Photo of the Day – Reflections Lake

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“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” – John Muir

On a map, the Palmer Hay Flats encompass about 45,000 miles of freshwater streams, marshes, bogs and silty glacial rivers.  In person, its wild beauty is inspiring.  The refuge is the stop for thousands and thousands of migratory birds, and many stay and nest and raise their young. Ducks, geese, swans, and other shorebirds are drawn to these wetlands as they migrate to and from the north.  I spent the afternoon on a one mile hike around Reflections Lake with Sara Lamont, an Iditarod Education Committee member, long-time Iditarod race volunteer and our designated “moose whisperer” as she has the talent for spotting moose.  Sara loves sharing her passion for Alaska’s wildlife with others, and our walk inspired me to continue to spend time in the beauty of nature, not only during my time here in Alaska, but when I return home to Texas.

Map and Wildlife Trail Guide for Reflections Lake

Dream A Dream

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Driving through Willow, Alaska to Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm, I reflected upon the ongoing situation with the Sockeye wildfire. As of this posting, the fire was not totally contained in the thousands of acres affected, but the hard work and dedication of many people continues. Driving to the kennel to meet the other teachers attending the Iditarod Summer Conference for 2015, we couldn’t help but notice the burnt fir trees on either side of the road. We saw many homemade signs along the highway thanking firefighters for their brave efforts to save homes, many belonging to Iditarod mushers. It was touching and thoughtful and reflected well upon the community of Willow and the people of Alaska.

As our car pulled into the Dream a Dream Dog Farm, we were greeted by dozens of happy husky dogs and 19 eager teachers from around the country ready to learn and share lessons, ideas and give a little inspiration to one another as we camped out together in this special place.

DSC00133In 1983, our host, Vern Halter, ran his first Iditarod, and for 21 years he raced the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. He placed in the top 5 of the Iditarod three times and the top 10 eight times. Vern is the 1990 Yukon Quest Champion and the 1989 Yukon Quest runner-up.  Now he is dedicated to raising, training and racing the Alaskan Husky and guiding rookie mushers who live and train with him such as Cindy Abbott, the 2015 Iditarod Red Lantern winner.  I had the honor of meeting Cindy at the Winter Teacher Conference when I attended with a group of teachers from my school. We all felt drawn to her strong spirit and “can do” attitude.  Vern prepared her well.

Vern’s musher conference room is a treasure trove of Iditarod history and memorabilia. His experience and memories are on display for all to see, and every single teacher was inspired and excited to learn more from this veteran musher mentor. We laid out our camping gear on our beds in the loft and came downstairs for a meet & greet.  DSC00158

The teachers at the conference are from all over the country, and flew in from thousands of miles away from states such as Florida, Minnesota, and Texas. We all became fast friends. For some teachers it has been a lifelong dream to make the trek to Alaska, and we all felt privileged to be here. We gathered our group and quickly made our way out to the dog yard and greeted dozens of happy huskies with hugs and kisses. It was “dog heaven.” For the majority of the teachers present this was their very first experience in a dog kennel, and their faces said it all. Dogs jumped and howled with excitement as we made our way around to each dog house petting and hugging each and every husky. There was a whole lot of joy at the dog farm this evening!

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Speaking of veterans, Terrie Hanke, the 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ was our camp cook this week. Terrie is dedicated to the Teacher on the Trail™ program, and during the Iditarod she will visit checkpoints at the back of the pack and share her adventures and report on the site. She is a real treasure to the program, and I consider her a mentor as I travel the trail this year. After supper it wDSC00208as time for some puppy love! Right now Vern has six 3 month old puppies from his spring litter, and he gave them all names that reflect Cindy Abbott’s journey to the Red Lantern this year. This continues a long tradition in the mushing community, and is a great testament to the respect and admiration that the Dream a Dream Dog Farm has for Cindy.

Bounding through the wild trail behind the kennel, we tried to keep up with the rowdy pups as they made their way over tree stumps and roots all the way to the wooden bridge over the babbling brook. This took a little coaxing from the teachers, but they stumbled their way to the other side. It was simply adorable to watch. They are young huskies in training for the future, and under the care of Vern Halter and his team, we may see them in The Last Great Race® one day.

From Deep in the Heart of Texas

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Howdy!

I am honored and thrilled to begin my journey with you all as the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™.  I am following in the footsteps of many wonderful and talented teachers who have traveled the trail before me and have shared their stories, lessons, and inspiration with classrooms around the world.  I hope to live up to their examples and provide my fellow educators around the world with innovative and creative ways to bring “The Last Great Race on Earth®” into the classroom and help inspire students with the many lessons this special unit provides.

I am currently a fourth grade teacher here in Austin, Texas, often referred to as, “the live music capital of the world!”  Austin is a wonderful and unique capital city with a laid back attitude and a dedication to bring music and the arts to all.  Our official motto is “Keep Austin weird!”  This means different things to different “Austinites,” but for me as an educator, I feel inspired to think “outside the box” and find unique ways to teach my students to care about the world and want to make a difference.

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As I reflect on my 20 years as a public school teacher, I remember leaving the University of Texas, eager to change the world and inspire my students to find their passion and follow their dreams.  I soon realized that my goals were set high, but it is still my passion to this day to encourage my students to DREAM BIG!  I began my career working with special education students in a school where I did not have access to textbooks or even a chalkboard. Teaching in such a difficult situation, and with limited resources, I simply shared my own passions with my students; a love of nature by visiting nearby caves (in my own car) or performing plays and reading adapted classic literature (I bought myself) such as The Three Musketeers. I soon realized that every student in every classroom has the same desire; to be inspired about what they are being asked to learn. My last year at Campbell Elementary School, I was awarded a grant to develop a space called “Kid City” working with the University of Texas School of Design. Real world buildings resembling a city were built to encourage real world math skills in a simulated city environment.  I reach outside the four walls of my classroom and bring the community inside to help us achieve our goals.  This will continue to be an expectation of mine throughout the year in my classroom and on this blog.

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I take every opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher and, most importantly, to give back and share and collaborate with my peers. At Eanes Elementary, I have embraced Project Based Learning and I was asked to pilot 1:1 tablet technology for all the Eanes Independent School District elementary schools. I have presented locally and nationally at teacher conferences, sharing the tools and ideas I have learned to be successful in the classroom.  What inspires me now is to continue to find ways to give my students opportunities to share their work and passion with others nationally and globally. I am thrilled to be the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ so I can continue to share my love of nature, animals and history with others around the world.

I hope y’all will join me on the “trail” this year, and my hope is to provide you with a little inspiration along the way. Happy Trails!

“Don’t Love Something That Can’t Love You Back” – Martin Buser

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“It’s the friends we meet along life’s road who help us appreciate the journey.” – Unknown

Martin Buser at the Restart in Fairbanks

Martin Buser at the Restart in Fairbanks

“Don’t love something that can’t love you back.” – Martin Buser. Truer words could not have been expressed during a time of tragedy in lives of so many in Willow, Alaska.

 I’ve been spending the last week at Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm (mile 64) helping out before the annual Iditarod Summer Teacher Camp. On an unusually hot Sunday afternoon my experience at Vern’s took a huge turn. As Cindy, Lynda, and I were outside preparing the dogs for the tour, Vern was inside giving his presentation. The bus driver for the tour group came over to Lynda and asked her what mile marker she lived near because a forest fire just broke out at mile marker 77. Lynda lives near mile 74, so she took off to check on her home, dogs, and cats. As we drove up the highway to the tour halfway point to meet Vern and the dogs to water them, we could see the smoke intensifying in the distance. The tour finished as the fire expanded from 200 acres to 1000 acres in a matter of hours.

 After the tour, the preparation began. A few neighbors and friends began transporting their dogs to Vern’s kennel as they were being evacuated from their homes. Including Vern’s dogs there were close to 80 dogs on the property. The fire continued to spread south and even leapt across the highway.

 In a matter of hours word had spread across social media and throughout the mushing community. Calls for help and support were being cast out on Facebook. People in the small community of Willow had begun loading up dogs, horses, chickens, and personal effects; anything they could grab and evacuated their homes. The fire strengthened and continued to spread.

 At Vern’s we began to prepare for the worst. We started loading up dog food, necklines, water, harnesses, ganglines, dog dishes; as many supplies that would fit in our vehicles. We drove the 4-wheelers about 10 miles south to Houston, loaded with even more dog food. We waited. As we waited the power flickered on and off a few times and at one point staying off for about 20-minutes. We waited.

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Some of Vern’s dogs at Happy Trails Kennel

 It was now our time to evacuate. We began moving more vehicles down to Houston. Since there was close to 80 dogs at Vern’s, it was necessary to call for additional trucks. Trucks were sent from Martin Buser and Dee Dee Jonrowe to help load up dogs and evacuate. Approximately 80 dogs, including Vern’s racing dogs, house pets, 10-week old puppies, 3 friends’ dogs, were now loaded up and on their way to Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel. Buser graciously offered up his kennel to anyone. When we arrived at Buser’s, there were close to 400 dogs spread out around the kennel. We immediately began arranging the dogs around the property sheltering them from direct sunlight. Our number one priority was the dogs and their care. We made sure they had water and enough room to lie down and be comfortable. The puppies took refuge in their very own large puppy pen complete with a couple of doghouses.

 If I ever had any doubt that people are genuinely good, those thoughts were laid to rest amidst this heartbreaking disaster. Martin Buser, who ironically battled a fire at his home in Big Lake back in 1996, opened his kennel, visitor center, Bed and Breakfast, offered dog food, people food; any accommodation necessary, to anyone that needed help. When we arrived there was countless water dishes already filled and ready to serve up to the dogs, chains, lines, and doghouses available and ready to hook up dogs. During my 3-day stay at the Buser’s kennel I gained new friends and gained a great deal of faith in humanity. So many people stopped by at all hours of the day to drop off donations of dog food, kennels, water, human food, meals, clothes, and money. Some even stopped by to help volunteer to clean up poop, dish up water, or just lend a helping hand.

 A couple of the mushers that were staying at Martin’s place were Dee Dee Jonrowe and Justin and Jaimee High. Dee Dee, her husband, and the Highs are neighbors off mile 73. Dee Dee and her husband lost their property. The only thing left standing was a building that dog handlers sometimes stay in. I had an opportunity to see her place first-hand as we headed out to help put out hot spots. When we arrived we heard great news of her chickens surviving. We could still feel the intense heat of the fire as we sauntered around her property. Smoke billowed from a shipping container filled with dog food. The burnout of multiple vehicles left trails of molten aluminum from the motors and rims. Dee Dee’s father’s classic 1953 automobile, which was a gift to her as it was her birth year, was resting within the skeleton of a burned up trailer. It looked like a war-zone.

 

Doghouses surrounded by scorched trees

Doghouses surrounded by scorched trees

We stopped at Justin and Jaimee’s property as well. Six months ago Justin and Jaimee had already lost their home to a fire. They were in the process of rebuilding on the same exact property while living in a shipping container that housed all of their possessions. Again, destruction hit the High’s; they lost everything. The home was nothing but a smoking hole in the ground. Scorched trees surrounded relatively untouched doghouses. Directly next to the burned up temporary home of the shipping container was a table holding dishes that had been washed the morning of the fire, undamaged. It was a heartbreaking scene to witness.

 “Don’t love something that can’t love you back.” Many people lost their entire life possessions. I know it’s hard to hear, but you can replace possessions, you can’t replace lives. All of these people have their dogs and their lives. The possessions may be gone, but you still have the memories and the stories that went along with the belongings. As I was talking with a friend last week we talked about the importance of one day at a time. This statement is perfect for those living through this tragedy.

 I never imagined this would be part of my experience, but I feel privileged to have been able to help the many people in need and witness so much selflessness. Fierce competitors during the Iditarod in March, compassionate support teams in time of need.

We moved all the dogs and puppies back to Vern’s as of Wednesday morning (June 17). Everyone is happy and comfortable in their own doghouses.

Next Dream: Run the Iditarod

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." - Lao-Tzu

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao-Tzu

My first half Ironman

My first half Ironman

A few years ago I was watching an Ironman Kona special on T.V. I was amazed by the commitment, dedication, and inspiring stories of these athletes. Each time someone would cross the finish line and Mike Reilly would announce, “[insert name] YOU are an Ironman,” chills went up and down my spine. I started imagining my name being announced. Immediately after the show I started looking for a half-Ironman close to home. In August of 2014 I completed my first half-Ironman with my eyes set on a full Ironman. I am currently training for Ironman Wisconsin in September. Had it not been for a T.V. special, inspiring stories, and a dream, I would  have never imagined doing an Ironman.

In Nome under the Burled Arch

In Nome under the Burled Arch

As I was standing in Nome, the feeling I had when watching the Ironman special came rushing back. I was standing there listening to the announcer call the names of the mushers as they crossed under the Burled Arch. You can’t help but feel extremely happy for those mushers who put so much time, effort, and commitment into making their dream a reality. I kept wondering how they felt during that moment or what they were thinking. I started imagining them calling my name.

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At Vern’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm

Two summers ago I made my first trip to Alaska. One of the many amazing places I visited was Vern’s Dream and Dream Dog Farm. Here I had the opportunity to play with puppies, take them on hikes, harness sled dogs, and take my first sled dog ride in the back of an ATV. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do this.” Just as most of us do, I shoved the thought aside and it became a dream. There is no way I could be a musher, I live in Iowa. There is no way I could afford to be a musher on a teacher’s salary. There is no way I could be a musher without quitting my job; a job I love.

During my journey as Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, I continued to read about, write about, and witness incredible Iditarod adventures. Each book I read, blog I wrote, or other person’s adventure I witnessed, something kept nagging at me; I want to do this. Out on the trail, my journey was indescribable, but I could feel it was not quite complete. There is something I still feel I need to do; I want to do this.

When I arrived home, still more reading of Iditarod books and looking at pictures some mushers were posting on Facebook; something still missing. My journey is incomplete; I want to do the Iditarod. I started pondering how I could run the Iditarod without quitting my job. I contacted Cindy Abbott who did just that; she ran the Iditarod and didn’t have to quit her job in California. We chatted back and forth a little and she pointed me in Vern Halter’s direction. My next step was to contact Vern. I have spent some time at Vern’s during the Iditarod Summer Teacher Camp, so we know each other. After getting a positive vibe from Vern I had to figure out what to do about school. After speaking with my principal, we determined extended leave would be the best plan. My principal has been very supportive knowing how passionate I am about my students, the school district, and the Iditarod. After waiting around for a month until the next school board meeting, my request for extended leave was approved. I am going to run the Iditarod.

Just as the inspirational stories of Ironman finishers moved me to attempt an Ironman, the inspiring stories I witnessed on the trail have moved me to attempt the Iditarod. Something I have learned over the last few years is if you have a dream, don’t let anything get in your way. I could have easily given up when I first thought that this was impossible. It is not impossible, with the support of many people, I found a way. I am excited to continue my Iditarod journey.

I will be spending this summer at Vern’s place working with the dogs, puppies, and tour groups. I will begin to develop a relationship with the dogs that will take me to Nome. I will head back up to Vern’s from October to the end of March training and qualifying for the Iditarod. According to the Iditarod rules, a musher must complete two 300-mile qualifiers and another approved qualifier for a total of 750 miles to be qualified.

I hope to again be in Nome, this time crossing under the Burled Arch with a team of dogs.

Dreams Can Come True

"I know how the distance between your dreams and the reality can seem to be scary. But for me, my dream is one long journey and I am ready to take every step on the route." - Mina Deanna

“I know how the distance between your dreams and the reality can seem to be scary. But for me, my dream is one long journey and I am ready to take every step on the route.” – Mina Deanna

The most difficult posting I have had to write so far, has been this one. Ever since I arrived home I have been trying to figure out a way to put my experience in words and share it with the world; it is impossible. There are no words to describe the feelings or what I experienced out on the trail.

I was told by several former Iditarod Teachers on the Trail™ this will be a life-changing experience. After only being back for a month, I can honestly say it has been life changing. I have a completely different outlook on education, coaching, and life in general. I have noticed a change in how I teach in the classroom and interact with my students. Once I arrived home I started tennis season. My coaching style and highly competitive attitude changed immediately.

Since I have been back I have been busy writing articles and presenting to a variety of groups in the community. This too, has not been easy. I want people to fully understand the impact this journey has had on my life, but unless they’ve been there, they never will.

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Jason Mackey

One thing, among many, that I enjoy sharing is that the Iditarod is much more than just a dog race. There were so many inspiring people, touching stories and dreams fulfilled.  Long-lasting relationships and memories were created that will last a lifetime. I take pride in being able to share the many compassionate stories I witnessed on my journey. These stories have inspired me to continue fulfilling my dreams.

One major impact this journey has had on my life is the importance of turning your dreams into reality. If nothing is done, they stay just that, dreams. Had I not made the decision to look at the application for Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, my life may be going a completely different way. Making that first step is what started my dream down the path of reality.

I encountered many people along the trail who did not let anything stand in the way of their dreams; money, illness, cancer, disease, and other heavy burdens. It is encouraging to see what some will put themselves through to achieve their ultimate dream.

This journey has helped me understand the importance of encouraging my students to dream and to attempt to make their dreams come true. You should never let anything stand in the way of your dreams. Life is too short to say it can’t be done or it’s too hard. If you want it, go after it and achieve your dreams.

Pictures Tell a Story – Family

Grandpa Phil and Rudy

Grandpa Phil and Rudy

Last night culminated the 2015 Iditarod with the annual Iditarod Volunteer Potluck at the Millennium Hotel. Several volunteers gathered together to enjoy conversation, stories, pictures, and fun for a final time before everyone packs up and heads home for another year. There is no mistake, though, the Iditarod is one massive family. There are approximately 2000 volunteers who make up this large family.

Several volunteers have been around since the beginning and several are rookies. Either way, everyone feels a part of this family. Without the many volunteers, this race definitely could not happen. The Iditarod is a year-round job, a job which relies on volunteers. Some volunteer year-round, some a couple of months, and some just during the race. No matter how long one volunteers, each is critical for the race.

A bulk of the volunteers only see each other once a year, during race time. Once reunited, the volunteers pick up right where they left off the year before, just like family. Wonderful, lifelong friendships are created because of the Iditarod. I experienced this myself before the race, along the trail, and after the race. I witnessed the many friendships and family like atmosphere along the trail. I was welcomed into the family immediately and will forever be part of this family.

Some awesome volunteers in Nome

Some awesome volunteers in Nome