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.

And So It Begins…

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Google Earth cameras

Google Earth cameras

At 10:00 a.m., Rob Cooke pulled his hook at the starting the line and the 2015 Iditarod was officially underway. Every 2-minutes mushers and their dogs began their long journey to Nome. The last team to leave Fairbanks was an unofficial team. Dean Osmar, 1984 Iditarod champion, is escorting a Google Earth representative along part of the trail. The Google Earth rep will drive a tag sled behind Dean along the trail.

Bright and early this morning mushers began pulling their dog trucks and filling the dog lot. Mushers began prepping their teams for the long journey across Alaska. Checking and double checking sleds to make sure everything is in place. Every musher and every dog does their own thing while they are waiting for their starting time. Some mushers just relax, sit and wait. Others spend time loving on their dogs. I even saw one musher, Matthew Failor, brushing his teeth. There are dogs that spend time relaxing in the truck or relaxing outside. Some dogs are taking last-minute naps before heading down the trail. Most dogs are energetically screaming, howling, and jumping up and down trying to pull the sled from the truck.

Alan Stevens leaving Fairbanks

Alan Stevens leaving Fairbanks

As their starting time neared, teams started hooking up and were directed to the chute. The announcer was introducing the mushers and giving a countdown; 1-minute, 30-seconds, 10 seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! Off they went to Nenana. Nenana is the first checkpoint on the trail, a 60-mile run, and about a 5-7 hour run. Nenana is an unusual checkpoint for the Iditarod. There are no checkpoints on the road system on the original trail. Due to lack of snow and poor trail conditions, the trail was moved to start in Fairbanks for the second time in 43 years. Since Nenana is on the road system, drop bags weren’t sent here. Instead, handlers were able to drive out and deliver supplies to the mushers. Another effect of being on the road system was more family and friends of the mushers made the trip to cheer them on.

Martin Buser was the first musher to arrive in Nenana at 3:03 p.m. He parked for about 20 minutes. Teams continued to arrive through the late evening. Some teams went through the checkpoint because they camped out or took long breaks along the way. Other teams took their break at the checkpoint. When teams started arriving in Nenana they reported to the checker and recorded their time in. Teams were then led to a spot to park their teams. Now began the process of doing their chores. Straw was put down for the dogs, booties were taken off, food was cooked for the dogs, and the vets made their rounds.

Dee Dee Jonrowe's dogs sleeping

Dee Dee Jonrowe’s dogs sleeping

Inside the checkpoint mushers found spots to dry their clothes and boots next to a warm and toasty fire. They also worked their way to the food table. A delicious spread of spaghetti, soup, hot dogs, fresh salads, chips, and drinks were available to mushers and volunteers. Along the walls of the community center were benches covered with a carpet material. After doing their chores and eating a warm meal, most mushers took advantage of a the benches and took a nap. About an hour or so before they plan to leave they will wake and head back outside to do more chores before they leave. They will need to put their cold weather gear back on, put booties on the dogs, and hook their dogs up. Oh yeah, most will be doing this in the dark with their headlamps.

Next checkpoint for the mushers is Manly Hot Springs.

Fantasy Iditarod Draft

Start your Fantasy Teams this week

Tori says, “Start your Fantasy Teams this week.”

If you enjoy following the Iditarod, you will enjoy it more by following the race with a Fantasy Iditarod Team. Just before I left my students in Iowa, we held our own draft for Iditarod mushers. With their team names created and their teams selected, my students are geared up for the race to begin.

Before draft day the students did a little research and used critical thinking skills to help them form their teams. Each group in my classroom had to choose a name for their team. Some creative team names were, The Lead Dogs, No Place Like Nome, The Mush Potatoes, Team Pawsome. Each team in the class would be drafting five total mushers; 3 main mushers, 1 female musher, and 1 rookie musher.

The main mushers on the team can be any type of musher; veteran, rookie, female, it’s their choice. The female musher obviously has to be a female musher. If one of their main mushers is a female musher, they need to choose a different female musher. It is the same concept with the rookie musher, if one of their main mushers is a rookie, they need a different rookie. In the end, each team will have five different mushers.

Along the trail teams will earn points for arriving at checkpoints. We are using three checkpoints and the finish as places to earn points. Our first checkpoint to earn points in Tanana. If one of your mushers arrives first in Tanana you earn 10 points, second will earn 9 points, third will earn 8 points, and so on. Our second checkpoint is the halfway point, Huslia. The same scoring system applies in Huslia. The third checkpoint is Unalakleet. The same scoring system will apply in Unalakleet. The point system will change when the mushers finish in Nome. View the point system below:

Main Musher

1st place – 50 points

2nd place – 44 points

3rd place – 37 points

4th place – 29 points

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6th place – 20 points

7th place – 19 points

Etc.

Female Musher

1st female – 30 points

2nd female – 25 points

3rd female – 15 points

4th female – 5 points

Rookie Musher

1st rookie – 30 points

2nd rookie – 25 points

3rd rookie – 15 points

4th rookie – 5 points

Red Lantern winner will earn 70 points. The Red Lantern winner is the musher who crosses the finish line last. When discussing this winner with your students talk about the importance of just finishing such a challenging race and persevering through obstacles faced along the way.

My students took about a day and a half to research and make their lists of choices with back up choices in case their musher was already picked. On draft day to determine which team drew first we drew team names out of a hat. There are seven groups in each of my classes and we had five rounds in the draft. The first pick in first hour was Aliy Zirkle. The first pick in second hour was also Aliy Zirkle. Fifth hour picked Jeff King as their first pick.

As students were deciding on their picks I heard them strategizing. A few teams were trying to get a couple of top 10 finishers as well as someone they think would win the Red Lantern. Teams were coming up with strategies that would give them the most points, not necessarily their favorite mushers. Keep this in mind when picking your teams.

We created charts for each class to keep track of our points which we hung outside of the classroom. Each day during the race students will be tracking the mushers and when points are earned they will update the charts. I am bringing back prizes from Alaska for the winning teams.

In addition to playing Fantasy Iditarod in your class with your students, you may want to hold a draft with some friends. It is an exciting way to follow the race. The countdown is on, one week until the race. Get started with Fantasy Iditarod this week. You may want to think about holding off on your draft day until Friday of this week. Thursday, March 5, is the Musher Drawing Banquet. At the banquet the mushers will draw their starting order. If your class chooses to keep track of points at early checkpoints, starting order may make a difference.

 Fantasy Iditarod Lesson Plan

 Fantasy Iditarod Form

The Coat

“The journey of success can be a lonely long walk, blurry and stormy on every side but learn to enjoy the journey anyway.” ~ Bernard Kelvin Clive

“The journey of success can be a lonely long walk, blurry and stormy on every side but learn to enjoy the journey anyway.” ~ Bernard Kelvin Clive

One of the most asked questions I hear from people is, “What are you going to wear to stay warm?” I have to laugh a little bit, because it has been colder here in Iowa than it has been in Alaska. Yesterday morning, February 19, my school had a 2-hour late start due to cold weather. The temperature was approximately 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind chill. The temperature yesterday in Fairbanks got up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Iowa also had a big snowstorm a couple weeks ago blanketing us with close to a foot of snow. Many parts of the original Iditarod trail are feeling the absence of snow, and now the absence of the Iditarod. Due to lack of snow and poor trail conditions race officials have moved the race restart up north to Fairbanks.

Regardless of the recent warmer temperatures, I am prepared for bitter temperatures.

1. Feet: It is critical that your feet stay warm. While out on the trail I will be wearing a pair of well insulated Baffin boots. These boots are perfect for arctic temperatures as they are rated to 148 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Along with my warm boots, I will be wearing comfy, cozy, wool socks. There is nothing like a pair of wool socks to keep your feet warm and dry.

2. Legs: My main pair of pants are The North Face waterproof, insulated ski pants. I will have to beef up my pants with some baselayers and possibly some fleece pants.

3. Upper body: Just like my legs, I’m going to be using baselayers to start off. I am bringing along some Dri-Fit  tops and a couple fleeces. My “undercoat” will be a Patagonia down jacket. Last, but certainly not least, is “The Coat.” A goose-down parka with several pockets and a fur-ruff hood. Terrie Hanke, 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, sewed several patches and reflectors on the coat. After the coat arrived at my house, I had my 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ patched sewed on.

4. Head, neck, hands: On my hands I will start with a pair of liner gloves followed by the biggest mittens I have ever seen. I’m sure my hands will stay warm. My neck will stay warm with a gator which I can pull up over my face, too. I will not likely be stepping outside without my stocking hat.

5. Sleepy time: The infamous traveling sleeping bag will be my bed while out on the trail. Each year the Teacher on the Trail creates a patch to be sewed on to the official teacher sleeping bag. I’ve already zipped myself up in it a few times, seems warm and comfortable. There are countless stories the sleeping bag could tell us all. The amount of history and people this sleeping bag has met is remarkable. I look forward to adding to the rich history.

Photo Feb 19, 9 02 30 PM6. The Patch: When deciding on my patch I knew I wanted it to incorporate both the Iditarod and my school. I came up with an idea, but I am the farthest thing from an artist. I have a friend that works with me at school that just so happens to be an artist/designer. I showed her what I wanted and she ran with the idea. Everything I wanted she included, and then some. Staring at each other are my middle school’s logo and a husky. Our middle school logo is an Indian head, we are the Camanche Indians, with CMSPRIDE and two pencils in the place of feathers. If you concentrate on the black part of the husky you can see blended in his hair is the word Iditarod. Also included is a musher with his dogs and a mountainous background. I love it. After Liesl finished the final design, I went to my friend Colin at Adcraft Printwear. They turned Liesl’s unique design into an incredible patch.

Classroom Ideas:

1. You are going to the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage on March, 7. Make a list of everything you will wear. Plan on being outside for about 4 hours or more. Check the extended forecast for Anchorage.

2. You are heading up to Fairbanks for the Restart on March 9. Make a list of everything you will wear. Plan on being outside for about 4 hours or more. Check the extended forecast for Fairbanks.

3. Your teacher has been selected as the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™. Design him/her a patch that can be added to the sleeping bag.

Checkpoint Checkup: On to Kaltag

“PATH TO SUCCESS: DREAM. PLAN. DO. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. ACHIEVE! IT'S A MESSY JOURNEY.” ― Tom Giaquinto

“PATH TO SUCCESS: DREAM. PLAN. DO. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. FAIL. NEVER GIVE UP. ACHIEVE! IT’S A MESSY JOURNEY.” ― Tom Giaquinto

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We have had to make a change in our journey. Due to lack of snow and poor trail conditions on several sections of the Southern route, the Iditarod Trail Committee has decided to move the restart to Fairbanks. This was a tough decision, but it is what is best for the mushers and dogs. A map of the new route can be found at the bottom of this page. A new list of materials to use for the new route can be found here. Additional information can be found here.

According to the new trail, mushers will leave Nulato and travel approximately 47 miles to Kaltag. Mushers can plan on a 3-5 hour journey. We will be following rookie musher Cindy Abbott to Kaltag.

The 2015 Iditarod will be Cindy’s third attempt to cross under the Burled Arch in Nome. Her first attempt came in 2013 when she was forced to scratch due to a broken pelvis. Her second attempt was last year when she scratched in Rohn due to poor trail conditions and the safety of her dogs. As an avid fan and friend of Cindy’s, I feel this is the year we will see her in Nome.

Cindy is a true inspiration to anyone with a dream. She was diagnosed with a very rare disease, Wegener’s Granulomatosis, but this has not stopped her from achieving her dreams. In 2010, while fighting this disease, Cindy made it to the top of the world as she summited Mt. Everest. My class has spoken to Cindy about this climb and she stated running the Iditarod is more challenging than climbing Mt. Everest. She has to take care of 16 dogs and herself out on the treacherous trail.

652 miles into the 2013 Iditarod, Cindy and her dogs depart Eagle Island for a long and painful run to Kaltag. Since day one, Cindy has felt an agonizing pain in her pelvis. Determined to make it to Nome, she continued on. For the first 30-35 miles the trail was flat, but had solid, crusty drifts. This was tough running for her dogs and even worse for Cindy. Every single bump along the way sent a wave of excruciating pain through her body.

As she gets closer and closer to Kaltag, she will see it up high on the bank on the west side of the river. Before she arrives she will continue to bounce down the trail before she must make a short climb up the riverbank.

When Cindy and the dogs arrived in Kaltag, her pelvis had collapsed to the point that she could not stand anymore. Before taking care of herself, Cindy’s number one priority was the dogs. She did all of her chores of taking care of the dogs on her hands and knees, she could not walk. At this point, she knew she would be scratching in Kaltag, it was what would be best for both her and the dogs.

Cindy did not see much of Kaltag. She was taken to their new medical clinic where she was examined. The next morning she was flown out of Kaltag to a hospital. Cindy was heartbroken to leave her dogs. The relationship between humans and dogs is beyond words. The result of her injuries was a broken pelvis. Cindy had been running close to 700 miles on a broken pelvis.

Cindy and her dogs will be back in Kaltag this year. The Fairbanks trail hooks back up with the original Iditarod trail in Nulato, just north of Kaltag. Determination, perseverance, hard-work, and a positive attitude will guide Cindy along the trail this year. Her journey to Nome began over three years ago. No matter how long it takes, she will cross under the Burled Arch.

2015-iditarod-route1Read more about the village of Kaltag in Virtual Trail Journey.

Read more about the trail between Nulato and Kaltag in Don Bowers Trail Notes.

Writing Prompt

Think of a time when you quit something because it was too hard. Rewrite the ending to that story so you did not quit and finished.

Alaska Culture Virtual Museum

"Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home." - Matsuo Basho

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” – Matsuo Basho

After studying the history of Alaska, my students focused on the culture of Alaska. Alaska is full of unique and interesting cultures. There are many native Alaskans that have participated and still participate in the Iditarod each year. The Iditarod and sled dogs are a big part of Alaska’s culture.

The students in my class recently created a virtual museum showcasing the different cultures of Alaska. Their project began with researching the different cultures and choosing four they would like to learn additional information about. After gathering information, the students had to choose which items they would like to display as exhibits in their museum.

Each group received a template of the virtual museum in their Google Drive folder. They immediately shared the museum with each member of the group. Now, students were able to work on the museum at the exact same time while anywhere. Students were also able to message each other while working on the museum, an excellent Google Drive feature.

Essentially, the virtual museum is a Google Slides presentation, an enhanced presentation. The first page of the slideshow makes you feel like you are looking into the lobby of a museum. There are arrows directing visitors to certain rooms in the museum. When the viewer clicks on one of the arrows or rooms, it changes the screen to the specific room. When the viewer is in the room, they will see the inside of a room in a museum. While in this room the viewer will have the option to click on an exhibit. After clicking on the exhibit, the presentation will direct the viewer farther in the room to read about the exhibit and view an image or video. In each room viewers will have the option to return to the Museum Lobby or the room they came from.

I required each group to include four rooms in their museum. Within each museum they had to include two or three exhibits. Farther in the exhibit room is where the students included a detailed description and an image or video showcasing their featured item. The template provided to the students is very easy to work with. All students have to do is replace their information in the boxes.

If you would like to use the student sample presentation template, click File and scroll down to Make a Copy. It is now yours to do with what you want. Click here to view the student sample Virtual Museum. To begin your tour of the museum click Present in the top right of the screen. Once you are in the lobby, click a room to get started. Enjoy your tour.

Alaska Culture Lesson Plan

Alaska Culture Rubric

Checkpoint and Trivia Tuesday: Grayling to Eagle Island – Why do mushers put coats on their dogs?

"We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey." - Kenji Miyazawa

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” – Kenji Miyazawa

It is time to say good-bye to our young students of Grayling and head up the Yukon river to Eagle Island. This leg of our journey will be approximately 62 miles and will take mushers between 6-9 hours to complete. This section of the trail can be pretty wretched with the blustery wind and bitter temperatures. With the wind, temperatures can drop as low as 40 below zero.

This section of the trail is virtually nothing but river, wide open frozen river.  It will be very peaceful and quiet, to the point of being almost boring, except for the sound of the talkative trees and the beauty of the night sky. It is very critical for the mushers to stay on the marked trail as there are big sections of open water and thin ice. Another danger mushers may encounter is overflow from the side streams and possibly the river itself.

Eagle Island is a very remote checkpoint. The checkpoint is below Ken Chase’s summer fishing cabin. Ken is an Iditarod veteran who has volunteered the use of his land as a checkpoint. The checkpoint itself is actually a weatherport tent and facilities are minimal.

Eagle Island was settled in 1975 when the family of Ralph Conaster arrived at this spot on the Yukon River. Their way of life was commercial fishing and trapping. The checkpoint at Eagle Island used to be Ralph’s large cabin until it burned down. That’s when the checkpoint started using the large tent on Ken Chase’s land. Try to think of a luxurious tent, if you would like to call it that. The tent is heated and there is straw for the mushers and volunteers to sleep on.

Earlier I mentioned this section of the trail can be very windy. With this in mind it will be important for mushers to dress properly for this section to stay protected from the elements, especially their face. The dogs will need to be dressed properly as well. Coats, t-shirts, and fleeces are among the gear the dogs will need. Watch this video clip of Aliy Zirkle explaining how she gears up her dogs.

When the mushers leave Eagle Island they will journey north about 60 miles to Kaltag.

346 miles to Nome! Next stop, Kaltag.

Ideas for the classroom:

Why do mushers put coats on their dogs?

Why do mushers put t-shirts on their dogs?

Why do some dogs wear coats and others do not?

List all the gear you would wear if the temperature was -45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several Iditarod mushers are currently running the Yukon Quest (another 1000 mile race) this week. Compare and contrast the rules of each race.

Which 2015 Iditarod mushers are racing the Yukon Quest?