuggets. See the video at Iditarod Insider—Trent has a big grin under that beard! I bet his class and family are proud of him. I’ve had lots of “firsts” on this trip—landing on frozen rivers, flying with race dogs in the plane, collecting urine specimens from dogs, seeing the Northern Lights, eating blueberry pie in Takotna, riding in the snowmachine sled packed in with bags of Iditarod Insider gear.

Jeff Schultz, the official race photographer, has super photos on http://www.iditarod.com under Images (right side of the page and scroll). He caught me walking a dog during specimen collection time. Check it out.

Before I flew out of Takotna this morning, I saw Kristy Berington and Justin Savidis leave for Ophir. Enjoy the shots.

A Hodge-podge of Checkpoints, Ambling & Alacrity 3.9.11

What’s a hodge-podge? Can you figure out what it means by looking at these different photos? You’ll see photos of students, teachers, mushers, dogs, and sleds. When you think you’ve made a good guess at what hodge-podge means, ascertain its meaning by checking a dictionary.

Think about this: You know I have a GPS tracker in my backpack like the 2 pound trackers that are strapped to the front of the sleds. Like them, you can see where I am and when I am moving on the Iditarod Tracker on http://www.iditarod.com. A vet told me this afternoon they knew when I started walking from McGrath checkpoint to logistics based at the airport because my speed was 2.9 miles per hour, a walking speed. She told me that I was ambling to logistics, and I agreed with her, because if I walk with alacrity, I get hot and sweaty. Getting hot and sweaty in cold weather is not good, because then the sweat cools and your body gets cold. What do ambling and alacrity mean?

Juxtaposition and Iditarod 3.9.11

Temperature in McGrath 3.9.11, 20 ° F, winds 9 mph. That means it feels like 9°F.

Clicking on a photo will enlarge it.

In literature, juxtaposition means to contrast two objects or texts that oppose each other. Describe the juxtaposition seen in the pictures here. How deep can you think about juxtaposition with the airplane and dog sled photo? How about the chef from Arizona flipping a Denver omelet in McGrath checkpoint? Another idea, write about the car with flames from the car’s point of view.

Zooming GPS Tracker & Logistics

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Temperature Nikolai 3.8.11, -2 degrees F according to the round thermometer on Schnuelle’s sled

Follow me using my GPS tracker and when I’m flying, I’ll be zooming. You can see what checkpoint I’m staying in, too. Compare my speed to racers’ speeds. I carry my tracker in my backpack. It weighs about 2 pounds, and is the shape of a brick, or close to that size. I don’t have to reset it, and it transmits every 15 minutes. I’ve had emails from schools and on the Iditarod Trail Committee Facebook page about how interesting it is to “see” where I’m going. Today I flew to Nikolai and back–the return trip was with a few dropped dogs. They slept on my feet and legs, and one was sitting where the right seat (copilot seat) would have been–the seat was removed to make room for dogs.

I’ve followed the race for a few years, now, but it is another experience entirely to be here watching it unfold. The logistics of getting volunteers, supplies, vets, and so on are incredible. Penair caravans (cross between cargo and passenger planes) and small planes are scheduled almost constantly during the day to organize flights to checkpoints further along the trail, and a few earlier checkpoints, too. Cargo includes rakes, generators, food, people, awards, shovels, and more. Flights aren’t scheduled after dark as the pilots only fly in daylight hours. The weather has been great for flying, and great for aerial photos.

I had moose stew for lunch in Nikolai today–it tastes like beef stew. Think about it–why would the village make moose stew instead of beef stew for mushers and visitors?

Martin Buser arrived first in McGrath, winnng the Penair Spirit of Alaska award. He was there only for a couple of minutes before heading on to Takotna. Mackey, Schnuelle, Neff, Redington,Jr., Seavey, and Bundtzen did the same.

Official Start & Skwentna 3.7.11

Temperature 3.6.11 in Skwentna, 25 degrees F, calm wind

Temperature at 7 a.m. 0 degrees F, calm wind

On a gorgeous day, the 39th Iditarod got off yesterday and mushers went through Yentna and Skwenta during the night and early morning. The Iditarod Air Force busily flew volunteers to Skwentna and points further along the trail. Iditarod Insider film crew members loaded gear to capture the race for you.

The Skwentna Sweeties are at Skwnenta as they traditionally are, cooking and welcoming volunteers and mushers. They arrived on Friday to begin preparations in the checkpoint building. Mushers can even get hot towels to refresh faces and hands here.

It’s a small world, too. Within 15 minutes of my arrival yesterday, I met 2 vets from North Carolina, one from the town my parents live in. I toured the post office in Skwentna; Joe Delia has been the postmaster for years and, this morning, was connecting sleds behind his snowmachine to pick up mail from the plane.

DeeDee Jonrowe arrived first in Skwentna last night, followed by numerous other teams in quick succession. This early in the race, the mushers have not had time to spread out yet, so a lot of volunteers work at Skwentna to handle the arrivals. The “river crew” parks teams at bales of hay, explains where to get hot water, HEET and to leave their supplies they want to mail back home.

Next stop for me, back to Anchorage to catch a flight to McGrath, AK.

Part Two of Women Mushing On!

Women Mushing On!

Here’s Part One of Women Mushing On. Use these photos of the 2011 women mushers, plus Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, to create a memory game. Research the women, find an important fact or bit of info about each one and write it on a card. Put the picture on another card. Turn over cards and match the photos to the info. Or, match the photo to the musher’s name written on another card. Let your students do the computer research and create the game for others to play.

Mushers Banquet and Start Positions

Hobo Jim & Iditarod fans singing "I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail"

Temperature 3.3.11 average 20°F, wind speed 13 mph

Temperature 3.4.11 20°F, wind gusting 15-23 mph  Feels like 6°F

Last night the mushers drew their starting positions for the race. Unlike a horse race, all the mushers don’t begin at the same time—the teams leave the start line every 2 minutes, and the start position, or bib number, determines the order in which they leave. Drawn out of a mukluk (search mukluk to find out what it is), the positions are announced and mushers briefly thank their sponsors and so forth.

Race fans had ample opportunity to get memorabilia autographed by mushers as they left the stage area. Hobo Jim, Alaska’s balladeer, and Mr. Whitekeys provided musical and humorous entertainment.

You’ll find the race positions on www.iditarod.com on the home page. The bib  number is the starting position, and as the race gets underway, the race standings include the current race position and the bib number, which will be different from each other. Students may find it easier to locate the musher they are following by looking for the bib number, since this doesn’t change.

Newton Marshall of Jamaica, running his 2nd Iditarod this year

Dr. Seuss and Volunteers 3.2.11

Temperature in Anchorage at 7 a.m. 4° F, calm wind

School presentation group

After two days of ferocious (one of my favorite words) wind, it died down in the Anchorage area. My day started with a couple of Skype calls to East Coast schools, followed by presentations to Chinook Elementary and Willow Crest Elementary. These capped 11 or 12 presentations I’ve given since arriving in Alaska, sometimes to a couple of classes in a grade level, and sometimes to 200 students at once. Willow Crest celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday today. The author would have been 107 years old. Mr. Bryan Bearss, a kindergarten teacher at this school and an Iditarod race veteran, invited me to speak to the school. The teachers wore Cat in the Hat hats, and students dressed as book characters. I remember seeing one girl dressed as Thing Two.

At the Millennium Hotel, the Iditarod Race Headquarters, race activity is picking up. Volunteers from around the world are checking in, including from Tennessee and South Africa. Trainings for Comms (communications) volunteers train them in expectations at the checkpoints, the media which covers the race attended a press meeting, and on Thursday, the musher meeting commences in the morning. Only a few people are actually employed by the Iditarod Race—the majority of the people who work with the race are volunteers, like me, who love the race and come from all over to work, whether in Anchorage or out in the villages at race checkpoints.

The mushers’ banquet is Thursday night and they will draw their starting positions from a mukluk. If students aren’t familiar with the term mukluk, ask your students to track down what a mukluk is. The ceremonial race start begins Saturday, 10 a.m. in Anchorage. Lucky Idita-Riders, people who bid on a chance to ride with a musher, ride in the sled for this race start. I get to ride, also, in Matt Hayashida’s sled.

Wow, Is It Windy!

Siberian looking at you

Temperature 22 °F, wind speed 10 mph (which makes the wind chill temperature 11°F)

Did you calculate the wind chill factor and temperature for yesterday? It’s still windy in Anchorage today, giving us the 11 degree temperature stated above. This is two straight days of wind whistling at cracks of windows, rippling flags straight out, and sneaking inside unzipped jackets or up long sleeves. Ask your students what is personified in the italicized sentence.

This afternoon the teacher conference visited Jon and Jona Van Zyle’s home and kennel of well-behaved Siberian huskies. Both of them are talented artists, and Jon creates the official Iditarod poster each year for the race. The dogs played in the dog yard with us, exercised on their exercise wheel, which they jump on and off as they wish, ate at their “buffet” table, and gobbled down fish snacks.

Before the visit to the Van Zyle’s, I gave a program at Denali Elementary School which is a Montessori School. The school is about 8 years old, and was designed to let in as much light as possible with skylights and small windows tucked in everywhere. Light is important in a part of the world that has so much darkness in the winter time. Research the scientific reasons why Alaska is “in the dark” in the winter. An aquarium held salmon eggs which, when hatched, would be returned to the fish hatchery that the eggs came from.

When I left the school, I had to help hold the doors open for students and adults returning from a cross country ski field trip to a nearby park. The school owns these skis for students to use as well as the special boots worn with these skis. In physical education classes, they had learned about cross country skiing, and judging from their faces, they all had a great time on their field trip today. What’s your favorite physical education activity? Is it an unusual activity, or a common activity?