Community and School are One: Galena

Galena so totally captured my heart when I was there during the race that I had to find out more, and everything that I have learned since has not only confirmed my original impression of this community, but also extended it.  I think it is the priorities of community and education that actually endears one to this village.  The importance that residents give to using what they have while taking a risk to extend themselves to educate students even outside of their village sets them apart from many.

The original settlement of Galena was a miner’s trading post while the majority of the native population lived in Louden upriver toward Ruby where they mostly sold logs to the barges on the river.  They eventually moved down to what is now known as “old town” by the airstrip.

At the beginning of World War II, the United States Air Force built a base at Galena.  As the story goes, the Air Force dropped a few individuals in and told them to get to work and they would be back in two weeks.  Well, weeks turned into months, and the community of Galena, in its characteristic style, took them in.  The Air Force did eventually return and the construction of the base was completed, lending infrastructure and even more diversity to the community.

In the early 90’s, with the reduction in military spending, the base at Galena was closed and control of the land was left to a management company.  The Air Force had left so much of what they used, like furniture, tools, etc., that the people of Galena,  no strangers to using what you have, were able to put it to good use.  Galena also has a fully functioning clinic, easing the worries of the residents.

Outsiders have been a part of Galena for so long that they are welcomed, so long as they do not judge the traditional ways that are still very much mainstream for this community. Sidney Huntington, the village elder at 97, is revered above all and is still in attendance at most village functions.  During my stay at the checkpoint in Galena, Sidney walked down to the community center every couple hours or so to see how things were coming with the race, and then would sit and visit for a while before heading off again.  When the checkpoint opened and they found themselves without food for the mushers that were soon to arrive, a call was put out over the Public Radio Station there in Galena for help.  Community members immediately began a steady stream of tasty hot meals and special treats, often staying to visit and tell stories during the waiting times.

The school system in Galena is the heart of the community.  Sidney Huntington School is a K-8 of roughly    students.  Debbie Koontz, an upper grade science teacher, gave me a grand tour while I was there, and I was impressed by the extensiveness of their program.  Both the arts and vocational education are emphasized along with the traditional academic program.

About fifteen years ago, along with the advent of the charter school system, an application was written to establish GILA, a secondary school that emphasized economically viable skills.  At the time that the application was due, the school board had none of the necessary equipment or facilities to establish this school, but with a “build it and they will come” type of attitude they made the application, were approved and started the next school year with everything from facilities to students that they needed.  That was fifteen years ago.  Today GILA has fully functioning programs in the Culinary Arts, Cosmetology, Aviation where students can actually earn their private pilots license, Automotive Technology, Carpentry and Welding, to name a few.

There is also a secondary boarding school in Galena and a traditional academic program through the Sidney Huntington School.  All three of these systems do share classes at times where it seems beneficial.

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Galena is a community about sustainability, and children mean income.  The Galena District welcomes students from neighboring areas and also encourages outsiders to actually buy land and build homes in Galena. In Galena, school and community are one and the same thing, and I can’t imagine a more positive and supportive community in which to live.  Thank you Galena for your warm welcome and the great memories I have to take with me.

Remembering the special spots on the trail,

Blynne

Practice, Practice, Practice

The practice principle certainly applied itself over the last couple weeks on the trail.  There were very few things that I did on the trail that I have either ever done or done very often, and boy, was I a rookie!

The range of new experiences went from the mundane (learning to walk in giant boots) to the highly specialized (finding my way into an outhouse that is under five feet of snow, sorting through five layers of clothing and coming through the experience dry).

I no longer have to be helped into a small plane and buckled up like a small child; I can do it myself.  I no longer need to be reminded to put on hat and gloves ANY time I go outside.  I no longer need to be coached through every new experience; I have learned to watch, listen, and assimilate.  I have also learned to speak up and ask questions when something looks more specialized than I understand or relax and let things happen around me until I begin to feel the rhythm depending on the situation.

When a dog team, off course in a checkpoint, runs toward me, I no longer step out of the way, I reach for a gang line.  I am no longer too shy to speak to a stranger who I find interesting.  All of my new experiences have met with positive outcomes, mostly due to the kind and caring people that accompanied my adventure.  Though there were obviously many people around me that were quite skillful at the tasks I found challenging, I was never afraid to give it a try as someone always had that gentle teaching tip that solved the dilemma.

The practice principle always works best when you are not afraid to make mistakes, and the Iditarod community gave me the confidence to try new things and make more than a few mistakes.  They inspired my trust that they would never allow me to make a dangerous mistake.

I have learned so many skills during my time on the trail that I will probably use daily.  Over the next few weeks I will try to share as many of those gems with you as I can, but nothing is better than experience, so get out there and try something new, don’t be afraid to make a mistake or two and practice, practice, practice.

While I was in Nome I became enamored with the hundreds of ravens that supervise the city streets.  I have begun a study of them and boy, am I making a few mistakes.  Take a look at what I have so far, and I will share again in a while when my mistakes are different ones.

Still learning from the trail,

Blynne

The Last Day in Nome

My last day in Nome was packed and I wanted it to be because I wanted to get the most out of this great town before I left.

We were all pleased to see Dan Seavey arrive in great shape.  Dan ran the Iditarod this time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Historical Iditarod Trail.  He stopped at numerous villages along the way to make presentations of commemorative plaques to the communities and talk about the history of the trail, so this was no race for him.

I met Dan a number of times along the trail.  I met him in Skwentna, Takotna and Galena.  In Skwentna we discussed the value of the race as an educational focus.  He was surprised, but pleased to find out that his granddaughter, teaching in the lower 48, said her students responded with an amazing involvement in their academic tasks when these tasks were put in the context of the race. They found new value in math, science, geography and used an understanding of statistics to track their favorite mushers.  We also discussed the values lessons available in a real life situation that the Iditarod offers.

The big deal of the day, of course, was the banquet.  I couldn’t believe how many people packed themselves into the Recreation Center, but I could see why.  All the mushers that had finished (that was all but two) were introduced, given their trophies and buckles and the special awards were announced.  My favorite every year is the Leonard Seppala Humanitarian Award, which is given for the best care given to the dogs by a musher.  This year it went to DeeDee Jonrowe and was obviously well deserved.

Another award that I was pleased to see was the Golden Clipboard, which is awarded to the best checkpoint and selected by the mushers.  This year the award went to Nulato.  I didn’t have the privilege of stopping in Nulato, but the checkpoints I went to must have given them a real run for their money, because they were all staffed by warm, welcoming individuals that would do anything they were allowed for you.

The banquet was a last opportunity for us to reconnect with people we had met along the trail and compare our experiences since we met.  New stories abounded and promised to see each other again.

No description of the Banquet would be complete without an applause for the food.  My favorite was the dogsleds filled with HUGE fresh strawberries that were constantly being refilled.  That along with giant shrimp and prime rib just says it all.

The volunteers were repeatedly thanked and praised by the mushers as they said this race just couldn’t happen without the volunteers and it is clear they were right, but Iditarod cares for the volunteers very well.  Before the banquet they took all our bags to the airport and checked them in for us and afterward they gathered us up and whisked us off to the airport where we loaded on the plane.  Being as exhausted as we all were you would have expected a quiet sleepy plane, but it was anything but as we continued to meet new people and start new relationships.  By the time we were dropped at the Millennium the only thought was sleep.

Rookie and I will be sad to leave this trail in Alaska, but it continues wherever you are and we will be on it.

Blynne

Wandering Nome

Since I had no scheduled activities today, I decided to wander the neighborhoods between sirens for incoming mushers and see what I could learn about the character of this town.  Nome is a very friendly place with evidence of two very busy seasons.  Even in deep winter you can see the objects and tools of summer.

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It is a town of individuals right down to the ravens that broadcast from every corner.  They even had a golf tournament on the ice today and a St. Paddy’s Day Parade.

I was lucky enough to watch Hank DeBruin come in with his beautiful dogs and at two this afternoon mushers gathered in the convention center for autograph signing and they were welcomed by a huge crowd.

This will be my last night in Nome and I really think I will miss it.  The town has a great personality and the volunteers welcome you like long lost friends.

So it will be back on the trail after the banquet tomorrow,

Blynne

Volunteers in Nome

Volunteers in Nome and those who reach Nome are well taken care of.  We are welcomed at the United Methodist Church where our housemothers, Deb and Joan, see to it that we are fed, cared for, and learn a few new manners while we are here.  Pilots, veterinarians, technicians, all manner of volunteers, and this teacher get three hot, tasty meals a day and a quiet cot to sleep on.

When it is dinnertime, as many as are not on duty somewhere, volunteers gather for dinner, conversation, stories, and a few games.  Last night I even saw two volunteers trying to play a card game on an Iphone app.  It was an amusing scene, to say the least.

There is room for 20-25 of us to sleep and quiet areas are observed. We even peacefully share one bathroom and one shower.  It is encouraging to see what people can really do.

A BIG THANKS to those ladies that keep us all going!  Thanks, Deb and Joan!

Blynne


Keep On Growing

We have all grown during this experience.  Some growth happens just as an unplanned result of experience.  Some growth occurs out of necessity and some growth happens because you specifically plan to improve certain skills.  Growth in any sense is good and something that we should strive for throughout our lives.  When we cease to grow, cease to strive for better performance out of ourselves, we cease to treasure the life we have been given.

Rookie has grown through an amazing sequence of experiences on the trail and off.

Yesterday I took a class at the Parks Service Bldg. about drawing dogs.   There was a little girl who told me my dog’s name was Tilo and that in Inupiaq the word for dog is kikpiq. Admittedly, I was the only adult there, but I learned some valuable tips to improve my dogs and heard the teacher repeat the mantra I have used with myself and my students.  Really look at the thing you are about to draw, look at it until you are sure you really see it.  My sight is improving, though I still have a long way to go, so it is back on the proverbial trail for me and Rookie, too.

Blynne

Robert Service in Nome

Last night at the Convention Center,  Iditarod Headquarters for this week in Nome, we were all treated to the dramatic recitations of Robert Service’s amazing poems by Richard Beneville.  English and History teachers, this one is especially for you.  The subject of his poetry is the magic of the Yukon and the crazy antics of those who searched for gold during the rush.

Richard brings Robert Service alive.  He started with “The Song of the Yukon” and finished with “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  Richard was a working Broadway actor at one time, and the way he brings life on the Yukon alive makes you begin to long for it yourself.

I loved the trail on the Yukon and long to go back.

Blynne

Safety Roadhouse by Snow Cat

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It is so hard to put the excursion I took today into words.  I took a snow cat ride out to Safety Checkpoint and back.  I took off at 8 AM in the morning, which is actually before dawn up here.  It was clear and cold and quiet.  It was amazing to see what it must be like to be out so far from anything like the mushers are.  This is their last stretch before they arrive in Nome, and as we passed a couple mushers, you could feel the urgency about them.

Safety Checkpoint is a warm and welcoming place.  Joe runs the place and welcomes everyone with a story.  Visitors from near and far visit the Roadhouse and leave a dollar bill with their name on it stapled to one of the walls.

On the way out to Safety and back again, we viewed some completely different biomes than I have seen so far this trip.  There were gravel pits and estuaries and creeks that are usually three feet wide, now showing up at about 30 feet wide with overflow.  The sun was coming up and the moon going down, but I think you could see both all the time.

It was a bumpy trip, but well worth the rock and roll of being back on the trail.

Blynne

The Dog Yard

I bet you wondered what happens with the dogs after they finish the race.

Well, after the teams come under the arch the dogs are brought down the street to a team of veterinarians to be checked out.  They are trotted down the street on leads, up and back, so the vets can assess their gaits.  They have their hearts and lungs listened to.  They have their stomach areas and limbs massaged for any abnormalities.  One of the veterinarians told me that this was a large portion of the Humanitarian Award for the best care of dogs, an award that Martin Buser has received four times, a record for any musher.

A little later the drug testing team goes through and gets a urine sample from each dog.

Then the dogs go to the dog yard to rest, relax, and eat.  Each one has his/her own house and there is a huge snow berm encircling the whole yard so that the dogs get a little privacy and quiet after their long trip.

Such a busy day that the trail seems quiet in comparison.  So tempted to go back.

Blynne

Father and Son Arrive Together

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This morning around 9 AM I ventured out on the ice at the edge of town to watch for Martin Buser and Rohn Buser that were due to come in soon.  When they came into view, they appeared to be moving rather quickly, one behind the other.  The dogs looked great as they climbed the hill to Front St.  Once they were on Front St., they stopped just long enough to hook the sleds together so that they crossed under the arch together and tied for 18th place.  As a parent, I can only imagine what an amazing trip that must have been.

Normally, there are no loose dogs at the finish line, but the Buser dogs were so energetic that they were ready to get back on the trail.  One call from Martin, though, and rounded them up to be petted and treated by all.

They were ready to go again, and so am I.

Blynne

The Ice

I went down last night to see where the mushers come up off the ice and onto Front St.  You think of ice as a simple flat expanse, but I found out that is not the case.

Under the ice, there is a whole world of things going on.  There are storms caused by storms above and waves and warming and cooling trends.  These activities cause jumbles which are like rough hills of varying size and cracks in the ice sometimes 6 inches deep.  So picking your way across the ice is not what it might seem.

There are places, though, that are exactly what you might expect, that big flat expanse.  As I flew into Nome from Elim, we saw a musher and team on glare ice sliding sideways.  The ice certainly does offer a variety of terrains.

The trail has so many different characters that test you in many ways, and I am back to it.

Blynne

No Place Like Nome

Today was my first real day in Nome, so I was out to discover any thing and everything that I could.  One of my first stops was a church that was sponsoring a craft fair of native and local arts.  It was truly amazing.  There was bead work and fur ruffs for several styles of hoods, mitts, or hats.  I even got a hat that was made from sled dog fur and trimmed with muskrat.  It is beautiful and soft.  I also found a brightly colored kuspuk which is a native design shirt with hood and front pouch pocket.  It will be perfect in California anytime of the year.  The man that sold me the kuspuk threw in a story knife he had carved from birch branches and designed with native symbols.  It is a tradition among the Yupik to tell stories that they illustrate in the snow with the story knife.  A wide variety of stories could be told this way even in sand, so I thought it would be a good crossover tool.  Last year I brought Chinese hacaisacks back from China with me, and my students loved learning how to use them. This year I am bringing back Eskimo yo-yos to test their coordination.

Outside the church were the remains of a snow sculpture competition and my favorite was this Cat Bulldozer, something you might see in my home town, but never made of snow.

I topped off the afternoon with a talk by Howard Farley at the museum.  He talked about the early Iditarod Races and how it has grown over the years.  Howard shared his own passion for the race and the way that it has become a way of life for so many individuals.  If you remember, I wrote a lesson plan last fall for found poetry using his entry in Iditarod Classics.  He was inspirational then and even more inspirational in person as you could feel the history and magic that the Iditarod has for him.

I am meeting friends for dinner and then off for a basketball tournament that is supposed to be the tournament of all tournaments so I will take pictures and let you know what it was like.  Also, Hugh Neff is supposed to come in tonight, so I will try to be there and share that with you too.

I don’t think I will get tired of Nome for a while as there is so much to do, so I’m staying and posting here for a few days.

Blynne

Nome

Arriving in Nome feels somewhat electric.  When I arrived at the convention center they had the box my daughter had sent from Anchorage.  What a joy that was – a change of clothes etc.  I warmed up, took a shower and changed just in time to head down to the burled arch.  I found Finney and Linda along the chute and we waited for Dallas to come in.  I think I was colder there than I had been anywhere all week, but that was because I was standing still, which I seldom did along the trail.

Dallas’ dogs looked great running under the arch.  Their eyes actually sparkled as they watched the crowd go by.  It was good to see such brightness after so many cold miles.

We caught a cup of coffee to warm up and went back out to see Aily come in.  Her dogs also trotted right through the chute proud to have arrived.

Aily was her usual joyful self, complimenting Dallas on his win and saying that he did it by thinking and listening to his dogs, which she had great respect for.

I am looking forward to welcoming musher after musher and trying to keep warm in between.  I will also try to find the most interesting places in Nome to share with you.

Till tomorrow, here in Nome,

Blynne

An Eventful Day

I flew off in a brightly painted bird with Dave Looney as my pilot.  We were on our way to Elim.  Just about the time we were parallel with Unalakleet the alternator went so we were running on battery power.  Dave immediately turned us toward UNK and we made an easy landing. Dave will be waiting for parts for a while, so I picked up the next plane north which dropped me off in Elim.

The Elim Checkpoint was full of kids just out of school and when I sat down to write about my adventures of the day, they saw some of my sketches and wanted to see more.  In fact, they wanted me to draw more sketches with their names on them, so I spent the next hour drawing wolves and eagles (the school mascot).  I got A LOT of practice.  I am almost ready to do a quick draw eagle.

After a warming supper, the science teacher at the high school walked me over to the school for a visit.  For that hour of the evening, it was a buzzing place.  Mark showed me the results of a fish project the students had completed.  They raised them from eggs.

I walked back to the checkpoint myself and the evening was beautiful, looking out over Norton Sound.

The lead group of mushers came through during the night. No one staying too long and then on down the trail.  Word is at the moment that the weather at Shaktoolik is too bad. A group of mushers is stopped there to wait it out.

Not sure when I will be back on the trail, but there is good smoked salmon to gear me up.

Blynne

Seavey in Galena

As if my stay in Galena couldn’t get any better, right before I left, we got word that Dan Seavey was coming up the trail.  Dan Seavey is the Centennial Musher commemorating the 100th year of the Iditarod Trail.  Members of the community and crew were out to greet him as he came off the river.  As he has traveled up the trail, people have come out to meet him at every checkpoint and share stories of some of the earlier races, when things were much different.

A quick greeting, and my plane was waiting, so it is back on the trail for me.

Blynne

Just a few sketches

I promised some sketches and here are a few.  Nothing too thrilling, but I keep sketching.  It is a totally different experience sketching on the go, on paper that I cannot erase.  I am learning new skills.

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Still on the trail with pencil in hand,

Blynne

Galena is Great

Flying over the Yukon River brings into sharp focus its status as the second longest river in the world.  It is truly magnificent.  I can only imagine what it will be like in the summer full of fish and boats.  One woman in Ruby pointed out the area on the other side that they swim in when it gets hot.

Arriving in Galena, I was handed a note to call the school teacher right away and that  I did.  Ten minutes later she came to the checkpoint to welcome me.  We visited for a$9.00 for a bag of chips? moment and headed out for a walk.  It was a beautiful day and Galena is a great town to walk in with its wide, flat, white roads.  Mrs. Koontz explained to me that businesses in Galena don’t have signs on them because everyone already knows what they are, but it makes it a bit hard for visitors.

I picked up a book by Sidney Huntington, a native of this area, called Shadows on the Koyukuk.  Sidney is roughly (no one can agree) 95-97 years old and the book tells about growing up along the Yukon.  I was able to get it signed in the checkpoint where Sidney sits for a few hours everyday watching and occasionally visiting.

After our visit to the store, we headed to Galena Elementary School.  Mrs. Koontz explained that the town is where it is largely because of the Air Force Base that used to be here, and that the secondary students go to school on the old base at the boarding school.

Galena Elementary is always open as it is the hub of the community.  During bad storms it may be the only place to get heat, water, or a warm meal. They have two playgrounds, one of which is securely fenced to keep the moose out.  Inside the school it is bright and warm with beautiful artwork covering the walls.  They have two libraries (they share one with the public) and a gymnasium with a host of trophies to go with it.  Basketball is very big here.

While I was in Mrs. Koontz’s room I noticed a chart on the wall that said something about how are you feeling, and when I asked about it, she explained that it was a scientific experiment to see if children were affected by the long, dark winters like the adults with depression, etc.  Their conclusion is that they aren’t, but the process was a long one.

Hey, Everybody!  Aliy Zirkle is in Unalakleet!  Three cheers for us girls!  Now guess where I’m going next.  I don’t know either, but I’ll bet you can guess.  Check in later and see if you were right.

-38 degrees this morning.  BRRRR!

Blynne

Water

Imagine what it would be like to wake up in the morning and it is -20 degrees and there is no running water.  The town of Ruby, pop. 190, does have running water in some places, but not in most and not in the public buildings.  So my friend, Billy, who has many essential jobs puts empty tanks in the sled behind the snow-machine and we make the trip up the hill to the Washeteria and fill them for a quarter per about two gallons, then back down the hill to distribute to community center and dorms, etc.  It took about three trips until Billy figured we were all set for the night.

I wandered through the dog lot this morning taking pictures of sleeping dogs and ran into Scott Janssen looking for someone from the Ruby school.  He had made a promise last year at the banquet to give back to the communities that give so much for this race to go on and he was making good.  His company was making a donation to each school along the route, and he wanted to make it personally, if possible, to thank people himself.  He had little difficulty finding someone in the checkpoint because they are always busy bringing stew and soups and goodies.  This morning was especially good with hard boiled eggs, sausage patties and pancakes.

Eating my way down the trail.

Blynne

Ruby

This day has been extremely full, and it is only 4:30.  I woke up this morning in Takotna at the school.  After checking in with Comms and getting some breakfast, I went back to the school as the students were beginning to arrive. I met Anna who was more than happy to accept the Ready to Read bag of books from the Anchorage Library.  She could hardly wait to get into them.  Before long, I got word that I was supposed to get on a plane, so I gathered my stuff and took a snow machine ride up to the airstrip.  The pilot told me I was going back to McGrath, which sounded a bit disappointing at first, but it is a hub so I was pretty sure that I would catch another flight to somewhere else, and I did.  As I was walking down the street to the checkpoint, the Race Marshal drove by in a truck and yelled out the window to wait right there and he would be back to pick me up.  I do as I am told, so there I stood, and in a few minutes we were loading my gear into the truck and we headed back to the airstrip.  Mark and I boarded Greg’s plane, and we were on our way to Cripple.

Cripple is a unique checkpoint as it is nothing else any other time of the year.  It is in a wide-open place which is absolutely beautiful, due to its starkness.  The volunteers there have decorated it like a Hawaiian island reminding me a little of MASH.  The Comms tent is just that, a tent with bunks for off shift time.  There were teams of dogs lined out and resting and mushers busy doing their chores.

Before I could get comfortable, we were back in the air and on our way to Ruby.  That was a longer and more eventful ride. The ground below us looked like puffy white blankets spotted with trees.  For a while we followed the trail and saw a number of teams running strong and smooth.  Then we veered off the trail and found ourselves on the great Yukon River.  I knew it was big, but WOW.

After we landed in Ruby I was given the snow machine ride of my life, full speed, down hill.  Strangely, I felt safe and only a little cold.  The Ruby Checkpoint is bright and cheery and at the bottom of the hill on the bank.  Great food and people, and finally I am closer to the front of the race.  Jeff King, Lance Mackey, John Baker, Jeff Schultz ,who clued me in to getting an internet connection at the school, but that I would need a ride up there.

The best meeting was Emmitt Peters.  The Comms lady pointed him out so I went over and introduced myself.  We had no sooner shaken hands than he started into a story.  After his “college kid” youth moving around California, Oregon and Washington he decided to head back home.  Then he decided that he would run the Iditarod.  His mother said no, because she thought he would freeze.  He said right up until the start she was sewing special leggings, etc. to keep him warm.  When he took his 24 here at Ruby, she saw other mushers leaving and she would wake him up every time fearing he would fall behind.  His father told her to leave him alone so he could rest, but he got no rest.  When he took off out of the checkpoint the dogs knew where to go as Emmitt had a fish camp nearby, and they sailed on down the trail.  About six hours later at the next checkpoint he woke up and the checker told him that he had passed two teams along the way.  Now, that’s a dog team!  And those few moments with Emmitt Peters were worth the whole trip.

Leslie at Comms had plenty of company at times with kids from the community always interested in what she was doing.  In this picture she is explaining to this young man how mushers are tracked and how you calculate “out” times after an eight hour rest.

I feel like I am now on the real trail of my life.  I’m not sure what it is, but I have so much to say, so little time.

Blynne

Takotna

Travel went more smoothly today.  Shortly after rising, I got a quick breakfast from the abundant offerings at the McGrath Checkpoint and took a snow machine ride down to Logistics.  I told them that I would like to go to Ruby, but anywhere north would be great.  With only one weather delay, which I took advantage of to get a cup of espresso, I was on a plane with my pilot, Jerry, to Takotna.  Another snow machine ride and I was at the checkpoint.

I went in to Comms to check in and found that I could go down to the school to visit. There were actually teachers and students there, so off I went.

Jolene is the teacher of a K-12 school with eight students.  It is in a newer building with two classrooms, a kitchen, office, a multi-use room that serves as library and gymnasium and a darkroom.  The artwork on the walls gives the school a homey feeling which is what it is for me tonight.  The hospitality is warm and inviting, and having a roomy, quiet place to rest my head tonight is unique and not to be expected again.

Unlike many of the schools here, Takotna School is not on break.  The younger students have school and the older ones that are helping with the Iditarod don’t have to go to school while they are working.  They will take their Spring break next week.  I was able to meet some of the younger students and give one of them the Ready to Read bags sent out by the Anchorage Public Library.

While wandering through the resting teams, I came upon Matt Failor, a rookie from Ohio.  He has been a handler for Martin Buser since 2010 and had the chance this year to run the yearling team.  Matt explained to me that a “yearling team” means that they are all two years old and younger.  This experience gives both dogs and musher a chance to see how they respond to a trip the magnitude of The Iditarod.  Watching them, you could see the playfulness, but also the lessons of the trail beginning to sink in as MOST of them settled down to get some rest, which is what I think I will do to be ready to hit the trail again in the morning.

The people, the dogs, the landscape just keeps getting better and better.

Happy to be on the trail,

Blynne

Finally Getting the Hang of This

Travel went more smoothly today.  Shortly after rising I got a quick breakfast from the abundant offerings at the McGrath Checkpoint and took a snow machine ride down to Logistics.  I told them that I would like to go to Ruby, but anywhere north would be great.  With only one weather delay which I took advantage of to get a cup of espresso I was on a plane with my pilot, Jerry to Takotna.  Another snow machine ride and I was at the checkpoint.

I went in to Comms to check in and found that I could go down to the school to visit and that there were actually teachers and students there so off I went.

Jolene is the teacher of a K-12 school with eight students.  It is in a newer building with two classrooms, a kitchen, office, a multi-use room that serves as library and gymnasium and a darkroom.  The artwork on the walls gives the school a homey feeling which is what it is for me tonight.  The hospitality is warm and inviting and having a roomy, quiet place to rest my head tonight is unique and not to be expected again.

Unlike many of the schools here, Takotna School is not on break.  The younger students have school and the older ones that are helping with the Iditarod don’t have to go to school while they are working.  They will take their Spring break next week.

While wondering through the resting teams I came upon Matt Failor, a rookie from Ohio.  He has been a handler for Martin Buser since 2010 and had the chance this year to run the yearling team.  Matt explained to me that a “yearling team” means that they are all two years old and younger.  This experience gives both dogs and musher a chance to see how they respond to a trip the magnitude of The Iditarod.  Watching them, you could see the playfulness, but also the lessons of the trail beginning to sink in as MOST of them settled down to get some rest, which is what I think I will do to be ready to hit the trail again in the morning.

The people, the dogs, the landscape just keeps getting better and better.

Happy to be on the trail,

Blynne

McGrath Checkpoint Early Morning

Mc Grath is a humming place, especially since so many of the mushers have decided to spend their 24 hour rest here.  I am finally on the trail and loving every minute.  It is all I can do to listen to every conversation I can and the common theme throughout is that the trail is good, it was an easy run, but a bit too hot for the dogs.  The Steppes which were put back in at the last minute, because the alternative was worse were apparently the best they had ever been.

I was promised Northern Lights tonight, but then it snowed so it was a no go.  I am not giving up the search though.  It is one of my top three things to see.

The McGrath Checkpoint is a relatively big place and Comms is a busy place.  The food is plenty and varied and all very good.

As I wandered around earlier and checked out the dog teams I realized that I couldn’t decide which I liked best – watching the commradary of workers or the beauty of the dogs.  The volunteers here come from far and wide, but every year come together to share this moment of contribution to the sport they love.

Well off to see what the trails has in store for me today,

Blynne

Takin’ 24 at McGrath – a slide show

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Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.  Enjoy!  I am going to get some rest so I can get up to take in what is supposed to be an amazing show of Northern Lights later.

FINALLY on the trail and loving it,

Blynne

Dropped Dogs Are Priority One

Dropped dogs in the Iditarod are priority one.  From the time a vet or musher has decided for whatever reason that a dog should be dropped he has the ultimate in personal attention.  Dropped dogs have priority on the first planes out of a checkpoint leaving volunteers, mushers or any other staff to wait for the next plane.  When they arrive in Anchorage they have volunteers and a vet waiting for them with warm food and a bed of straw.  When it was decided that they would be dropped their kennels were called so that they could begin the journey to the Millennium to pick them up.

If for some reason the kennel is unable to pick them up that night they are sent to the women’s prison where again they get priority one personal attention.  No dog is left alone in the dropped dogs lot ever and never over night.  This is for the safety of the dogs and volunteers alike.

Keep in mind the Iditarod is all about the dogs and we take care of our most treasured friends.

Right now I am finally in the air again.  This time on a Pennair flight to Unalakleet, then off to McGrath by probably mid afternoon.  It feels really good to be on the trail again.  Here’s to it staying that way.

Blynne

AND Finally… Blynne is Back on the Trail!

Leaving Millennium HQ - Headed for the TrailBlynne is finally back on the Iditarod Trail!

After getting her ‘flying orders’ last evening (March 6) Blynne reported to the waiting area and loaded her gear into the vehicle.  Several other volunteers and race staff were among the group departing for the airport.

Weather plays a major role in what goes on during the race and this year, Mother Nature’s snowfall has made travel for volunteers a bit more interesting!

You will be able to ‘Track Our Teacher’  (TOT) via the GPS Tracker.  Look for the TOT on the map!  Then check back right here for articles from Blynne!

IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE DOGS

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I thought I would share some of my favorite dog pictures with you.  I know there will be more to come.

You know, the Iditarod is really all about the dogs.  It is a dog race.  It is one of the few places that the playing field is truly level between men and women.  A race is won or lost on the strengths of a dog team, dog care, strategy, Mother Nature’s whims, and the bond between team and musher which can seldom be seen with your eyes, only felt with your heart.

I hope you enjoy the show.  There will be more to come.

Anxiously waiting to hit the trail again,

Blynne

The Hub

The Iditarod Trail operates out of a number of hub points.  These are points at which supplies can be exchanged, flights routed, etc.  Anchorage, of course, is the biggest one and where I am today. McGrath and Unalakleet are two more of the hubs and, of course, Nome.  I am waiting on a flight to take me to Unalakleet and on to McGrath tomorrow.  Dogs and supplies have priorities on these flights as it should be because they ARE the race, but I am still anxious to get back out there.

Since I am here, I decided to have a more thorough look around at the workings of the race from this point of view.  I started upstairs in Comms, Race Stats and Logistics.  These three pieces are critical to the smooth and safe running of the race.  All movement of people, dogs and supplies is managed and recorded here.  If a musher arrives at a checkpoint, if a dog is dropped, if a flight goes out are all items that are recorded in one and often all of these three centers.  Now I know why and what happens when I arrive at a checkpoint and I have been told to immediately  ”check in with Comms and ask to be put on their evening report.”

Though most of the work is done on computers it is gratifying to see that we haven’t lost the personal handwritten postings along the way.  The Leader Board is in the main lobby of the Millennium Hotel and is often the center of attention.

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Still reporting, but longing to get back on the trail,

Blynne

Skwentna Station

Arriving in Skwentna was kind of abrupt and an opportunity for a workout.  The pilot delivered me to an empty airfield.  He pointed out the trail and said it was about half a mile.  Well, it was more like a mile, though some in the checkpoint said it was two.  Anyway I got a great workout in full gear.

Skwentna Station is my next stop on the Iditarod Trail and all the teams come through over about a twelve hour period.  Most of them stop, feed and rest, so the roadhouse is a buzzing place.  The organization when the dogs come through under the banner works like a well-oiled machine.  Information is taken from the musher and radioed to the people in the cabin who log it and send an email to Anchorage Comms which is then included in the race stats on the web site where you get to finally see it.  Everything is checked and re-checked.

Failor was  the last musher to check in at 6:05:this evening and most everyone was gone around nine in the morning except for Dan Seavy who said he would not leave until one as he was on a very strict schedule.

Before the first musher arrived, the crew at Skwentna had a meal altogether and had a general meeting about organization, then separate team meetings so that in the darkness and cold things don’t have to be done twice.  Though there is always  moments, all mostly goes smoothly.

The night got cold, about 20 below down on the river, and the green Northern Lights came out so it was a true Alaskan night.   The bustle of the Skwentna Sweeties greeting and cooking their way through the darkness warmed everyone.  The mushers came in ate and chatted before finding a quiet corner to rest.  Everyone that entered the station was greeted with a welcome, a cloth of warm lemon water, the traditional coffee and Tang and then a meal.

Apparently there is a storm coming in and there is a hustle to get us out before we are snow-in again.  Let’s see where I go next.

Trying to get down the trail.

Blynne

Track Me Down

I have been out taking pictures and petting dogs and watching the excitement level rise.  The first mushers will head out in about 15 minutes and the last minute preps are in full swing.  I thought I would give you a quick look at how you will be able to follow the your favorite musher and me.  It is by GPS on the Insider Tracker.  The mushers have units attached  to their sleds and I am carrying one in my day pack so you will know where I am at all times.

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No hiding for me.

I am listed on the list as TOT (Teacher on the Trail) and your favorite musher is just under his name.

Just waiting for my call,

Blynne

Mush with a Smile

VERY early morning start.  It is the restart out in Willow and somebody has to be the first one there and I rode with one of the first and that means leaving Anchorage at 3:30 AM.  A short nap on the floor near the library, then up and stashed all my gear behind the stage and now I am ready to hit the trail.  I am all packed, but I think it will be awhile waiting for that MOMENT.

Meanwhile I ran down to the lake to take some pictures.  I’m sorry, I really didn’t run, I can’t, in these arctic boots.  Diane keeps telling me that by the time I get to Nome they will seem completely natural.  We’ll see.

Since I was here early I did get a chance to meet up with Wade again and he had THE hat on.  What hat?  The one that Wade had on the other day when I first met him.  It is a blue ball cap that says “Mush with a Smile.”  He is a friend of the Redingtons and one day while helping them clean out a shed he found the hat and liked it.  He was told that it was one of Joe’s and he could have it.  I guess Joe is famous for being a collector of all sorts of things.  Wade is wearing hat this morning so I have a feeling it may have special place for him.

Mush with a Smile Wade!

Almost on the trail and very ready,

Blynne

The Ceremonial Start

Wow! What a morning!  It started pretty warm (27 degrees) and snowy and warmer and snowier it got.  The Ceremonial Start on 4th Ave. is a very festive affair and everyone is out in their best Alaskan attire, everything from the matched, latest tech suit to furs and wolf head hats.  The excitement is contagious and I certainly caught it.

Probably the best part was that I got to be an Iditarider with Wade Marrs who took Wattie McDonald’s spot as Wattie had to return to Scotland due to family illness.  Wade proved to be an interesting and informative host.  He is 21 years old and has already completed one Iditarod in 2009.

In honor of  Wattie, Wade flew the Scottish flag and wore kilts.  In fact, he felt is was so warm he did it with bare legs, for which I think he was sorry about half way there, but the crowd loved him.  The flag proved to be interesting too as it was a little tall for the tunnels and thumped along the roof of them making an odd sound that made the dogs look back with big questioning eyes, but they never missed a beat.

Jimmy

Wade was informative too.  He taught me about pacers and chargers.  He pointed out his wheel dog, Spot and described him as a pacer.  He is always steady. keeping a consistent pace.  He says when that is what I want I put him in lead.  Then he pointed out Winter, one of the lead dogs.  She is a charger.  She is always in a hurry to see what is ahead on the trail, so will increase the pace any time he needs it and that is when he will put her in the lead.

So I didn’t just have a marvelous time, I learned something too, while enjoying the snow and finding my gear to be every bit as warm as they said it would be.

Well, I could get called to jump on a plane at anytime considering the volatility of the weather so I will send this off to you and finish packing.

Till a little further down the trail.

Blynne

Snowed In

That term “snowed in” means so many things in so many other places.  It is kind of relative term.  In Alaska it means cut off, completely out of touch with the outside world.  Thank goodness for today satellite phones so we can at least get a message to someone.  Just think, not so many years ago you couldn’t even do that.

My time at Yentna was an extended look into life in the bush.  There were so many of us stuck out there – nine Iditarod volunteers, snow machiners, the Gabryszak family of five and as the days went on scores of Iditasport competitors checking in, having a meal, drying out and heading on.  Many of these Iditasport competitors were from Europe so that some language issues came up a couple times and my Spartan Spanish became useful.

The snow came in buckets.  Someone said 37 inches in 36 hours and that was on top of the already 136 inches of snow.  I had never seen anything so beautiful and so powerful as to change our lives completely.  But everyone slipped into what I can only call a special mode.  Voices were mostly calm and soft and personal space was observed which was kind of interesting as we were all in such close proximity.  If there was something that needed to be done, everyone pitched in and the traditional ways of doing things were not always observed.  When avalanches started sliding from the roof the son of the family and one of the doctors sent by the Junior Iditarod climbed to the roof, crawled across the gable then body surfed arms out down the roof taking the snow with them.  It was fun to watch them fall into the soft mountains of snow under the eaves.

Dan Gabryszak

Jean and Dan Gabryszak that run Yentna Roadhouse are the perfect picture of warmth and hospitality.  There was absolutely nothing that we needed that was over looked (other than getting home) and on our last night there Dan even broke out the 12 string guitar and entertained us with some of the best songs ever.  I think my favorite and probably most appropriate was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The world is certainly beautiful all covered in white fur, but tremendously powerful in its ability to control your life.  You just have to go with the flow and know the end will come some day.

On Tuesday when we finally saw a plane land on the river again, we thought everything was solved.  Well that was just the beginning of another adventure, which I think might be the theme of my trip.  We got into the plane and started to turn around at the end of the runway where the snow was a little softer and deeper and you guessed it – we got stuck.  The pilot got out his snow shoes and started digging and packing, then the vet and doc volunteers came out with a snow shovel and work began.  Finally it was decided that they had done enough and the pilot said all he needed was for the doc and vet to hang onto the wing to give it al little traction until he got onto the runway, then they could let go.  I think I had begun to believe anything was possible, because we took off a minute later and I was enchanted once again with the beauty of nature.

Arriving in Willow to a car buried in snow is a whole new story that I will save.

Feeling like a rookie myself and barking at the trail, I can’t wait to get going.

Blynne

Just as every day here in Alaska around Iditarod time is packed with excitement and interest, yesterday was too.  The vet check in the morning was an amazing experience.  Mushers bring their dogs to Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla to be examined and certified healthy by a TEAM of veterinarians before heading out on the trail.  These athletes are likely the best cared for and most closely followed up on as ANY on the planet, humans included.

The dogs have their blood drawn for several tests including a specific research study each year.  They get an EKG and a thorough physical examination by the vets.  If they don’t have microchips yet, they get them so that all of their data may be followed, especially in case of any abnormality.  Sled dogs receive their microchips behind the left ear rather than between the shoulder blades like most pet dogs do.  This is to avoid any irritation by the harnesses.

It is a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with the dogs and see what social and affectionate personalities they have.  The vast majority of them are completely comfortable with the large crowds of people, which will help on Saturday morning and the Ceremonial Start in downtown Anchorage.

In the afternoon I visited with about 180 fourth graders in Palmer and talked about the Iditarod and what a great example of how to achieve your goals it is.  We developed the 4P system of Plan, Prepare, Practice and Persevere which is what the mushers do or anyone else does that truly wants to make their dreams come true.

In the evening was John Baker’s Banquet where he thanks all the people involved with making the Iditarod what it is.  Since his win last year and really even before he has been very involved in youth mentoring and a very positive influence for Native Alaskans, but I wonder if he knows that his courage and perseverance are models for students all over the world?

Students in my CDS classroom in California are expelled high school students who have “seen it all,” but when they see the all, but impossible challenge that he faces in the Iditarod and succeed, they begin to think they could too.  In our classroom we use his model of setting a goal and working toward it and for most of the students the goal is graduating high school, the first step into a world of possibilities.

More soon.

Just itching to get onto the trail with Rookie,

Blynne