The First Step

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


The journey to that 1049-mile race began today for many mushers. They took that first step to reaching Nome.

Father and son signing up, sisters signing up, and even boyfriend and girlfriend signing up. Jeff Schultz autographing his new book and taking photos.   Camera crews, junior mushers, rookies, veterans, even some old-timers, and many volunteers are enjoying a beautiful summer Alaska day.

Today the campers had the opportunity to go to the annual Iditarod volunteer picnic and musher sign up day at headquarters. The event began promptly at 9:30 with the first musher signing up at 9:32. Rohn Buser, son of veteran musher Martin Buser, was the first to sign up. Shortly after were Ray Redington Jr. and Martin Buser. Strange bit of information about the first three to sign up, they were all left-handed. Talking with Rohn, there are many mushers that are left-handed. As we watched several mushers sign up today, we indeed saw many lefties.

DSC_0907Starting at around noon, everyone enjoyed a wonderful lunch catered by Golden Corral. Lunch consisted of pulled pork or chicken, potato salad, Cole slaw, Cajun sausage, homemade BBQ chips, and a cookie or brownie. It was delicious.

After lunch many mushers continued to stroll in to sign up for the 2015 race. A huge treat was to see fan favorite, Aliy Zirkle. Mushers had until 2:30 today to sign up to be entered into the drawing to win back their entry fee, $3000. The winning mushers must be present to win. The first musher drawn was, Jan Steves. The second musher drawn was rookie, Ben Harper. Both mushers were overjoyed to win their entry fee back. Running the Iditarod is a very expensive sport, and anything can help.

 The last part of the day was to determine the order of the bib draw. The bib draw takes place at the Mushers Banquet the Thursday before the race in Anchorage. There were 60 mushers that signed up today that were drawn. You can find the order that these mushers will draw for bib numbers on the Iditarod website.

The deadline to register for the race is December 1. Any musher that registers from now until then will be placed after the first 60 mushers for the bib drawing.

I was able to officially take my first step in my journey today as well. At the picnic Jen Reiter officially handed over Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ to me. This is done through the handing over of the sleeping bag used on the trail. Jen did an incredible job this past year. I know I learned a ton through her posts and from just talking with her. I have big shoes to fill, but I look forward to the challenge.

It was very exciting to see all the mushers and volunteers sharing their stories from the 2014 race. You can see it in their eyes how much passion they have for this race and for what they do. I am very blessed to have been part of seeing people take their first steps. It’s very exciting for me to be able to say I will watch many of their journeys along the trail.

Man’s Best Friend

 “The gift of friendship is that it takes us by the hand and reminds us we are not alone in the journey of life…”  Unknown

“The gift of friendship is that it takes us by the hand and reminds us we are not alone in the journey of life.” Unknown

You are driving your family over 1000 miles this summer on vacation. I’m sure you want your family to arrive safely; after all, they are the most important people in your life. With that in mind, you probably have been checking your car inside and out to make sure it is safe to travel. On the trip you constantly check the oil, put the best gas in it, check the tires, and keep it in tiptop shape.

Mushers do the same with their dogs. These dogs that are taking them over 1000 miles across the state of Alaska are their very best friends. They make sure these dogs are well taken care of.

Dr. Stu NelsonToday we listened to Iditarod chief veterinarian, Dr. Stu Nelson. This past race was Dr. Nelson’s 19th year as chief vet. The 9 years prior to that he was an Iditarod trail vet volunteer. It is safe to say that Stu has quite a bit of experience dealing with sled dogs.

These mushers take better care of their dogs than most people take care of themselves. To journey to the Iditarod the process for taking care of a dog is ongoing. Training formally starts in September, however, many dogs will condition in the summer with little runs here and there. In February, screening the dogs for the Iditarod takes place. During this process dogs will be given a microchip or get their current one updated. In most dogs, microchips are placed between the shoulder blades. In sled dogs, the microchip is placed behind the ears. This is done so the harness isn’t rubbing back and forth on the chip. The dogs are also given an EKG. This is to make sure the dog does not have any underlying abnormalities in his or her heart. Finally, the dogs are given a general health check-up. Dr. Nelson reads all the results to these check-ups and uses it as an opportunity to call each musher.

Two weeks prior to the race up to the Wednesday before the race is the physical vet exam. Mushers can choose to have a private vet conduct this exam or take their dogs to headquarters and have the exam done there. Mushers also must give their dog a de-wormer about 2 weeks prior to the race that Iditarod sends to them.

DSC_0773DSC_0775During the race dogs are given booties, straw to sleep on, blankets to cover up with, jackets to keep them warm. They are also given the best food concoction a dog could ever want. Out on the trail there are 40-45 vets that move up the trail. Mushers must carry a dog team diary that the vets communicate with each other through. At each checkpoint the dogs are checked out as well. This exam is a hands-on exam. The vets use the acronym HAW/L (haw means left, L means left) for the exam. H – heart and hydration. The vets will check out the dogs’ heart to see how it is doing. They will also check the hydration of each dog. This can be done through the gums or a skin fold test. A – appetite and attitude. The vet will talk with the musher about how the dog is eating. The vet will also check out how the dog’s attitude appears and discuss with the musher about the attitude on the tail. W – weight (bodyweight). This can be the most challenging test. It can be very hard to tell if a dog is too skinny or just a thin dog. The average weight for a sled dog is 50-55 pounds. Some can be in the 40’s and some can be up in the 60’s. L – lungs. Vets will listen to the lungs. It is very important to catch pneumonia very early on because this can be a fatal illness.

Iditarod sled dogs are known as marathoners. I can tell you that I ran a marathon last year and I didn’t have a single test done on me to make sure that I was healthy enough to do the run. I do know, however, if my best buds, Dixon and Chili, were to do that, they would definitely be getting tested.

DSC_0685Dr. Nelson stated that awareness is extremely important to mushers. He really makes it a point to educate both his vets and mushers on how to pick up on the early signs of an abnormality in their dog. There is constant research and studies going on to learn as much as they can about the care of these dogs.

For a musher, their sled dog is their best friend, their life, and their companion. They would never do anything to harm their buddy. The amount of care that goes into these dogs shows you just how much they care for their best bud. To make a journey this long and treacherous, you must make sure your companion is well taken care of.

Lost and Found

“I am no longer afraid of becoming lost, because the journey back always reveals something new.”  Billy Joel

“I am no longer afraid of becoming lost, because the journey back always reveals something new.” Billy Joel


What do you do when you get lost on your journey?

People get lost on their journeys all of the time. What you do when you get lost says a lot about you as a person. Many mushers get lost along the trail.  Getting lost doesn’t always mean you fail, it teaches you many new things.  Today I met five siblings who were recently lost and eventually found. Their story is incredible.

On May 19, a fire started on the Kenai Peninsula near Funny River road. The fire spread very quickly. The damage was well over 150,000 acres of land.  Read about the fire in this article from the Anchorage Daily News.  This is another article from Anchorage Daily News.

Many people were evacuated as a result of this fire. The five siblings I met today were victims of this fire. These five victims, 3 brothers and 2 sisters, were 2 week old wolf pups. Firefighters rescued these pups when they came across their den. The firefighters immediately went in the den to bring the pups out. When found, they had been injured by a porcupine, severely dehydrated, and extremely hungry. However, they were alive. These pups were alone, away from mom and dad, and lost on their new journey of life. Everyone, including the pups, was bound and determined that they survive.

DSC_0638The pups were taken to Anchorage to be taken care of, and currently are living at the Alaska Zoo. All five are healthy, cuddly young pups. We were able to see the pups today during playtime. They are so adorable and loveable that you just want to take one home. However, this is impossible. Even though these pups will be raised completely by humans, they will never be able to be domesticated. They will always have the wild instinct within them.

These pups are a reminder that we can overcome obstacles in our journey.  They were 2 weeks old when they lost their mom and dad.  They were 2 weeks old when their home was burning up all around them.  It would have been very easy for these little guys and gals to give up.  They chose to live, and with that they now have a new exciting journey ahead of them at the Minnesota Zoo.

Check out this exciting article from the Huffington Post about the pups’ rescue.

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Building Character

“Character is a journey, not a destination.” William J. Clinton


As young mushers evolve into seasoned veterans, they build a lot of character along the way.

barbToday our group made a visit to Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. While there, we were able to listen to Barbara Redington speak. Barb is the wife of Raymie Redington, son of Joe Redington, Sr. (“Father of the Iditarod”). Barb spoke to us about the Jr. Iditarod. Barb has the honor of being a board member of the Jr. Iditarod and has also run the race.

The Jr. Iditarod started in 1977. Four young men came up with the idea and spoke with Joe Redington, Sr. about it, and he loved the idea. Prior to the Jr., races for young mushers were mostly sprint races lasting 10-15 miles. These guys wanted a longer race. The Jr. Iditarod is a 175-mile trail that starts on the Knik Lake and heads out to Yentna Station. In Yentna, the halfway point, the mushers have a mandatory 10-hour stop. After their rest, they head back to Knik Lake to finish. Many of the same rules that are used in the Iditarod are used in the Jr. For instance, no outside help can be used.

Lynden, a family construction and logistics company, has sponsored the race for years. The Lynden family used to be sponsors of Susan Butcher when she was racing. They provide sponsorship in many ways from taking pictures at the race, being a M.C. at the banquet, to providing scholarships to the mushers. Last year $28,000 in scholarships were awarded. The winning mushers, Conway Seavey, came in first and won a $6000 scholarship. The rest are split amongst top finishers. The city of Wasilla also chips in money towards expenses for the race and prizes for the mushers. The race cost about $10,000-15,000. At the banquet the scholarships are awarded to top finishers. On top of that, all mushers receive some prizes. This past year $15,000-17,000 in prizes were past out. There were prizes from hamburgers to a beaver hat. Libby Riddles, first woman Iditarod winner, makes a hat each year for the first female Jr. finisher. The winner of the Jr. also receives 2 round trip tickets to Nome to the Iditarod finishers banquet to receive his/her award.

jrpicThe Jr. board is very proud of the scholarships awarded to the mushers. The scholarships cannot be exchanged for cash. The mushers must use them at any learning facility. This can be a college, vocational school, etc. One musher used the scholarship to get her pilot’s license. Barb stressed how important it is for these young kids to further their education. She is happy to be able to give these young kids this opportunity.

jrpatch1To run the Jr. Iditarod you must be between the ages of 14-17. This race does a great job of promoting punctuality among the young kids. When they get to the halfway point, they really have to manage their time well so they are able to leave when scheduled. Remember, they are not just taking care of themselves; they are taking care of 10 dogs. They also promote sportsmanship. This year the sportsmanship award was given to Kevin Harper. Kevin was in 3rd place when leaving Yentna. All of a sudden he realized there were 2 white dogs behind him. Kevin found out they were Jimmy Lanier’s dogs by looking at the tags. Kevin grabbed the dogs and did a 180 with his dog team and sled, which is tremendously difficult. He headed back towards Yentna looking for Jimmy. He found him. Turns out Jimmy’s swing dogs chewed the gangline and the lead dogs got loose. After Kevin returned the dogs, he did another 180 and headed back towards the finish. Kevin finished the race in 3rd place and was awarded the sportsmanship award for helping Jimmy out on the trail. This was such a selfless act. Knowing he was in 3rd place, competing against others, Kevin went out of his way to help a fellow competitor out. That is the great part about mushing. The integrity they have on the trail.

Many of these veterans can attest to the fact that a lot of character is built out on this 175 miles worth of trail.

Visit the Jr. Iditarod website.

The Jr. Iditarod also has a FaceBook page – Junior Iditarod

"You have 175 mile trail to complete, but you have a life of trail ahead of you." Barb Redington

“You have 175 mile of trails to complete, but you have a life of trails ahead of you.” Barb Redington

Remember the Journey

"Others might remember winning or losing; I remember the journey."

“Others might remember winning or losing; I remember the journey.” – Apolo Anton Ohno


The Iditarod is the “Last Great Race.”  We must remember the history and journeys of this last great race.

Joe MayToday we had the pleasure of listening to Joe May, 4-time Iditarod finisher and 1980 Iditarod champion.  This man is incredible and shared many exciting stories with us.  One aspect of the race that Joe is adamant about is saving the history of the race.  As a matter of fact, Joe and many others associated with the Iditarod are compiling a book about the history of the race.  There is so much history in this race that they are including the best of the best.  The project has been ongoing for about four and a half years and is scheduled to be finished in December.  The title of the book is, Iditarod: The first 10 years.  An Anthology.

Since this race started in 1973, it has evolved tremendously.  Technology and money has really become a big part of the race.  Joe stated today, “that when a new idea comes along, you have to throw out the old one.”  However, he did mention that it is important to preserve the history.  Early on when the race started, many mushers, including Joe, decided to do the race as an adventure.  These early mushers knew how to make their own trail, were exceptional at training their dogs, and knew how to survive out on the trail.

Working with dogs years ago, mushers didn’t have the large kennels that they have today.  Joe had just enough dogs to run a team, 12-13.  He paid very close attention to these dogs.  He had their discipline under the utmost control.  As a trapper, Joe would have to leave his team to check the line, so when he said “stay,”  those dogs had to stay.  Back then, mushers did not have a run/rest schedule when running their dogs.  The mushers would run their dogs until the dogs told them they were tired or it was time to eat.  Their dogs were always enthusiastic about running.  Joe changed later to having a run/rest schedule. This allowed his dogs to always stay fresh.  You don’t want to run your dogs until they are tired, you want to stop running them before they get tired.

Not only has the way mushers work with dogs changed, food has changed, for dog and human.  In Joe’s first race in 1976, his sponsor’s wife packed him a sack for each checkpoint with a burger and a chocolate bar.  Joe found that he became very hungry on the trail.  Joe had 2000 pounds of beaver meat sent out on the trail for his dogs.  Today mushers use a mixture of dry dog food, meat, fish, water to feed their dogs.  People have done intense research on the amount of calories a dog burns on the trail and what type of food will work best.  A dog burns approximately 10,000 calories on the trail.

What the dogs sleep on has evolved since the start.  In the early races the dogs slept directly on the ice or snow.  This caused the dogs to lose a lot of the calories they consumed and caused them to tire sooner.  Think about what you would be doing if sleeping on ice or snow; shivering, losing calories.  Some mushers started using spruce bows, this saved calories in the dogs.  However, you couldn’t find spruce bows everywhere and it took a lot of time to gather.  In 1979, Joe had sandbags, perhaps more lie a sand mat, shipped to each checkpoint.  He used one for each dog to sleep on.  A couple of years later someone started using straw.  After that, Iditarod starting shipping straw to each checkpoint for the mushers.  Joe believes this was the most significant game changer in the race.

The trail has changed.  In the beginning, there were no trail markers.  Mushers had to find their way.  There were many times when mushers got lost or found themselves turned around.  Today there are about 20,000 trail markers used in this 1000 mile race.  Eventually, GPS trackers were added.  These were a positive addition for the public.  Joe said that early on in the race mushers took a responsibility for their own life in the Iditarod, it was a risk.  Today, there is almost this expectation that someone will help or save you.

Everything changes, that is part of life.  Everything also has a history.  It is crucial that we preserve our history so that it is not lost.  Remember others’ journeys.  Without their journeys we may not have the opportunity to take our own journey.

Joe May’s 1980 Iditarod winning time was 14 days, 7 hours, 11 minutes, 51 seconds

Charles’ Last Run

"It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end."

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.”


What do mushers do with their sled dog when he/she retires? Just as they had the best life before their journey through the Iditarod, they have the best life still, but more relaxing. Our best bud here at Vern’s, Charles, retired as a sled dog on March 1, 2014.

CharlesCharles is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky. Charles was not born at the Dream a Dream Dog Farm. Vern acquired him from Jeff King. Charles has quite the sled dog resume. Charles has finished many sled dog races in the state of Alaska. What is most impressive is he has finished five Iditarod races.

Unbeknownst to Charles, this season would be his last. Charles took his last pre-race truck ride down to 4th street in Anchorage. He jumped up and down anxiously in his harness, in lead, under the starting line in Anchorage for the last time. He heard the announcer call, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….GO,” for the last time. He charged out of the starting chute one final time. This one last run for Charles was the Ceremonial start of the 2014 Iditarod. He led Cindy Abbott, her “Iditarider”, and his best friend Vern, down 4th street around Cordova and out to the Campbell Airstrip. He was unharnessed and unhooked one last time. He took one final post-race truck ride to the kennel.

When Charles was taken out of the truck after they arrived at the kennel he was not hooked up. Instead Vern said, “You are free!” Free to roam the kennel. Free to sit on any kennel he wants. Free to sleep anywhere he wants. Free to be “King of the Kennel.” Charles just stood there. He didn’t know what to do. His journey through the Iditarod had come to an end. Nobody asked him. I think if Vern had given Charles a choice, he would continue to work as a sled dog for the rest of his life. That is how much he loves it, and how much all sled dogs love their job.

CharlesWatching Charles around the yard now that he is retired is awesome. He comes right up to us wanting love and attention. He sticks his paw out as to say, “Pet me. Love me.” So, what do we do? We pet him. We love him. He struts around that yard as if he owns the place. He sits up top of Aspen’s house like it is his. It is, of course, exactly where his house used to sit. Charles still thinks he is a working sled dog. He will forever be an extraordinary lead dog.

Charles is now a pet. Most sled dogs become musher pets when they retire. Some dogs will sell their retired dogs to select homes that will take extra good care of their special friends. All sled dogs will miss their job tremendously. But, just as humans enjoy their retirement, sled dogs will enjoy the relaxing and love and attention they receive with retirement.

The Scientists Litter

“A journey is so much sweeter when traveled with a dog.”

“A journey is so much sweeter when traveled with a dog.”


The journey to the Iditarod does not begin two years before the race for a puppy.  The journey to the Iditarod for a puppy begins pretty much at birth.

pileAt Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm there is an eight-week-old puppy litter.  The “Scientist litter”, as they are affectionately called, were born April 18.  They are the sweet children of Rugby (mom) and Mickey (dad).  They are known as the “Scientist litter” because they all will be named after a scientist.  Vern gives his litters a theme when he names them, as many mushers do.  Susan, Vern’s wife, came up with the idea of the scientists.  Susan is a science major.  Each individual dog doesn’t have his/her name yet, but the names are chosen.  There are two females in the litter.  They will be named Tesla and Madam Curie.  The six boys will be named Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Kipler, Darwin, and Hubble.  Vern has had some great themes for his dogs’ names.  Boats, meats, school supplies, and airplanes are among some of the themes.  I think it would be fun and challenging to come up with different themes and names for each litter.

Puppy HomeLet’s talk about the journey of a puppy.  The ultimate goal would be to run the Iditarod.  Here at Vern’s kennel the pups begin training immediately.  They have their own home just down from the dog yard where they live with their mom.  Just after birth they begin that bond with momma.  After about three weeks, or sooner if they are ready, Vern will carry the pups out about 20 feet on the trail and have them run back to the kennel on their own.  Seems like not much, but to a three-week-old pup it is a lot.  The next step would be to run both out and back the 20 feet.  Now, these pups are not leashed, they are free.  The reason he does this is to get the pups used to just running and being free.  He is also building trust with the pups.  Trust is very important between dog and human, especially when running over 1000 miles across the state.   Vern and the pups continue to build up distance each day.  At about six weeks Vern is taking the pups on the entire loop.  I would say this is about 1-mile.  This trail is right on Vern’s Can I get some help?property and goes through the wilderness.  The dogs have to work their way over a bridge about two-thirds of the way through.  Early on the pups will need assistance getting on the bridge.  After they get used to it, they are up and over that bridge quite quickly.

This early on stage of the pup’s life they are learning critical skills to become a sled dog.  They are bonding with their mother.  In addition, their mom is helping them through the trail.  They are learning to just go.  With Vern having a tour business in the summer, the pups are getting all the attention a puppy could ever want.  This skill they are improving daily is socialization.  This skill is very important.

Our little loveable puppy age can be compared to the elementary student.  Middle school age comes next.  Vern said he plans on bringing the pups up to the dog yard in the fall.  He will start off little by little collaring them up, getting used to the collar.  He will then move to hooking them up next to their new doghouse.  Along the way other dogs are helping them out.  During this middle school age puppy walks are getting a lot longer.  Vern may have to get on a four-wheeler to keep up with them.

Middle school goes fast; before you know it your little ones will be in high school.  In April Vern plans to start harnessing the dogs up.  The “Scientists” are going to have to get used to that harness.  Before long they will be going on runs.  Vern will hook them up with some stronger leaders who will help teach along the way.  Remember what I said about leaders yesterday, they are bossy and will make sure you are doing the correct thing.

Where did all that time go?  The puppies are now yearlings.  Just like that you go from having a litter of cute, cuddly puppies that you have trained and worked so hard with to having some hyped up, still loving, eager to run yearlings.

Mickey the dad

Momma Rugby

Momma Rugby

Check out the video below of the puppy walk.





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Musical Musher

"Sometimes it's the journey that teaches you about your destination."

“Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you about your destination.”

Camp has officially started.

DoryIf you know me, you know that I probably love dogs more than most humans.  I know that I am not alone, especially here in musher country.  Today in camp we met Philip Walters, he feels the same exact way as I do about dogs.  We have another element in common, we are both teachers.  Philip is a middle school band teacher in the Anchorage School District.  What I immediately discovered about Philip is he is young, energetic, loves dogs, and best, compares his students to dogs.  The quote I loved best that he said about this was, “You know how much I love dogs, so if I compare you to a dog you must be pretty special.”

Philip has been wanting to run the Iditarod for quite some time now.  He has been training with sled dogs since 2007.  What has been holding him back is his full-time job as a teacher.  This year he was finally able to secure time off during the race to be able to run.  We now have a full-time teacher, and full-time training Iditarod musher signing up for the race next Saturday.  How exciting!  Not only does he do all that, he has a wife and a 5-month old son.

BreveYou may be wondering how exactly he can compare his students to dogs, well it fits perfect.  Philip teaches band, which is a team of students working together and training together to perform their musical selections.  Sled dogs are a team working together and training to get to Nome.  He even broke it down further.  Every classroom has those 2-3 students that know everything and are a tad bit bossy to the rest of the class.  Your lead dogs (the first 2 dogs) have to be these bossy dogs, know everything, make sure everyone is doing the correct thing.  Swing dogs (directly behind the lead dogs), they are almost up there, but not quite.  We all have those students who are almost there, work hard, just not the top of the class.  Next, the team dogs (dogs between swing and wheel).  All these dogs want to do is run.  Philip stated it best when he said these students come to band every day and just want to play songs.  They may not go home and practice or go above and beyond to get better, they just play.  Team dogs just run.  Finally the wheel dogs (directly in front of the sled).  These dogs work so hard, are very important to the team, but just are never going to get it.  We all have students that work their butts off, are enthusiastic, but just will always get that C.  That is o.k.  These students are an important part of the classroom.  They show us how hard work is so important in life.  The wheel dogs are very important or the sled is not going to make that turn.

AstroI thought Philip’s comparison of students to sled dogs was remarkable.  It makes perfect sense.  I even started thinking about this in my coaching eyes.  Every single person (dog) on the team is equally important.  We all have different roles on whatever team we belong to.  I don’t think one is more important than the other.  Without the wheel dogs, the sled doesn’t turn.  Without the team dogs, we aren’t going to be as strong.  Without the swing dogs, turning will be tough.  And without the lead dogs, we may never find the trail.  Remind your students, and yourself, that whatever role you play, you are very important to the team.

Follow Philip’s journey to the Iditarod on his Facebook page Running Toward Iditarod.

Teacher turned Dog Handler


“Life is an interesting journey, you never know where it will take you.”

My journey today was quite interesting, however, it was awesome.  This morning Terrie Hanke, author of the Eye on the Trail blog for the Iditarod, and I went to breakfast before beginning our shopping list for camp.  When we got back to Vern’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm we started helping Linda prepare sandwiches for the 9:00 tour group, no big deal.  After making sandwiches it was time to turn our attention to that shopping list….or not.  After about a minute upstairs Linda shouted up the steps, “Terrie, Erin, get out here and help harness up the dog teams!”  We looked at each other and headed down.  My thought was how in the heck am I going to do this.  I have harnessed a dog before, once.  That was exactly one year ago when Vern taught us at summer camp.  I quickly asked Terrie, “how do I do this again?”  Terrie is a seasoned veteran at harnessing dogs as she has her own sled dogs back home in Wisconsin.  She reminded me and off we went.

"Aspen, put your leg through there."

"Aspen, first put your head through here."

So, Linda, Serene, Cindy Abbott, and Terrie and I harnessed and hooked up two 16 dog teams.  Ten minutes of noise and controlled chaos was followed by complete silence and peace.  After the two teams took off, I took a deep breath and looked around and said to myself, “Wow!”  Terrie and I proceeded to high-five after a job well done.

We attempted to start that shopping list again while we waited.  As soon as the teams arrived back at the kennel we headed back down to water the dogs.  After earning their water and a fish snack, it was time to unhook and unharness the teams and take them back to their kennel.  Not quite as crazy, but this time muddy and wet.  During the dog ride the dogs splash through a mud pit.

Remember that shopping list?  We finally got to it.

This day provided me with a thrilling adventure and a great deal of thought.  So many different journeys taking place.  Serene, Vern’s handler, to her this is just a normal day.  She is working for Vern during the summer handling sled dogs.  Linda, Vern’s employee, again, to her this is just another day setting up and taking down for a tour.  The dogs, this is their summer Iditarod training schedule.  Cindy Abbott, she is here to sign up for the 2015 Iditarod and this is normal to her too.  For Terrie and me, this was an awesome new experience.

My Journey Begins

One year ago I began my dream journey.  I came to Alaska to the Iditarod summer teacher camp with a dream to be the 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™.  Today my dream became a reality.  This morning, upon arrival at Iditarod Headquarters, I was introduced to several people who deal with the ins and outs of the race.  As I sit at this desk writing my first entry, it is really starting to sink in that I am beginning this journey.  All around headquarters I hear talking of Iditarod business in the background.  I see many Iditarod books.  I view countless pictures of sled dogs.  I watch Barb Redington talking with tourists outside.  I talk Iditarod with Raymie Redington.  Also, amusingly enough, I hear a chocolate lab named Jack snoring in the next room, obviously sleeping on the job. These sights and sounds are making me feel part of the Iditarod family.  I know this journey is only going to get better and more exciting.  I look forward taking this journey and bringing all of you with me.

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2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ Erin Montgomery

erin2I am a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher in Camanche, Iowa. I have been teaching in Camanche for 8 years. Along with teaching, I coach multiple sports in Camanche. I coach 7th grade volleyball, 8th grade basketball, and varsity tennis. My tennis teams have been very successful. We have won the state tournament 3 out of the last 6 years, with 2 runner-ups and 3rd place the other years. In the summer, I run our community’s summer tennis program, age’s 4-high school.erin

I love to travel. I have been to Spain, Germany, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Jamaica, Mexico, Belgium, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria. I have been fortunate to travel to many of these places because my grandma loves to travel and loves to take me with her. I have learned so much history and culture traveling that I knew I had to bring this to my classroom. For the last five years I have taken my 8th grade students on a trip to Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Washington, D.C. We visit many sites that we study during the school year. We hold fundraisers throughout the year to help students earn money for this trip. Being able to experience history and culture firsthand is very influential in these students’ lives.

In my free time I like to stay busy. I started taking piano lessons about a year ago. I love being active. I run, bike, play tennis, and play with my dogs, Dixon and Chili. This summer I trained for a sprint triathlon that I do every summer, a couple 5K’s, and a marathon. I am proud to say I ran and finished my first marathon September 22, 2013.


I Guess It’s Finally Time…

This is my last post at the 2014 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.  Today I’m headed back to Alaska for the Summer Camp for Teachers.  I’ve got a last few bucket items I will check off my list on this trip – visiting the Seavey kennel in Seward, visiting Jeff King’s kennel and horseback riding in Denali, visiting Kenai Fjords National Park, meeting Denali’s sled dogs, sightseeing in Fairbanks, and flying over the Arctic Circle.  But, I know the highlight will be talking Iditarod with a whole new group of teachers at the conference!

As a part of the conference, at the Volunteer Picnic, I will officially turn over the sleeping bag to Erin Montgomery.  She’ll be taking over the blog in the next week or so.  I had a chance to get to know Erin at last year’s Summer Camp.  She is a middle school teacher from Iowa.  She’s in for an amazing journey, and the best part?  We all get to go along for the ride!  I’m expecting wonderful things from her!

So thanks for following along with me this year.  It’s been an amazing year.  I hope that I gave you some lessons you could use and some new insights into the race.  It has been my honor to represent you as the 2014 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.

My summary of my experiences can be found in the latest e-Runner which can be found here:  LINK

If you want to follow my further adventures, you can check out my personal blog here:  LINK

Behind the Scenes

Part of me lives at the Smithsonian now…

And my students’ artwork is there too…

Talk about being honored and proud!

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I recently had the honor of visiting the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and taking a “backstage” tour with Jane Rogers, curator of sports.  You may remember that I first met Jane two years ago when she attended the Winter Iditarod Conference for Teachers (LINK).  She was there to learn more about the race and to begin to collect artifacts for a possible exhibit about the sport of dog mushing and the Iditarod.  The race is such an integral part of Alaska’s history and culture; it’s not just a sporting event!

The whole journey started for Jane when someone donated Libby Riddle’s sled to the museum (LINK).  By setting out into a storm that held must mushers up in the checkpoint, Libby became the first woman to win the Iditarod.  She is still a presence at race time… she greeted team after team under the Burled Arch and provides specially made hats for the highest placing female Junior Iditarod mushers.

But one object doesn’t make an exhibit, and the sled needed to be put into context, so Jane set about learning about mushing and gathering other Iditarod items.  This is one of my favorite conversations to have with kids.  What if you needed to create a museum exhibit about the Iditarod but you could only include ten items?  What would you include?  From whom would you collect them?  What part of the Iditarod story would you tell?  It’s fascinating, because from speaking with Jane and visiting the Anchorage Museum with her, I’ve come to realize that the Smithsonian isn’t just about collecting “stuff.”  The stories that the “stuff” tells and represents are the key!  And as you know… the stories are what drew me to the race in the first place!

So, while I was on the trail this year, Jane asked me to help her acquire a few things to represent the race.  I headed down to the Smithsonian to donate the artifacts I had collected for the museum.  Here is the list of items if you want to challenge your kids to think about what part of the Iditarod story these items tell:

  1.  Used Drop Bags from Martin Buser and Jeff King
  2. A No Pebble Mine Flag carried on the trail by Monica Zappa
  3. An unused dog urine sample collecting bottle
  4. A program from the Junior Iditarod Banquet
  5. A program from the Iditarod Finishers’ Banquet
  6. An Iditarider badge

Now… here’s the really amazing part of the list:

  1.  My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail patch designed by three of my students
  2. My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail name badge with the pins I collected

Yes, you read that correctly… the Teacher on the Trail program is represented in the Smithsonian American History Museum!  Jane realized that education is such a huge part of the Iditarod story that it needed to be represented in the collection.  I am so honored to represent all of the amazing teachers who have realized the value of using the race and as you can imagine my kids are over the moon to know their art work is there!

So I took a day off from school and took the train down to DC with my bag of artifacts.  Jane met me in the lobby and took me up to the storage area and opened cabinet after cabinet after cabinet to let me see all of the Smithsonian goodies in storage.  The sports are in the Division of Culture and the Arts, so the storage room I got to poke around I was amazing….  I got to see skateboards and snowboards, Lance Armstrong’s bike, Olympic uniforms, tennis rackets, ice skates, trophies, professional wrestling costumes, sports balls of all sizes, and more.  The cool thing is that not just professional athletes are represented… part of the American sports story is the millions of kids who play sports too! So there are kids’ trophies in cases right next to trophies won by people like Tiger Woods.  This room was also where all of the TV and Movie memorabilia is stored as well!  So I got peeks at Fonzie’s leather coat, Klinger’s dresses, Batman’s masks, Edith Bunker’s chair, the typewriter from Murder She Wrote, Ginger Rogers’ gown, the Muppets, and so much more!  It was really amazing… like exploring America’s attic!

But, of course, I wanted to see the rest of what Jane had been gathering for the Iditarod collection.  What a treasure trove she has…. DeeDee Jonrowe’s Humanitarian Award, her pink parka, and the full set of dog tags from her team…  Lance Mackey donated his parka, hat, boots, and bibs…  Ken Anderson gave dog coats and booties…

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And there sits my little patch in the middle of all of it.


We Want You!

We Want You…


To be the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail!

As my time starts to wind down, I want to take a minute to encourage anyone and everyone who has ever thought about applying to be the Teacher on the Trail to go for it!

It honestly has beenthe most rewarding professional experience of my life.  Going through the application process really made me analyze my teaching and think about the reasons behind why I do what I do in my classroom.  Being chosen as a finalist was amazing.  Being able to get behind the scenes of the race and experience it as a volunteer and insider made my teaching of the race so much richer.

To actually be chosen as the 2014 Teacher on the Trail was unbelievable.  To experience the race from as close as you can get without being on a sled was something you actually have to do to truly appreciate it.  My teaching and my life will never be the same again.  The friendships I’ve made, the self-confidence I’ve found, and the experiences I have had will never be forgotten.

And you could be the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail!  You could be getting the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail Coat.  You could be hanging out with the Junior Iditarod racers on their half-way lay over. You could be riding in a sled at the Ceremonial Start.  You could be watching the teams arrive and depart in Takotna or Unalakleet or White Mountain or anywhere in between. You could be standing under the Burled Arch and welcoming them to Nome.

All you have to do to get the ball rolling is to apply.  You can find all the information you need here:  LINK

Summing it All Up

We summed up our year of Iditarod fun the same way we started it… with the Quilt.  If you remember, our class hosted one of the Iditarod Travelling Quits.  You can read that original post here:  LINK

To summarize our experiences, we decided to create our own quilt square to be added to a new Iditarod Travelling Quilt.  First, each boy designed his own square. They included symbols, words, and pictures that showed what they thought the “message” behind the race is.  We also talked about the idea that our final quilt square would need to give information about where the square came from.

After we assembled our quilt, we spent some time looking at it and looking for similarities between the squares.  We figured if something appeared on many squares that must mean it’s important to us and should probably appear on our final square.

We came up with a game plan of what we wanted our final square to be.  We decided to divide it into two sections – one for Alaska and one for Maryland.  Each side features a map of the state colored like the state’s flag and is surrounded by symbols of things that the state is known.  For Maryland there is afootball to represent the Ravens, a baseball for the Orioles, a lacrosse stick to show our state team sport, and a steamed crab.  The Alaska side shows a gold pan, mail for the mail trail, a dog, and cross country skies.  Then there is a dog sled running the Iditarod across the bottom and horses running the Preakness across the top.  The center features the quote that the boy think best represents the race:  “Dream. Try. Win.” ~ John Baker.

The boys are excited to see their final design featured in a new quilt next year.  To get your class involved in the Travelling Iditarod Quilt Project, check out this site: LINK and contact Diane Johnson at djohnson@


So this year everything I’ve touched has gone to the dogs… and that includes my Robotics Club!

I work with a group of fourteen fourth and fifth graders once a week after school using Lego Mindstorms to begin to explore programing and basic robotics.  We usually spend the fall semester learning how to program and use the various sensors we can add  to the robot and then in the spring semester we compete in a series of challenges… a Summo Tournament, a Triathalon, and this year the Robitarod!

The boys were presented with seven Iditarod themed challenges and then given six weeks to earn as many points at they could.  Everyone started by building their sleds.  They first needed to determine if the robot itself was going to be the dog or the sled.  Then they needed to create the sled.  The official Iditarod Race Rules have this to say about the sleds:

Rule 15 — Sled: A musher has a choice of sled subject to the requirement that some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn. The sled or toboggan must be capable of hauling any injured or fatigued dogs under cover, plus equipment and food. Braking devices must be constructed to fit between the runners and not to extend beyond the tails of the runners.

Therefore, we asked the boys to accommodate for the following in their sleds:

  1. There must be space in the sled for a dog to fit.
  2. There must be an allocated place for the musher to stand.
  3. There must be allowances for where equipment and food would be carried.
  4. There must be evidence of a braking device between the runners of the sled.

From there, they got to determine which of the remaining six events to attempt and in what order.   The challenges required them to take what they had learned in programing, using sensors, and from the earlier challenges and use them in new and unique ways… and all while pulling a sled!  Some teams quickly learned that attaching a sled to their robot really changed the game.  It seemed to affect the drivability and maneuverability of the sled.

It was also a great exercise in strategy.  There just wasn’t enough time to do all of the challenges.  So, the question becomes do you do the ones you perceive as being the easiest first?  Or the ones that are worth the most points first?  And then somewhere near the end, one team started going for partial points at several stations and that proved to be a game changer too!

We had a great time with our robotic dog teams!  You can read descriptions of all of the challenges here: Robitarod

Giving a Hero His Due

I was recently sent a copy of a book to preview, and just today ordered a class set of them for my classroom for next year!

Dog Diaries #4: Togo by Kate Klimo is a fantastic story of Togo who, according to many historians, should get the mostdownload credit for the success of the 1925 Serum Run into Nome.  Balto was the lead dog who carried the serum into town, but Togo was the lead for the longest leg of the relay, almost double the length of any other team!  The story is told from Togo’s point of view, which honestly usually rubs me the wrong way, but this one is really well done!  Togo has a lot of spunk, energy, and determination.  I think the book will be great for talking about visualization with readers… it’s easy to see many of Togo’s pre-serum run antics in your mind!  The appendixes are full of extra information too.  I was thrilled to see that the appendix talks about the Iditarod without claiming the race commemorates the Serum Run!  Instead, it makes the connection between the two via the history of the trail, which to me is the perfect way to do it!  The book is recommended for grades two to five.  I think it will be a fairly easy read for my third graders, so perfect for the beginning of the year.

I’m thinking that I will pair this book with my unit on Stone Fox (LINK) next year.  I think there will be many good connections made between the two books.  Throw Mush! Sled Dogs of the Iditarod (LINK) in there as a non-fiction text and I think I will have the perfect little trilogy of sled dog stories to start my year and set the tone and ignite the passion for following the race!

If you have a couple of weeks of school left, grab Dog Diaries #4: Togo as a quick read aloud.  Or, grab a copy for yourself to preview for next year.  Later this summer, keep an eye on the Iditarod Education Portal. I will post my unit plans there for anyone who is interested!

Coming Full Circle

Earlier in this school year as a part of our study of National Parks and as a wonderful tie it to the dog sledding theme that runs throughout my school year, my students and I did a Distance Learning Field Trip with Denali National Park.  [LINK] This is a wonderful program that is presented by the rangers in Denai via Skype. Through pictures, videos, discussions, and hands on activities, the ranger introduces the kids to the sled dogs who help patrol the park in the winter to access areas that are not opened to motorized vehicles.

One of the questions which came up was, “What happened to the dogs when they were too old to work at the park?”  We learned that the retired dogs are adopted by families all over the United States.

While I was on the trail this year, I was contacted by Sharon Winter, with the exciting news that she and her husband Dan were lucky enough to be adopting a retired Denali sled dog!  She was wondering if there was a way to keep the kids involved in the sled dogs’ lives and for them to learn what it means to be “retired” to a sled dog.

It will not surprise you to hear that my answer was “YES!”

Sharon and Aurora on retirement day!  Check out Denali in the background!

Sharon and Aurora on retirement day! Check out Denali in the background!

This week, my class had the chance to meet Sharon and Dan and their newest family member Aurora, via Skype from their home in Eagle River, Alaska.  Aurora’s full name is Princess Aurora Sparklepants!  She wasn’t born at Denali, but was given to the park when she was young.  She is now nine years old and has been living with the Winters for just about a month now.  They also have two other dogs, Amos and Snoopy.  Snoopy is a tripod dog, but he gets around just fine!

We learned that going through the process to adopt a retired Denali sled dog can take years!  There is a long application process that prospective families have to go through, including providing references.  The park looks at where the dog will live (both in terms of climate and kennel space at the home), if the families are active and can provide enough exercise, and if the families have experience with dogs.  It’s really nice to learn that the park works so hard to ensure that their dogs are well cared for in their retirement.

Sharon reports that Aurora’s retired life is pretty different then her working life, but still pretty different then a pet dog’s life!  She has a dog house outside of the house and has her own fenced in area. The fence both keeps her in and any wildlife in the area out.  She goes for several long runs and walks a day, and spends a lot of time with the family outside during the day.  They are trying to get Aurora used to being inside the house too.  She has really never been inside before!  When they first brought her in she wasn’t used to anything in the house!  She was scared of the ceiling fan.  She doesn’t like the noise of the TV either.  She really prefers to be outside.

We had a really wonderful time talking with the Winters and their dogs.  We learned a lot about how sled dogs live their lives when they are retired and it was a great way to wrap up our sled dog filled year!

The Ultimate Volunteers

The May issue of the Iditarod ERunner was recently published and features a great article by Dr. Stu Nelson, the Iditarod Head Vet.  You can read the article and magazine here [LINK]. In the article, Dr. Stu talks about the reasons why this year’s race was “G.R.E.A.T. “  (You’ll have to read the article for the meaning behind the acronym!)

I can tell you that part of what makes this race so great is Dr. Stu and his team of amazing vets. This year there were fifty-five vets and twelve vet techs who volunteered their time and services for the race.  Of those, forty-three were on the trail.  The professionalism and dedication to the four legged athletes shown by these medical professionals was second to none.

Every team was welcomed and watched coming into the checkpoint by a team of vets.  The vets started assessing the dogs as soon as they were in sight, watching their gaits coming in and their behaviors when the sled was stopped.  Mushers who were parking at the checkpoint to rest for a while were interviewed by the vets.  The conversations between the two always showed mutual respect as they both had the same goal in mind…. happy and healthy dogs.  Vets would then go through the team giving thorough, hands on exams to each dog.  They use the acronym HAW-L to assess the dog.  They look at the heart and hydration, appetite and attitude, weight, and lungs. The dogs’ legs, paws, and temperature are also checked.

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Even when mushers seem to “breeze” through checkpoints they really don’t!  Every musher is required to stop at every checkpoint and the vets examine the dogs while the musher takes care of signing in and out, gathering their drop bag supplies, and getting a quick update on trial conditions.  This idea of breezing through a checkpoint is something that I really had to talk to my students about. They really need to understand this concept to understand how to interpret all of the data that comes out of the race. Mushers who pass through a checkpoint with little or no rest usually move down the trail just a bit before stopping and camping. Some mushers choose to stay in checkpoints to have easy access to the amenities offered, some mushers prefer to camp outside the checkpoints in order to provide their dogs with a quieter place to sleep.  It’s a great thing to get your kids to reflect on in a journal entry. If they were running the race where would they plan to stop? In checkpoints or out on the trail and why?

The vets are able to communicate with each other via the yellow Vet Log Books.  Most mushers carry them attached to their sled handle in some fashion for easy access. The vets are able to leave comments about the dogs for each other via this book.  It’s a great system that works well for everyone involved.

So, along with everything else that is so great about this race, be sure to add the vets and their dedication to the dogs to the top of the list!

Remembering Joe

The Iditarod family met at race headquarters today to remember Joe Delia.  Joe has helped the race out in so many ways, not the least of which is offering his home as the Skwentna Checkpoint from the very beginning of the race.  You can learn more about Joe and his dedication to the race here.

Even the students here in Baltimore know the name Joe Delia and the story of the Skwentna Checkpoint.  This year our first graders decorated their door as the Skwentna Checkpoint with Joe and his wife Norma watching the race out the window!

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Happy trails Joe. You will be missed!

What Makes a Hero?

Teachers at this year’s Winter Conference for Educators had the fortune to hear Shelley Gill share some of her amazing stories of Alaska, her 1978 Iditarod run, and her work as a humpback whale researcher in Prince William Sound.  Shelley is an engaging speaker, and I have always shared her book Kiana’s Iditarod with my students when we first start talking about the race.

Shelley recently published a new book, Alaska’s Dog Heroes:  True Stories of Remarkable Canines which I have been sharing with my students in small snippets since I’ve been back from the race.  This book is a collection of stories of dogs who have demonstrated their intelligence, loyalty, and heroism in the most demanding of environments – Alaska’s frontier.  There are lot of stories that could be used for a variety of character development lessons – these dogs possess all the qualities that I wish I could find in a best friend!

Of particular interest to my students are the stories of Tekla, Hotfoot, and Dugan – the lead dogs of Iditarod mushers Susan Butcher, Dick Wilmarth, and Libby Riddles!  I’ve been looking forward to next year (one of my strategies for saving my sanity at this time of year!) and have been thinking that featuring these three dogs and discussing what makes a good leader may be a great way to jump start character development lessons in the fall.  Having the students identify what makes great lead dog and then discussing the qualities that make a great leader, the foundation is set for further discussions and lessons of what they can do as leaders in the classroom.

Here’s a worksheet that you can use to compare these Iditarod heroes and to begin to look at their character traits:  Dog Heroes Worksheet

You can learn more about Shelley Gill here:  LINK

Another Surprise Connection

I’ve said repeatedly that I can make an Iditarod connection to ANY topic.

I’m ready to prove it yet again.

Today we connect the Iditarod to our study of Lewis and Clark.  And not because of the obvious fact that the Lewis and Clark Trail is a historic trail just like the Iditarod Trail.

It’s because of the beads.

Yes, you read that correctly. The beads.

See, Lewis and Clark carried beads, lots and lots of beads on their travels.  According  to the documents left behind, they carried “20 pounds of assorted beads, mostly blue and 5 pounds of small, white, glass beads” as goods to trade with the Native Americans they came in contact with (

Beads Packed up and Ready to Hit the Trail!

Beads Packed up and Ready to Hit the Trail!

Iditarod mushers also carry beads on the trail, but very special beads. They carry beads that are a part of the Beads of Courage program.  Beads of Courage is an organization that gives kids with cancer or other serious conditions a way to tell their stories and commemorate milestones they have achieved during their treatment.  When they join the program they are given a strand of beads that spells out their name.  Each time they have a procedure done they are given a special bead that represents that procedure.  It’s a way for them to encourage the kids to talk about their procedures.  It’s a hands on way for the kids to show others what they have gone through.

Artists donate the beads that are then packaged and carried down the trail by mushers and others on the trail.  I was honored to be included in the program this year.  I carried a beautiful orange and blue bead and three husky head shaped beads.  The husky beads are called team beads and are given to the children in the program along with cards of encouragement that are filled out by the carrier of the beads.  The handmade beads are auctioned off to raise money for the Beads of Courage program.  It’s really an amazing program that you can learn more about here:  Beads of Courage

An activity that you could do with your students is to get them to select a few events that had a strong impact on their life.  Encourage them to think about turning points.  Provide them with clay and have them make a bead that represents each event.  They can then string their beads and use them as a tool to help them tell their stories.  It might be a great tie in to writing personal narratives in Writing Workshop.  They could use the beads as a way to rehearse their personal stories before they write them.

As for the Lewis and Clark tie in?  Maybe I could have the kids make beads that commemorate the major events in the Lewis and Clark Expedition!

Virtual Fieldtrip

We had a chance to take a virtual fieldtrip to Windy Creek Kennel, home and kennel of Ken Anderson.  Ken completed his rookie race in 1999 and has run consecutively since 2002.  He’s had five top ten finishes and has finished twelfth in the last two races.  He has always finished in the top twenty since his rookie year!  Ken offers a wonderful virtual fieldtrip to his kennel using GoTo Meeting.  He typically shows a slide show where he discusses sled dog racing, the Iditarod, and his life in rural Alaska.  He also has the capabilities to take the kids right into the dog yard and introduce them to the athletes.  I have participated in this virtual trip with my classes for the past three years and it is always one of the highlights of our year!


Since it was after the race, and our time was limited, we changed things up a bit for our visit this year.  Ken showed the kids the scenery around his home.  He pointed out where Fairbanks and Denali were and gave us a quick glimpse at the dog yard as a tease of what was to come later!  Then we just started asking questions!  It was really interesting to have a conversation with a competitive musher after wrapping up with Monica Zappa, who as a rookie, had  totally different goal for this year’s race.

Ken reports, as most other mushers have, that yes indeed, this year’s race was hard.    He said that he felt it was especially hard coming out of Elim. There were steep hills and no snow and it was downright scary.  “I used to think the Yukon Quest was tough, but this was terrifying,” he said.  He feels successful because he didn’t seriously hurt himself and his sled held up well.  Concerns about the rookie and less experienced mushers really worried Ken however.  He said he was always confident that he is a good sled driver and would make it, but he was very worried about many of the other mushers.

The boys wanted to know if the dogs slipped on the ice when it was really windy and slippery.  Ken told us that the mushers sometimes take the booties off on ice to give the dogs a little better traction with their claws. This isn’t a foolproof strategy though.  The dogs nails are intentionally clipped short to save wear and tear on booties, so they don’t really have long nails to grab the ice.  He said that were places on the trail this year where the dogs actually blew sideways on the trail!

“Was there someone on the race you really hoped to beat?” was another question presented to Ken.  He kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, all of them!”  As a competitive veteran, Ken is in it to win it!  He always goes into every race with the goal to win.  And he’s been very successful with that strategy!  He says that he gets along with the other mushers, but they are competition.  He has beaten them all in one race or another at some time in his career… except Jeff King! He says he has never finished ahead of King in a race.

Summer training was another popular question.  Ken says he has tried different things over the years to keep the dogs in shape during the summer.  In years past, he has taken the dogs to glaciers to work in the summer.  Cruise ship passengers on vacation can take an excursion in a helicopter to the glacier to take a dog sled ride. This is a good way to keep the dogs running and to keep them socialized when there is not a lot of snow in the rest of the state.  One year he offered summer cart rides at his home kennel.  He feels, however, that the dogs aren’t really made to do hot summers.  He will run them on the trails around his home only if the trails have water on them.

This summer he has a new strategy to try.  He is planning “swim” the dogs. He is putting in a pool and is going to let the dogs “run” in the pool, or swim, to keep their strength up.  The boys suggested that he might want to join the dogs in swimming laps to keep himself in shape as well!

The highlight of the trip was getting to go to the dog yard and meet the dogs!  Many of the boys saw and heard about dogs who they have drafted for their own fantasy teams, which was just amazing!  Ken explained that the dogs were lethargic at the time of day we were talking (early afternoon). He said it is just part of their biorhythms, and if we looked at the team’s run times during the race, we would see that they often rested on the trail during this time of day.  The boys were tickled to meet the dogs of the Thomas the Tank Engine litter – I think they relived their childhoods for a few minutes remembering all of their old train friends!

Ken says it definitely the plan to run the Iditarod again next year.  He doesn’t think he will do the Yukon Quest though.  This year it was pretty tough on the team to do both and he needs to work carefully to balance his family and his dogs!  He does have five year old twins and a three year old!

I’m so glad we had the chance to visit Ken and his dogs at Windy Creek Kennel. If you’d like to schedule a virtual visit, you can get more information here: Windy Creek Kennel

Catching Up with Monica

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We had the chance to catch up with Monica Zappa via Skype last week!  She joined us from her home to tell us about “life after Iditarod!”  The boys were so excited to talk to her and had some great questions for her.  She even introduced us to Dweezil, the superstar puppy!  Dweezil has become somewhat of a rockstar on social media sites, and my own son met (and instantly fell in love with) him at the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage, but the boys hadn’t heard his story so that was as good a place as any to start!

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When Monica left to go out on the race, Dweezil started to get sick, really sick.  No one could seem to figure out what was wrong with him.  When Tim left home to head to Nome to meet Monica, he got even worse.  He was super weak and got to the point where he couldn’t even walk!  No one has ever really figured out what was wrong with him, but since Monica and Tim have been home, he’s been getting stronger and stronger every day and is walking a bit further every day!   The boys and Monica discussed just how much dogs are in tune with what is going on in their surroundings and how much they need the companionship of their fellow dogs and their humans.  The boys seemed pretty convinced that Dweezil was depressed being left behind and that may be why he got so sick.  It reminded me of being in Nikolai with the dropped dogs and sitting with them while they howled and howled and howled.  They clearly did not like being left behind while their teams moved down the trail without them.  As pack animals, they long to be with their clans.

The boys asked Monica about the race and how she felt about it. She is deservedly proud of herself and the team for getting to Nome. That was her original, ultimate goal after all!  She said she took her time at the beginning because she was concerned about the lack of training they were able to do and with such young dogs she didn’t want to push it to hard too fast.  She felt that had she had the chance to do more training in better conditions, the team would have been able to move faster.   But, she also pointed out; there is always the risk of training too much.  Training too much means that the dogs are bored of running and they don’t have the excitement or the drive to get down the trail and see what is around the next bend.

Our socks were a hit!  If you remember, we had a fundraiser to buy warm wool socks to help Monica keep her feet warm!  She says it wasn’t as cold as she expected it to be, but the socks and warmers were definitely used.  What she really appreciated the most though was the encouragement notes we sent for her to include in her drop bags!  She even sent them all home in her return bags so she would have them!  The most amazing story was that when she reached Unalakleet, she heard that Dallas Seavey had won the race.  The note in her drop bag for that checkpoint said “You have done it; you have reached the three-quarter mark.  You only have one more quarter of the race to go.  I hope you have utilized Dallas Seavey’s strategy – sit back early and attack later.”  Pretty amazing timing, right?

As for her summer plans, she and Tim plan to keep training.  In the summer they will use wheeled carts and give rides to passengers. This will help keep the dogs in shape physically and mentally.  Mentally it will keep them used to listening to commands and working with people.

Looking into the future and future races, Monica’s biggest wish for next year is for the snow to be better than it was this year!  She is planning to run more races next year and is already looking forward to the Tustumena 200 which will be held in February in the Caribou Hills which is right in her backyard!  She even mentioned that she’d like to do the Yukon Quest someday!  Iditarod 2015?  Well, she’s not committing yet, but she may, or maybe Tim will make another run!  She says she’s a little intimidated by the southern route.  Apparently, running the Yukon River on the Southern Route is a little harder because the winds become headwinds instead of tailwinds.   We pointed out that we are pretty sure that if she could handle this year’s Iditarod she could handle any year’s Iditarod.

We are so grateful to Monica for allowing us to be a part of her race.  She was amazingly generous with her time and we are so very proud of her for all that she has accomplished!

Happy National Poem in Your Pocket Day!

The boys and I wish you all a Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day!  We are celebrating by carrying poems in our pockets to share.  We are also going to create Tellagamis (animated videos) with our poems so we can share them with family and friends near and far!

Here’s the poem I’m carrying today (I bet you are not surprised by the topic!):

Mr. Seward’s Folly

Alaska?  I ask ya, who wants such a place?

So cold it freezes the nose off your face.

Tons of ice and miles of snow,

A place where no one wants to go.

What’s that you say?  It might have gold?

Quick, Mr. Seward, mark it as “SOLD!”

from American History Fresh Squeezed by Carol Diggory Shields

Scaling Up the Trail

Several years ago, we realized that we were never getting to the Geometry Unit that inevitably occurred at the end of the math book and therefore at the end of the school year. We decided to break up the unit into pieces and teach it periodically throughout the year. Inspired by the book Mathematical Art-O- Facts: Activities to Introduce, Reinforce, or Assess Geometry & Measurement Skills by Catherine Johns Kuhns, we decided to accomplish this by using art to create monthly geometry projects. This allowed us to teach the geometry skills throughout the year in a hands-on way that require the students to use the new geometry skills immediately to create something.

When I returned to my school from my Alaskan adventure, the boys were returning from Spring Break and the time was prime for a hands-on Iditarod related geometry project. We spent a week enlarging Jon Van Zyle’s print A Nod to the Past to six times the original size! We had a wonderful discussion about the piece of art, the feelings it evoked, and the Iditarod memorabilia it featured. We worked as a full class to compete the project. While each boy was responsible for completing one square of the enlargement, the nature of the project was such that they naturally checked in with each other to see if their measurements were matching up. There were wonderful discussions and coaching between boys about how they were solving the problems. When it came time to color their masterpiece, leaders naturally rose to the top as they discussed shading and combining colors to achieve the desired results. It was nice to see the artistic boys have a chance to be the leaders. The finished product in the hallway is a show stopper and visitors often stop by to admire it and ask questions! Attached is a lesson plan to explain how we completed the project.

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Scaling Up the Trail Lesson Plan

Not Quite Ready to Say Goodbye?

Arriving in Galena

Arriving in Galena

I don’t know about you, but I’m still not quite ready to say goodbye to this year’s race or the trail…. and my kids aren’t really yet either.  The Iditarod still comes up routinely in conversation, we’re still unpacking all of my goodies from all the boxes I shipped home, we are still Skyping with some of the schools I met discussing the race, and we are still getting letters from some of the schools I visited on the trail.  We are also still planning and wrapping up some lessons and projects that we will share with you as the year winds down.

If you are looking for a way to get a first-hand account of this year’s race, Ken Anderson has let me know that he is scheduling his Cyber-Visits for the spring!  Using Go-To Meeting, he talks about the race and his life in rural Alaska and then even takes his computer down into the dog yard so that he can introduce the kids to his dogs!  We have usually participated in this virtual field trip in the fall as an introduction to the race, but this year we are doing ours in a few weeks. I’m really excited to get the chance to chat with him and get his take and stories from the trail!  You can get more information about scheduling your own virtual trip here:  LINK

If you are looking for a way to take your Iditarod teaching to the next level, youshould plan to join us in June for the 2014 Summer Camp for Teachers.  This nine day conference is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in everything that is Iditarod!  We will live at the Dream a Dream Dog Farm for three days where Iditarod finisher Vern Halter will help us learn about raising, training, and racing sled dogs!  We’ll get to go out and visit the kennel and help with chores, take the puppies for walks, and even get to take a cart ride!  It is the most amazing experience and the perfect way to get a taste of what life is like for a long-distance musher and his faithful athlete companions.  During the rest of the conference we will hear from many speakers that will tell us not only about the ins and outs of the race, but will share many ways to integrate the race into our daily curriculum.  We will get to visit the kennel and studio of official Iditarod artist Jon Van Zyle (my favorite place on earth), visit Iditarod Headquarters where we can take a cart ride with Raymie Redington, and even have the chance to search for moose and take a glacier hike!  To wrap up our time, we will be at headquarters for the Volunteer Picnic and the first day of sign-ups for the 2015 Iditarod!  You’ll get a chance to get autographs and see first-hand who signs up for next year’s race!  It is really one of the most inspiring professional development experiences of my career.  You can learn more about the camp here:  LINK

I hope you’ll stay with us as we continue to travel the trail through the spring.  If your kids have done any great Iditarod writing, I hope you’ll share it with me – I’d love to add it to the Tales from the Trail section of the blog!

Thanking the Volunteers

One last event tonight, the Volunteer Pot Luck Dinner, was a chance for the volunteers to get together one last time and for the Iditarod staff to share their appreciation for all of the volunteers’ hard work.

A couple hundred of the nearly 1,500 volunteers for this year’s race gathered for one more time at the Millennium Hotel.  It was  a neat chance to reconnect and say goodbye to each other one last time for this race season.  After being on the trail and watching the volunteers in action, I am more convinced than ever that race could never happen with out them.  The volunteers come from all over the world and it seems like the majority of them have volunteered for many, many years.  They give their time, energy, and efforts to help make sure the dogs and mushers make it to Nome.  The next time the volunteers will gather as a group will be at the 2015 Musher Sign-Up Picnic in June.

The highlight of the evening was getting to see Jeff Schultz’s slide show of nearly 300 photos from this year’s race.  He also narrated and told some of the stories behind the photos, and as you know, I love stories!  If you haven’t seen Jeff’s photos from this year’s race, be sure to check them out here.

And so ends the Alaska portion of my Teacher on the Trail experience. I’m leaving in a few hours to begin my journey home.  It’s been an amazing experience which I haven’t fully digested yet.  Everyone told me that this experience would change my life.  I’m not sure how I’ve changed quite yet, but I’m not sure you can go through an experience like this and remain exactly the same person you were when you started. I will continue to blog until I pass the torch on to the 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail in June, so keep watching.

Thanks for sharing this amazing journey with me!


Recognizing the Accomplishments

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The Nome Recreation Center was packed to the brim last night to celebrate the accomplishments of the 2014 Iditarod Mushers.  For every single musher in attendance feelings of relief, satisfaction, and pride had to be filling their hearts.  I am sure in the days to come there will be the “what-ifs” and “if only I hads” and “next year I’lls” but last night was for recognizing the accomplishments of a race well done.

I have held my composure pretty well for the last few weeks. I’ve tried not to show how star-struck I am or how much I’ve felt like a kid in 2014-03-16 23.09.26a candy shop.  But I did buy my tourist souvenir trail mail packets that Nathan Schroeder and Monica Zappa carried down the trail.  I tried to convince myself they were to show the kids at school, but I doubt they will make it there.  I did get a little weepy when they got announced and recognized onstage.  I know, I’m a sap.  I know how much it meant to them and how hard they worked,  and I am so very thankful to both of them for sharing a small part of their journey with me and my students.  I was so very proud of them and of each and every musher who made it to Nome.

The food was wonderful, and the stories are true.  There really are sleds full of chocolate covered strawberries on each buffet line.  I can’t even begin to imagine how you get fresh strawberries to Nome in March.  Hobo Jim played, and played, and played.  He played the “Iditarod Trail Song” I think three times with the crowd joining in every time.  He even sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for Curt Perano’s child who has shown more than once this week that guitars and music are very interesting by crawling up onto stages.

The special awards were given.  Most we knew about already as they had been presented on the trail and were presented here again at a location where the mushers could properly thank people for them and carry them away.  Some of them are rather large, and I’m sure wouldn’t fit in the sleds if the mushers were expected to carry them away from the various checkpoints where they were originally presented!

2014-03-16 22.29.34 (2)Nathan Schroeder was presented with the Jerry Austin Rookie of the Year Award for being the highest placing rookie.  He received a beautiful trophy and a check for $2,000. New this year, he also received a piece of native artwork.  James Pete of Stebbins, Alaksa created a beautiful drawing on sealskin.  It’s a drawing of a dog team and is stretched on a wooden frame.  It’s a wonderful keepsake.  Nathan told the crowd that when he finished the race he said it would be his last, “but I lied” he added.  The crowed laughed and cheered.  I knew he’d be back!  He’s been telling me that all along!  The award is named for Jerry Austin, a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame.  You can learn more about him here and here.

Jessie Royer and Ray Redington, Jr. tied for the Fastest Time Safety to Nome Award.  That seems to fit perfectly with this crazy race doesn’t it?  They were both all smiles as they accepted their awards and joked about being tied.  This award is presented by the Nome Kennel Club and is a $500 award.

The most improved musher this year is Richie Diehl.  He finished in 36th place in 2013 as a rookie and in 14th place this year.  He accepted his award, gave his thanks, and then said, “Sorry Matt Failor!”  So I had to go look – looks like he beat Matt by one spot to earn this award!  He also beat Matt to the finish line by about seven minutes this year!  So another close race to add to our collection of close races within the close race!  This award is presented by Horizon Lines and includes a trophy and $2,000.

One of the most coveted awards, the Sportsmanship Award, is voted on by the mushers.  On Saturday, the mushers had a closed meeting where they discussed the race and voted on several things.  (Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?)  In presenting the award, Aaron Burmeister, President of the Iditarod Finishers’ Club, said that there were many, many times on this race that mushers had to help others out.  But that it seemed like Mike Williams, Jr. was always there when you needed someone to help you out and he never failed to do what he could.  Mike is a very quiet and humble guy, and I have no doubt in my mind that this award was well deserved.    Mike received $1,049 and a plaque.

The ExxonMobil Mushers’ Choice Award is given to the musher that the finishing mushers vote on as being the most inspirational musher on the trail.  This year the mushers chose to give the award to Aaron Burmeister who completed the race despite wrenching in knee in the early stages of the race.  He is still having a hard time walking – especially having to climb up and down the stairs to the stage!  His young son however, had the time of his life and followed his dad everywhere!  Aaron received a special gold coin valued at $3,900.

The Northern Air Cargo Herbie Nayokpuk Award is chosen by the checkers in the checkpoints along the trail.  It is given to the musher who most demonstrates the spirit of the Iditarod along the trail.  It is named after Herbie Nayokpuk who is also known as the “Shishmaref Cannon Ball.”  You can read more about him here.  This year the award was presented to a clearly moved Newton Marshall to the resounding cheers of the crowd.  This may be the most quiet I’ve ever seen Newton. He was clearly moved and didn’t really know what to say.  I know that he’s been struggling to raise the funds needed to run this race and a little birdie told me they were raising funds to get him out of Nome right up to the very last minute, so I know this award will help.  He was given free freight on Northern Air Cargo, a trophy, and a jacket with $1,049 in one dollar bills stuffed into the pockets.  I have heard Newton say time and again that he loves people and he loves meeting people, so I’m sure the fact that his award was voted on by the volunteers in the checkpoints will make it all that much more special to him.

The Golden Clipboard Award is given by the finishers to a checkpoint each year. This year, the finishers chose to recognize the town and checkpoint of Galena.  The town was devastated by floods about nine months ago an is still putting their town back together.  In presenting the award, Mark Nordman the Race Director, recalled a conversation he had with the mayor of the town.  “Are you sure you are ready for the Iditarod to descend on you?”  “We need the Iditarod to come,” was the response.  I know that thought was echoed by the people I met and talked to in that town. Having the Iditarod come gave them back a sense of normalcy and something to look forward to.  The race needed Galena and Galena needed the race. It was a perfect match.

The mushers traditionally award one vet with the Golden Stethoscope Award each year. This year they decided they couldn’t choose just one explained Aily Zirkle and Karin Hendrickson. Instead, Jeff Schultz, the official Iditarod photographer, donated a print that will be given to each and every vet as a memento.

For the fifth time in his career, Martin Buser was awarded the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award.  This award is given to a musher who is competitive (finishing in the top 20) whom the vets have determined has given outstanding care to his dogs.  Each vet on the trail turns in votes for first, second, and third place.  At the finish, each dog is scored after being given a physical. They also look at their gait.  The scores are added together to determine a winner.  Martin, in accepting this award, was obviously moved. He reiterated that it was he who let down his dogs. That the two-legged person couldn’t keep up with the four-legged ones.  I’m not sure I agree with that.  He clearly took exceptional care of them on the trail, and that is an admirable thing.

The City of Nome Lolly Medley Golden Harness Award is given to an outstanding lead dog selected by the mushers.  Lolly Medley was a 2014-03-16 22.57.56 (2)harness maker from the town of Wasilla and one of the first two women to compete in the Iditarod in 1974.  The golden harness was awarded to Beatle, one of Dallas’ lead dogs.  Beatle came in to get his award and Dallas joked, “This is the hardest part of the Iditarod for him!” and in fact he did look a little stunned by the crowd of people and the flashbulbs going off!  Dallas also talked about his other lead dog Reef.  Reef had been training all year with Christian Turner, who was running Dallas’ puppy team.  At the last minute Reef graduated from the puppy team to the A-Team and ended up hitting the trail with Dallas! Imagine being called up to the major leagues and then going on to win the World Series!  Wow!

Once the special awards were presented, the finishers were called to the stage one at a time in reverse finishing order to receive their recognition.  Most mushers thanked their dogs, sponsors, friends, and families.  Many thanked their host families in Nome.  A few talked about how bad the trail was.  Some mentioned trying again next year.  And several shared trail stories.  The theme that seemed to run through many of the stories was how much the mushers helped each other out on the trail.  They offered each other words of encouragement, for example Allen Moore told Travis Beals to “put his big boy pants on and get zesty!”  They helped each other out with equipment and supplies.  They worked together to get through storms and wind.  They were competitors, but they also cared tremendously for each other and each others’ teams.   They accepted their awards, and then were off to the autograph chute again.

Finishing in third, Mitch Seavey talked about the trials at the beginning of the race.  Travelling through the Gorge and getting bumped and bruised along that section of the trail.  His parting shot?  “I’ll never get used to being beaten by girls and kids,” as he looked at Aily Zirkle and his son Dallas standing off stage right.

Aily, for her part discussed the storm that pinned her into Safety.  She said she never realized she passed Jeff King and when she got to Safety was terrified for him. She says her race ended there.  “I don’t really know Jeff King, I’d never sit down and have a coffee with him, but I was scared. I thought he was dead.”  When he showed up half an hour later, she said she gave him a big hug, “I’m so glad you are here and safe.”  “But without my dogs,” was the response.  She praised the Insider Team who went off on their snowmachines with Jeff to get the dogs.  And then she says she fell asleep from sheer emotional exhaustion.  She was awoken later by the checkers saying they saw headlights.  And she was relieved.  That meant Dallas was coming and he was safe too.  Then she looked out and he was signing out of Safety and the wind was gently flapping his dog jackets.  Gently flapping.  Not blowing like crazy.  “So we can go!” she thought and the race was on.  She said that was the most fun part of her race!  She saw his headlight, he kept turning around to check on her.  She finally thought she had caught him right where they turn to come off the sea ice onto Front Street… she was getting closer and closer to that headlight.  And then she realized it was’t his headlight, it was a guy standing stationary directing her her where to turn.  She has no regrets she says.

The other story she shared was of a young girl in Unalakleet who shyly asked if she could take a picture with Aliy which of course Aliy agreed to.  The girl told Aliy that her boyfriend thought all girls were sissies and that when Aliy won the race she was going to show this picture to her boyfriend and tell him that he was wrong.  Aliy had all of the women who had finished the race stand.  “I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like a sissy!” she said.

2014-03-16 20.06.32Dallas them come up to receive his winner’s check and the key to his new truck to a standing ovation from the crowd. He said his dad had covered the early parts of the trail in his story, Aliy had covered the last storm in hers, and so he guessed he’d talk about the question of did he really not know he had won the race.  And in fact he really did not know.  He says he pulled into Safety, saw Aliy’s name on the clipboard and figured she was long gone.  “Who actually looks to see if they are signed in AND out?”  He noticed Jeff’s name wasn’t there, but just assumed Jeff had slipped by and was missed by the checkers.  So he took off.  He wasn’t going to slouch, he was going to give it all he and his team had to finish the race up strong.  At some point he looked back and saw a headlight in the distance.  He was shocked, and tried to figure out how his dad had made up so much time on him. He was NOT going to let his dad beat him, he was sure he’d never hear the end of it!  So off he went and started running with the team.  He said, yes, he kept looking back but he thought he was covering up his headlight with his hand, but obviously his “little, skinny hand” didn’t do the job so well since Aliy said she kept seeing him!  He was surprised there were some many people at the finish line for the third place team, but maybe they had come to see his dad beat him.  He really didn’t realize it until a cameraman told him he had won.

And so the Awards Banquet came and end.  And in what I have come to realize is just part of the Iditarod surrealism, I was swept into a truck, driven to the airport, and put on a charter plane back to Anchorage along with Hobo Jim and Jeff Schultz…. two more people who make me star-struck!

A Race for the Red Lantern

It was a race for first place:  Dallas Seavey edged by Aily Zirkle and won the 2014 Iditarod by 2 minutes and 22 seconds.

It was a race for Rookie of the Year:  Nathan Schroeder edged by Abbie West and won the 2014 Rookie of the Year by about 6 minutes.

It somehow seems fitting then that there was a race for the Red Lantern!  

We’d been watching tracker pretty intensely all day.  When would the trio of ladies leave White Mountain? How long would it take them to get to Safety?  Would they stop in Safety or blow through?  When would they reach Front Street?

Who would make it in first?  Who would be the Red Lantern?

Monica Zappa arrived first from the trio.  She said that Lisbet Norris should be half an hour behind her.  She explained that Lisbet was always half an hour behind her.  The two have been travelling together for several days now.  Monica said that Lisbet always left the checkpoint first because she always took a bit longer to get herself together to leave.  Monica’s team was a bit faster, so she’d end up passing Lisbet, arriving at the next checkpoint half an hour before Lisbet.  She also mentioned being very glad that she and Lisbet were travelling together.  She says Lisbet saved her a few times.

Lisbet joked that they were afraid Marcelle Fressineau was going to pull a “Dallas Seavey” on them.  She actually arrived at Safety while Monica and Lisbet were resting and left before them!  We knew that Moncia had arrived, but when the next siren wailed, we just weren’t sure who we were expecting.

Deja vu….

Would it be Dallas or Aily?

Would it be Nathan or Abbie?

Would it be Lisbet or Marcelle?

2014-03-15 23.48.26And then, the siren wailed again.  And they were both on Front Street, practically side by side!

Lisbet said she had asked Marcelle if she was going to try to pass and Marcelle said no, so the order was set.

Finishing in the 48th spot:  Lisbet Norris, with her amazingly strong and beautiful registered Siberian Huskies.  Monica made it back from the Dog Lot in time to share a huge hug with her.

And winning the red lantern:  Marcelle Fressineau.  In addition to the typical end of 2014-03-15 19.50.17the trail hoopla of checking the mandatory gear, Marcelle was presented with the Red Lantern trophy and the Widow’s Lantern was blown out.  In the end, Lisbet edged out Marcelle by thirty-five seconds!

And just like that, another race is over.  Everyone has made it to Nome: the dogs who are still here are bedded down, the mushers are celebrating their accomplishments, and the volunteers have started to clean out the Convention Center and take down the banners and the arch.

Only two events remain, the Awards Banquet tomorrow and the Volunteer’s Dinner on Wednesday.

And then there are the stories still to be heard…..

I predict we will be hearing the stories of the 2014 Iditarod for years and years to come.

Team Zappa: Under the Arch!

2014-03-15 23.15.52-1Team Zappa made it into Nome! She arrived in 47th place after quite a race to the finish!

You couldn’t miss her coming down Front Street in her uber bright Posh House Parka!  Her team seemed a little overwhelmed by the traffic, crowds, and people in Nome. Her team tried to make a right hand turn up a side street pretty shortly after coming up the hill onto the street.  Fellow racer Karin Hendrickson was nearby and lent a hand getting them back on track.   What a smile Monica had on her face!  She was met under the arch by her mom and her partner Tim.

She and Tim talked about the dogs almost right away!  A lot of the talk revolved Blue Steel who 2014-03-15 23.21.45-1became an immediate crowd favorite as he rolled around on the snow, presented his belly for belly rubs and then closed his eyes for a nap right under the arch (while still on his back!).  But, was he really napping? Nope!  He’d sneak an eye open every once in a while to make sure people were still watching him. “He seems to think he’s on this race to be a super model dog. He’s always posing!” Monica joked.  Apparently, he was quite a rascal on the race… wouldn’t run in lead, chewed several lines, got into fights.  She didn’t drop him because he worked hard.  You could see the affection in her smile and eyes and hear it in her voice as she teased him for being a “bad dog.”

“Can you help me now?” she asked Tim as the siren sounded for the next musher.  She’s had to do it all for herself for so long… I’m sure it’s going to be a huge relief to lean on someone else for a bit.  I can just imagine how much it warmed her heart to see Tim and her mom under the arch waiting for her, and how sweet it’s going to be to have a hot shower and sink into a warm bed and just relax for awhile.

2014-03-15 23.30.02Monica said it took her a lot longer to get here then she expected.  The run from Elim to Safety took her fifteen hours!  So she rested for a bit in Safety before making her final run into Nome.  No matter how long it took, she made it to Nome and that’s all that matters!  Her goal all along was to get her young team to Nome still feeling happy and healthy…. looks like she did that and much more! Congratulations Monica!

Catching Up with Martin Buser

The Nome Library hosted a Meet and Greet with Martin Buser today.  He took questions from the fans and was pretty open and honest with his answers. 2014-03-14 18.20.50 It was clearly a tough race for Martin and the rest of the mushers.  It has given them lots to think about.

Martin said that his biggest obstacle in the race was his own physical disabilities.  About a week prior to the race he dislocated his pinky finger.  He didn’t really think much about it at the time.  He went to the doctor had it taped up and everyone agreed that it wouldn’t affect his race and so he went on and finished his final preparations for the 2014 Iditarod.  Once on the trail however, the finger started acting up and kept slipping out of socket.  At first he was able to put it back in himself, but the further he got down the trail, the more he needed the vets’ assistance.  They had to put it back in the socket for him and then tape it to his ring finger.  This would seem to work at first, but then he’d get halfway on the next run and it would start to really hurt where the tape was.  He’d stop and cut the tape, and then by the time he was at the next checkpoint he’d have to find the vets to help him and start the process all over again.  Then of course, he also hurt his ankle.  He says he caught his foot under his sled two or three times and really wrenched his ankle.  He said it hurt so bad and got to the point that he would start to cry when he knew he’d have to put weight on it.  He’d pre-cry in anticipation of the pain that was going to shoot up his leg from putting weight on it.  His finger and his ankle were warring with each other, “I’m going to hurt more.”  “No, I’m going to hurt more!”  “No, I am!”  They are still apparently worried about his ankle.  He may have a stress fracture.  I got the feeling he’d be visiting his doctor when he returns home to Big Lake.

What was his biggest joy in the race?  “Finishing it.”  Did you expect to hear something different?

Martin explains that some people have years that are based on calendar years.  Their year starts on January first and runs to the next January first.  Some people run their years on tax years. Their year runs from April fifteenth to April fifteenth.  I know that as a teacher, my natural year runs from September to September, from one school year to the next.  For Martin, his year is based on the Iditarod.  He breeds, plans, trains, practices for his end of the year test, the Iditarod.  The Iditarod is his final exam.  This is how he knows how successful his program has been.  He runs the Iditarod to test his program.  He doesn’t always like the Iditarod, but he loves his dogs, he loves the lifestyle, he loves the history and culture of dogsledding and that’s why he does what he does.  He feels like this year he let his dogs down.  They were perfectly capable of being the top team, but he was the weakest link.

As for checkpoints, the only thing Martin said he’d change about the checkpoints it that it would be nice to have water at each checkpoint. It wouldn’t even have to be hot water, just water so that he could take care of the dogs faster.  That’s all they really need, a place to lay down and some water.

What I thought was the most telling was that Martin admitted that if he could go back in time to March 2nd, knowing what he knows now about how the trail would be he would still do it.  He would do it again.  Now, if March 2nd was tomorrow, would he do it? No.  Because physically he couldn’t do it, but give him a few days and he’d go.  When I talked to Nathan Schroeder later about what Martin said, he echoed the same sentiment.  As bad is it was, he’d do it again too.  It seems like a few days has given them the distance to look back and gain a little perspective.  


Mushin’ Mon

2014-03-14 20.10.54Newton Marshall made it to the Burled Arch with his typical huge smile and unfailing good spirits!

I walked down to watch him come up off the sea ice. He was poling away and waving and smiling to the gathered crowds.  It seems like crowds gather wherever Newton is!  The scene in chute was the liveliest I’ve seen…. reggae music, tons of music, and Jamaican flags.  By the time I made it up to the chute from the sea ice they “chute party” was in full swing!  Newton posed for picture after picture and even signed autographs.

One kindergartner was there with a Jamaican flag she had colored.  I was so impressed with how Newton came to the fence to speak with her and then lifted her up to the fence so they could take a picture.  She was in love!  She will remember that moment for a very long time!

Scott Janssen was there to welcome Newton to Nome.  I bet those two have a lot to talk about.  If you remember, Newton was instrumental in assisting Scott when he had his injury earlier in the race.  Scott and his family and fans have been very vocal in their support of Newton and I can only imagine what the two were thinking when they laid eyes on each other this evening.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when the two of them get some time to talk.

In the meantime – welcome to Nome Mushin’ Mon!

As the Trail Turns

Meanwhile Back at School:

Rule Number 6 deals with timing on the race:

Rule 6 — Race Timing: For elapsed time purposes, the race will be a common start event. Each

musher’s total elapsed time will be calculated using 2:00 p.m., Sunday March 2, 2014, as the starting

time. Teams will leave the start and the re-start in intervals of not less than two minutes, and the time

differential will be adjusted during the twenty-four (24) hour mandatory layover. No time will be kept

at the Saturday event.

2013-03-02 16.36.50-2

And, a lot of the data generated by the race deals with time – time on the trail, time in the checkpoints, required resting times, starting times, differential times, and so on.

So we are all about time, military time, and elapsed time these days in math class.  We started the week by reviewing telling time.  We talked a lot about how accurate the checkers have to be in recording the in and out times of the mushers because every minute counts!  I gave each student a sticky note to keep on their desk and periodically throughout the day I rang a bell and yelled out things like “Monica Zappa just checked in to Unakaleet.  What time is it?”  “Ken Anderson is pulling out of Safety.  What time is it?”  “Dallas Seavey just arrived at Shaktoolik.  What time is it? He wants to stay ten minutes.  What time is he leaving?”  The students recorded the answers on their sticky notes and later in the day we checked their results.

Something you will need to teach your students about time in order for them analyze the timing information they find on the Iditarod paperwork is military time.  The time is reported on the official reports in military time to avoid confusion.  Here is an assignment you can use for converting military time to conventional time:  Time on the Trail CW

We also delve into calculating elapsed time, which traditionally is a challenge for some of my third graders.  Here is an assignment for calculating elapsed time:  Passing Time at the Checkpoints Classwork

To wrap everything up, I challenge the students to calculate their musher’s average time on the trail for the first seven legs of the race. This requires them to convert military time to standard time, calculate the elapsed time, and find the average.  We compare our results and discuss whether this information is helpful in predicating the outcome of the race.  After the first seven legs it is really tough to tell what is going to happen!  As the Trail Turns Lesson Plan

And finally, here is a homework assignment to review elapsed time.  Ken Anderson Homework

A Rookie No More!

Congratulations to Charley Bejina who made to Nome and earned his belt buckle on his second attempt!

After a long evening, and lots of tracker watching and refreshing because he seemed to be sitting still on the trail for quite awhile…. Charley made it to Nome on a picture perfect morning.  It snowed over night, they had actually been calling for a blizzard, so there were several inches of fresh snow on the ground and lots of fat flakes falling from the sky as he arrived under the arch!

About his stop on the way, Charley joked with reporters that his dogs knew they were getting close to the finish and they didn’t want it to end, so they camped out for awhile!

I can only imagine how sweet this accomplishment is after failing to make it last year. To make it through the challenges of this year is a major accomplishment!

Congratulations and welcome to Nome Charley!

Picture Perfect Spot

I found my perfect perch for taking photos of the end of the trail.  As much as I have enjoyed watching teams come into the chute – it’s a little crowded and hard to get good shots there.  The instant the musher is in the chute they are surrounded by well wishers and photographers and reporters and who knows who all those people really are.

But there’s something magical about being out on the edge of the sea ice watching the teams come in.  Watching them make the transition from the sea ice and the harshness of the trail to the city streets and the finish. It’s the last time the mushers will be alone with their dogs and the first time they can probably honestly believe it’s all finished.

And today it was really special… you could literally watch them come out of the mist and snow… it was pretty eerie and pretty magical….

Coming Through the Clouds

Coming Through the Clouds


And just for fun, here are my two favorite “in the chute” shots from today – Jason Mackey with a phone call home and one if his pups snoozing in the chute:

A Second Gold Rush!

They are still mining for gold on the shores of Nome!

One of my favorite gold rush mining stories out of Alaska has always been how the miners flooded to Nome only to find that all the claims had been staked.  One miner sitting on the beach waiting for a ship to take him out of here, was feeling a little bored. So he did a little panning right on the beach and lo and behold he came up with a pan full of gold!

That started a stampede, as you can imagine, and pretty soon the beach was full of people literally getting gold right of the beach!  You were allowed an area as wide as your shovel, so there were all of these miner working in circle shaped areas. One right next to the other.  And if you left your area, it would be immediately taken over by someone else.

I kind of assumed that was all in the past, but a visit to the Nome Visitor’s Center proved me wrong.  They are still mining for gold right off the coast of Nome. Only now they are dredging and working UNDER the water.  There is even a reality TV show about it, Bering Sea Gold.

It sounds like a really complicated process and the men themselves are under the water for an hour at a time. Essentially they have a giant vacuum and they suck it off the sea floor.  They are kept warm by a suit that continuously floods with hot water.

I’ve been told that the estimate is that there are still 10,000 ounces of gold in the area to be claimed.  The current price for gold is about $1,400 an ounce!  Here’s your problem of the day:  How much is all the gold still out there worth?  Enough to tempt you to go underwater off the coast of Nome to dredge it?

Listening to Stories

I spent the day listening to stories… one of my all time favorite things to do!

Earlier this year, I shared with you the story of how Aliy Zirkle and Martin Buser were carrying some vaccines down the trail this year to highlight the need for vaccinating children early enough to help with disease prevention.  If you missed it, you can find it here:  LINK

I’m pleased to report that the special packages have been delivered safely to Nome.  I had the chance today to go to a special presentation about the Serum Run and the Diphtheria Epidemic that took place in Nome in 1925. And I heard the most amazing story.

Near the end of the run, Gunnar Kaasen, takes delivery of the serum in a horrible storm in Bluff.  He decides to wait until 10:00pm for the storm to subside.  He realizes the storm is getting worse instead of letting up, so he heads out into the wind.  He travels through the night over Topkok Mountain. Visibility is so poor he can barely see the wheel dogs right in front of him.  He is supposed to stop at the town of Solomon to pass the serum to another musher, but he passes the town and doesn’t even realize it!  He decides to go on and the wind is horrible. The wind is so horrible it flips his sled and the serum is tossed from the sled.  Kaasen takes off his gloves to search for the serum in the deep snow, and he thankfully finds it!   Kaasen arrives at Safety to discover that the next musher is holed up in the cabin asleep. He has assumed that the relay has been delayed due to the storm. Kaasen decides not to wake him, and instead warms the serum and heads out again into the storm and makes it all the way to Nome.

As I’m hearing the story, I can’t help but make comparisons to this year’s race!  The wind, the weather, the holing up and staying safe, the come from behind musher…. it’s pretty amazing how the same areas of land can cause the same havoc on two different groups of mushers almost ninety years apart.

Speaking of telling stories, I know many of you have asked, and it looks like Jeff King finally gave an interview describing Monday night from his point of view.  Here it is if you haven’t seen it:

I also went to a presentation given by Howard Farley who was Joe Redington, Sr.’s right hand man in Nome.  He helped Joe decide the race needed to run all the way to Nome and not go just to Iditarod and back like Joe originally planned.  He sold the race to the entire Nome community and even competed in the first race. He finished in 31 days 11 hours and 59 minutes.  He was one spot away from the Red Lantern!  He had so many stories to share!  He was asked why he hasn’t written a book and he said he is a storyteller.  He likes TELLING stories. If he wrote them down he’d have to footnote them and prove them and that’s no fun in his opinion!

He and Joe came to work together because Howard, who was a butcher in Nome, made a phone call to Unalakleet to ask about having some salmon shipped to Nome.  Who answered the phone? Joe Redington, Sr.  The two had heard of each other and once they started getting talking (Howard admits they both have the gift of gab) things started happening fast.  Howard was tapped  to help with the race and has been involved ever since. He said that one night, during the initial planning stages while talking to Joe, he mentioned his extremely high phone bill – $700 – hoping that Joe would help him out with some of the costs.  Joe retorted that his own bill was $900, so there was no assistance there!

He also talked about the mail that the mushers carry as a way to memorialize the fact the the Iditarod Trail was originally a mail trail.  It is very important to Howard that mushers and fans know and understand the reason behind the carrying of the mail.  He retold the story of a musher who accidentally sent his trail mail home to his family with his dirty mail.  When he was gear checked it was discovered that the mail was missing.  He was informed that if didn’t come up with the mail, he would be forced to leave the race.  So what did he do?  Called his mom and she hired a charter plane to get the mail back to him on the trail!

2014-03-11 00.38.22One other story that sticks out in my mind is about the famed Burled Arch that marks the finish line for the race. For the first two years, there was no real finish line.  When Red “Fox” Olson finished the race the second year (in 29 days, 6 hours, and 36 minutes earning him the red lantern)  he was stunned when he came to the finish line.  There was no real finish line, so someone had made a line by pouring kool-aid into the snow.  “I traveled a thousand miles and this is all there is to commemorate the end of the race?  I’m going to do something about this.”  Howard said he probably said “Sure!” but never thought anything would come of it.  And then the call came, “I’ve got your finish line and it’s being shipped to you!”  Howard was surprised and had no idea what was coming.  The plane arrived and Howard watched them pull out the top of what is now know as the Burled Arch.  “Oh!” he thought “It’s amazing.  We’ll hang it over the street.” And then he watched as the tripods were unloaded and he couldn’t believe his eyes!  The most amazing thing he could have ever imagined!  A real finish line!  He was so excited and thanked the pilot profusely. And the the bomb dropped.  “There’s some freight due on that,” he was told.  Not just SOME freight, $1,300 in freight!  But Howard knew what to do… he headed to town and in about ten minutes had raised the money from the people of Nome who had already proven to be so supportive of the race.

The original arch was used until 2001 when it fell into disrepair from dry rot.  It is currently displayed where the Finishers’ Banquet is held, so hopefully I’ll get to see it!  The new arch is slightly different than the old one.

Catching Up With Nathan

Today Nome is what I always thought Nome would be like.  Cold, windy, snowing.  The snow is blowing.  They sky is gray. It’s pretty nasty.  It’s cold.  Really cold.  Especially when the wind blows.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Nathan Schroeder in the Mini Convention Center right before dinner time today.  He had taken a shower and tried to rest, but he said he couldn’t sleep in the nice inside bed his host family here in Nome has provided for him.  “I need a floor, my sleeping bag, and my parka as a pillow!” he joked.

It was so nice to sit and chat with him.  He is so proud of himself (as he should be) that he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.  He’s hooked he admitted.  He’ll be back for sure – he’s a lifer now he says.  He’s already started thinking and planning and scheming for next year. This far cry from the guy who told me in Unalakleet that if his dog truck had been in Rohn he’d have gotten into it and not looked back! Not that he’s second guessing what he did this year.  He’s proud of his race. He accomplished what he set out to do.  He proved he belongs here.  But, he has started thinking of things he’d do differently next year.  He talked about the difference between running the race to win it and running the race to learn without pushing things too far.   He thinks he has a few years before he’s ready to run it to win it.  But there’s a gleam in his eye when he says it. One thing he’s thinking about is his sled.  He’s anxious to have a conversation with they guy who built his sled.  He wants to talk about the drag mat and putting spikes into it that will dig into the ice better.  Lisbet Norris had seventeen spikes embedded in her drag mat and she had said it was really effective coming down the rough parts of the trail, so maybe there is something to that!

He gave me a little insight into the end of the race – the dash to the finish for him and Abbie West.  She pulled into Safety about thirty seconds ahead of  him.  When they pulled in, there  was a building to the left.  Abbie’s team pulled in and her leaders tried to veer left around the building.  As Nathan pulled in behind her, his leaders tried to do the same. She asked a volunteer to pull his dogs over so she could get through.  When she was done, and went to leave, her dogs turned around the building instead of going straight out of the checkpoint and she took a bit of time to get them straightened out. In the meantime, Nathan signed in and out of Safety and pulled out, taking the lead.  Abbie was up on his heels pretty quickly.  Nathan, thinking she must have the faster team, pulled over and let her pass.  As he started up again, he saw black straps laying in the snow.  It was Abbie’s bib!

Nathan tried to scoop it up after his sled ran over it, but he missed.

He caught up to Abbie.  “Your bib! You dropped your bib!” he shouted to her over the wind.

“My mitts?  I have my mitts!”

“No!  Your race bib!  You dropped your race bib!” he replied.  He saw her frantically searching through her sled and realized he was correct.  She had to stop her team, set the snowhook, and run back to get her bib.

Nathan’s team passed and he never saw her again.

Until she showed up in the chute six minutes after he did!

And that’s how he came to finish in 17th place as Rookie of the Year! A top twenty finish!  What an amazing accomplishment.

While we were talking, the siren went off, so we went out to the chute to see Ralph Johannessen come in.  And get this -Nathan got cold!  “What?” I teased him.  “You just traveled a thousand miles across the the state of Alaska and you are cold on the streets of Nome?”  In his defense, he didn’t have his big parka – but it’s still pretty funny to think of him as being cold watching other mushers come in!  His cheeks are wind burned and he has a bit of frostbite on his nose, but other than that he is in good shape!

Ralph’s dogs were rolling in the snow and then hopping up and barking and jumping and lunging to go!  In fact, maybe a little too anxious to go.. they pulled out of the chute before his sled had been checked!  Ralph was shortly followed into the chute by Curt Perano and Cym Smyth.  Curt was met in the chute by his wife and baby and a New Zealand flag.  Cym was clapping and beaming as he came under the Burled Arch.  Paige Drobny was the twenty-fifth person to cross the line and now we are probably going to be quiet until morning.  The next eleven mushers are still working on their eight hour layover in White Mountain.  I’m now anxiously awaiting Monica Zappa’s arrival in Nome.  She’s currently out of Shaktoolik.  Her main goal this year was to finish the race with happy and healthy dogs.  She still has an impressive fourteen dogs on her team, so she is well on her way to achieving that goal!  Go Team Zappa!

Point of View

I have had the pleasure of working with about fifty-two classes via Skype.  I’ve chatted with them live, via Skype messenger and video message and of course through this blog to bring the race and the trail to life for them in a way that they can understand and appreciate.

One of the schools, Southborough Primary School in Kent, England has been really, really excited to learn about the race!  The first and second year students are following the race as a part of their study on arctic regions.  They are following Dallas Seavey, the Berringtons, and Newton Marshall in particular.  They were thrilled to discover that Dallas had won!

They have been writing journals from the point of view of the mushers and a couple of them shared them with me via Skype last night.  The time change between Alaska and England has been a doozy to overcome!  I had to call them at 1:00am to get them as they came into school in the morning!

Their journal entries got me thinking.  What WAS going through Dallas and Aily’s minds during that last section of the trail?  What did Aliy think when she arrived in Safety and realized Jeff wasn’t there?  What did they think and feel when the wind started?  What made Dallas keep going through Safety when others didn’t?  What was he thinking as he ran, pumped, and pushed his way to the finish line thinking he was in third place and then discovered he had won?  What did Aliy think as she pulled into Front Street and saw Dallas’ team already there?   It’s a wonderful “put yourself in their shoes” thought.

I’m sure as the week goes on and the mushers catch up on their sleep and have time to gather their thoughts more of the stories will emerge.  But in the meantime, here are what two British students thought was going through Dallas’ mind:

A Diary from Nome

Hey, I’m Dallas Seavey. Do you want to know what I’ve done and seen. Wow. Did you know I won the Iditarod. I’ve been through storms and woods. I’ve been overtaken lots of times. When I got to the finish line my huskies were getting tired so I jumped and pushed the sledge and I WON! Two minutes before Aliy Zirkle finished. Wow. I can’t believe it. Lots of people had to scratch. What an amazing Iditarod.

 By Thomas , Age 6

A Diary About the Finish Line

Hi. I am Dallas and I have won the race. It was a long journey to race from Anchorage to Nome. I saw Jen in the crowd and then I saw that Jen was surprised when I crossed the finish line. I get money and the last musher to cross the finish line gets a red lantern because it shows that  they tried and didn’t give up. I am so amazed that the husky dogs did so well. The crowd was clapping and cheering at me.

A List of  My Mushers Kit.

  1. Vet kit
  2. Sleeping bag
  3. Feeding bowls
  4. Tool box
  5. Cooker
  6. Dog booties
  7. Axe
  8. Extra warm clothes
  9. Gloves
  10. Snow shoes.

Olivia, Age 6

Rookie of the Year!

It was a tight race for rookie of the year!  It was almost like a repeat of the Dallas Seavey and Aliy Zirkle finish with two teams in the chute at the same time!

I was awoken this morning by the siren going off…  I checked the tracker and realized that the siren must be for Richie Diehl.  While I was struggling to get myself out of bed, the siren went off again, this time for Matt Failor.  I decided that it was time to get going because those two were the front of a pretty big pack of mushers coming through.  I made it to the chute in time to catch Matt Failor finishing up his interview.  He looked great and happy to be there.  His dogs were still banging at their harnesses, jumping, and barking and seemed like they could turn around and run back to Anchorage!  Matt praised his lead dog, which is a borrowed dog from Martin Buser.  Matt has run Buser dogs in each of his first two Iditarods.  Two years ago he ran Martin’s puppy team and last year he stepped in and ran the “B” team when Rohn Buser decided not to run.  Matt has had this dog in his team before.  He said that the dog ran in single lead for the last 77 miles and he was glad to have him on the team!

There seemed to be a lull in the traffic, so I headed down to the end of town where the mushers actually come off the ice and onto Front Street.  I could see Wade Marrs’ light coming from a LONG way off.  I think I’ve told you before that I love to watch the teams come in at night.  Going down the the hill was the closest I could get here in Nome.  I was able to see Wade away from the lights of the town.  His headlight steadily grew closer and closer. The firehouse siren went off.  The station is right across the street from where the mushers come off the ice.   As he came off the ice and up the hill, you could see the steam rising off the dogs.  “Congratulations!”  “Welcome to Nome!”  we cheered!  There were four of down there and it was pretty cool to be the first people to welcome Wade to the finish.

I knew that after Wade coming in, things were going to get interesting.  I had checked the tracker and knew that Nathan Schroeder was ahead of Abbie West, but not by much.  It was really too close to call! I started getting flashbacks of the first night and wondering if it was going to be Aliy or Dallas!

I knew I wanted to be in the chute to see Nathan come in, so I walked back up to the finish line.  Wade was finishing up and taking his team to the Dog Lot.  I saw Nathan’s dad in the chute.  He was pacing.  I asked if his heart was pounding.  “Yep!” was his reply.  He shared a cool story.  He said a piece of history was coming across the finish line with Nathan.  Nathan was using Mark Nordman’s old sled bag for the race.  He had bought it at an auction.  Mark Nordman, the race marshall and Iditarod finisher, seemed really tickled to hear that news.

I thought we were in the clear to see Nathan crowned Rookie of the Year.  The siren went off. The announcer started talking, only she was talking about Abbie West.  What?  Nathan’s dad and I looked at each other.  People started buzzing. It could be Abbie or it could be Nathan.  The announcer was quickly told she may be wrong and she got a little flustered.

We literally had to wait until someone at the end of the chute with a really strong zoom lens on their camera confirmed it was Nathan!  “Yes!” hissed Nathan’s dad!  His face broke out into the biggest grin!

Now – Nathan’s team seemed a little surprised at the chute and they didn’t quite want to come into it.  In fact they steered to the left and missed the chute entirely.  They needed a little encouragement and assistance, but they finally made it into the chute and under the Burled Arch.  He did it!  Nathan Schroeder – Rookie of the Year!  What an amazing accomplishment!  He was, not surprisingly, quiet and calm and reserved.  “Good job guys!” he told the dogs as he gave them some pats and snacks.

Six minutes later, as Nathan was still in the chute, Abbie West arrived in Nome.  She kneeled down in front of her lead dogs and buried her head into theirs.  I can’t even imagine the feeling you must have after traveling nearly 1,000 miles and surviving the challenges these mushers faced.  How must it feel to finally reach the finish line?

We still have a long ways to go with this race.  John Baker and Michelle Phillips have arrived to round out our top twenty.  Rumor is that winds have died down, so maybe the next teams will have a bit of an easier time come around the cape.

They aren’t the greatest, but here are some pictures of Nathan coming in and finishing his first Iditarod:

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The Top Ten

It’s been a chilly day here in Nome and it has been snowing all day…. just flurries, but snow none the less!

The top ten mushers are in as of now!  What an amazing accomplishment for these mushers and their dogs!

The first three mushers broke John Baker’s fastest winning time!  Can you believe that?  Three mushers breaking the fastest time record!  The trail may have been super nasty, but it was also fast.  The mushers didn’t have to break trail or wallow in deep snow and their times reflect that.  Or, as many people are joking… they couldn’t use their brakes on the ice and dirt, so they never slowed down.

Sonny Lindner age 64, finished the race this morning in fifth place.  Lance Mackey, four- time Iditarod champion,  greeted him in the chute.  Apparently, several of the dogs that Sonny was running this year previously belonged to to Lance.  Lance greeted the leaders at the end of the chute and you could just see the adoration in his eyes.

Martin Buser arrived in sixth place and was greeted by his wife and his son, Rohn (yes, he is named after an Iditarod checkpoint).  I learned that Martin and his wife Kathy were actually married right under the Burled Arch!  He is also the musher with the most consecutive finishes, 29 including this one!  He banged up his ankle pretty badly before getting into Nikolai and his hurt his finger in training run several weeks ago.  Both seem to be bothering him a bit as he came in.  I’m sure that after a hot shower and a long rest he will feel much better.

Jessie Royer, Ray Redington, Jr., and Hans Gatt finished within thirty-five minutes of each other.  Jessie works with horses as well as huskies.  Ray Redington, Jr. is the grandson of Iditarod Race founder Joe Redington, Sr. His father, Raymie Redington,is also an Iditarod finisher.  The entire Redington clan is just amazingly warm and kind people.  They support the Iditarod and the Junior Iditarod in so many ways.  Hans Gatt is originally from Austria but now lives in Canada.  He also is a sled builder. I’ve seen many mushers in this year’s Iditarod driving Gatt sleds.

Here’s a video of Ray Redington, Jr. coming into the finish chute.  Notice how he is paddling with his left foot.  Mushers often do this to help their dogs power the sled along.  They sometimes also use ski poles to achieve the same outcome.

Aaron Burmeister was the tenth musher in.  Aaron hurt his knee pretty badly in that first stretch of bad trail.  It’s impressive he’s been able to finish out this year’s race. I bet he was glad to see the lights of Nome!

When a musher is coming in, the siren sounds to announce their arrival.  Once the siren sounds, there is about twenty minutes until the musher actually shows up on Front Street.  The siren also goes off everyday at noon, but I’m not entirely sure why.  I was wondering what would happen if there was a fire.  Would people just assume the siren was announcing another musher?  But I’m told that he fire siren sounds different – it has a different pattern of sounds.  As the musher reaches Front Street, the announcer gives a biography of the musher.  The chute is filled with people to greet the musher and the dogs – usually the musher’s family and handlers, the press, race officials, and the checker.  The musher usually greets his family and gives some thanks and loving to the dogs.  The handlers or the musher give the dogs some snacks in the chute. Lots of photos are taken.  Before the musher can be officially welcomed in, the sled bag needs to be checked for the mandatory gear – ax, snowshoes, cooker, booties, sleeping bag, etc.  The musher turns in their trail mail.  And then, and only then, is the musher officially welcomed to Nome and given his or or official finishing time.

The 2014 Top Ten are resting soundly tonight. The mushers are being cared for by their families and friends. The dogs are nestled into crates at the Dog Yard and being cared for by a team of veterinarians and other volunteers.

Here’s a glimpse into the dog yard today:

From A Secret Location on the Trail

In a secret location on the trail I got to do something really unique and special… I became an honorary member of the Pee Team.  The Pee Team collects urine samples from the dogs for testing.  Now, it is a top secret mission and the data is all secured and locked up safe and sound.

Why are the dogs tested?  The way it was explained to me by the head of the program is that it “levels the playing field.”  There are really three levels of information or uses for the information.  First, it can catch someone who has artificially enhanced their dogs.  The screens test for 300 kids of enhancing drugs. If a positive were found it would be screened again.  If both screens were positive, then the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors would be notified and they would determine what would happen next.  Because the Iditarod is a not for profit organization this is the chain of events.  The process is different for horse racing and greyhound racing which are for profit types of sports.

The second use for the screening is that it can help support a major athletic accomplishment.  In other words, if other competitors began to question a team, the testing can support, or prove that the accomplishment is legitimate.  The third use is that if something seems to be wrong with a team, they can sometimes help to get to the bottom of the issue.

So when the teams came into the secret location the Pee Team approached the musher and asked if they could get started with their testing or could they make an appointment to come back later as the musher was getting ready to pull out.  When it was time to start the testing they took the dogs one at a time off the gangline and took them for a walk with a leash to “encourage” them to take care of business.  They need to collect urine samples from at least nine dogs, three samples per collection jar.  Once the jars are full, they are labeled with stickers identifying the team and musher.  They are then sealed with evidence tape and then locked in a cooler.  The samples are then frozen and sent overnight to a lab in Colorado for analysis. The Pee Team takes their job very seriously and do a great job with it!

I got to be a member of the team and helped test two teams.  The first one went really well and was pretty easy; the dogs were more than willing to pee when we needed them to.  You have to kind of wait for the stream to start and then get the bottle in the stream. You need about 10 mm from each dog, which isn’t too much. If you get too much then there won’t be enough room for all three samples in the jar.  Male dogs are easier to get then female dogs!  The second team was a bit tougher.  Those dogs really didn’t have to go and there was a lot of walking around and around and around trying to encourage them to go which didn’t really help much!

I couldn’t tell you about my top secret mission before now, because I couldn’t reveal where the testing was taking place.  But now that the checkpoint is closed out, I think I’m safe!  The Pee Team is now in Nome testing the dogs as they finish the race.  They are a great group of girls and totally scored the best sleeping place and held it for me in the church in Nome!  They hooked me up with a cot AND an air mattress.  I am eternally grateful for their thoughtfulness!

And yes, the human athletes are tested too. They must provide a sample in White Mountain.  But get this, their test only screens for about twelve types of drugs.

Photo Finish!

Oh my gosh!  What an amazingly exciting and nerve-wrecking night!

We started watching the tracker, still convinced that Jeff King was going to pull up in Nome as only the second person to win the Iditarod five time.

We watched Aliy Zirkle get closer and closer and closer and close the gap between her and Jeff King, and then bam!  She passed him.

Now, all this time we had been hearing about how bad the weather was getting. The winds were really picking up.  There were gusts between White Mountain and Nome of 65 miles per hour.  It was really bad around the Safety checkpoint cabin and even worse on Cape Nome.  

Then we realized something must be wrong.  The tracker showed Jeff not moving outside of Safety and Aliy sitting at the checkpoint. No one ever sits at that checkpoint. In fact, technically the mushers don’t even have to stop there.  They can just breeze through.

We finally learned part of the story of just what happened out there, but honestly, I’m sure that over the next few days more and more of the story will emerge.  Jeff got caught in a gust of wind and he, the team, and the sled got blown off the trail and into a lot of driftwood.  They all got tangled up and probably a little freaked out!  He stayed with the dogs for two and half and then signaled a snow machine to take him ahead to the checkpoint so he could contact race officials and get help to move the team.  By accepting the ride from the snowmachine, he accepted outside help which violated the rules and resulted in his scratching  While all of this was happening, Aliy who started almost an hour behind Jeff passed him and didn’t realize it.  She arrived in Safety and apparently decided to stay for a bit, most likely to get out of the wind.  I’m told that from the Safety checkpoint you can see mushers coming an hour before they arrive.  So she probably thought she was safe for a bit.

But, enter Dallas Seavey, who has be quietly plugging along all race with his team of three year olds and his two year old leader!  He gets to Safety and blows through the checkpoint! 

Aliy heads out to give chase. It was neck and neck for the longest time.

But in the end, Dallas Seavey pulled into Front Street first, giving him his second win and the fastest time record. He was running and pushing the sled the whole way into the chute. When he arrived he put his head down on the handle bars and just sat for a moment.  He got off the sled and gave each of his seven dogs some love, attention, and thanks.

About two minutes after Dallas pulled in, Aliy pulled in.  I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through her mind.  Her third second place finish it three years – and always to a Seavey.  Dallas won in 2012, his dad MItch won in 2013, and the Dallas again this year.  But Aliy is class-act all the way.  Her handlers fed the team snacks while she hugged Dallas, loved on her dogs, and then went to the fences to see the fans.  They love her.  She is obviously the sweetheart of the sport at this time.  She did manage to have her typical huge smile on her face.  

There were lots of interviews, tons of questions, and the presentation of the prizes including the $50,000 check from Wells Fargo and the new truck.  The dogs got draped with their yellow roses, and had their picture take too.

So the leaders are in to Nome, but there is a lot more race left to happen. Plus, I think stories about this storm will continue to emerge as the week goes on!  I’m so anxious to watch Nathan and Monica cross under the Burled Arch.  What an amazing accomplishment it will be!  

There’s No Place Like Nome!

I got a chance to fly into Nome with pilot Wes. He took us on quite the sightseeing tour on the way.  We flew over the trail where we got to see Aily Zirkle and Jeff King running. They looked like they were getting a little wind blown!  Jeff was getting out his cooker as we passed him, so perhaps he was getting ready to feed the dogs a snack.  We also flew over the town and checkpoint of Safety.  The land changed again from hills to sea as we are now back on the edge of the Bering Sea.  As we flew in we saw the dredge that I have seen so many pictures of.  It’s left over from the gold days. I’ve seen so many pictures of it, it seems to be the picture that people like to take to show how much snow there is around.  We caught a ride into town and passed the other big landmark I’ve seen so many picture of – the “Welcome to Nome” sign with the big gold pan in front of it.

2014-03-11 00.38.22After I got settled into my home away from home for the week at the church and had a fantastic dinner of fresh salmon, We went off to explore the town a bit.  The Burled Arch is in place and a snow chute has been created in the middle of Front Street.   The dreaded orange plastic fences are back!  While I understand the need to create a safe barrier for the teams, I hate how they look in my pictures!  We popped into the Mini-Convention Center which is serving as the headquarters for the race here in Nome.  It’s pretty hopping!  There are lots of volunteers checking in, the high school cheerleading squad is selling refreshments as a fundraiser and people are flowing in to get information about the race.  They are currently thinking the first musher will be in between one and two am.

Nome is a pretty cool town. There are lots of historic buildings.  I can’t wait to explore during the daytime and visit some of the visitor centers and museums.  The story of how Nome got its name is pretty interesting.  Apparently Professor George Davidson of the University of California traced the name back to one huge mistake. He searched every chart he could find of the region.  It turns out that when the chart of the region was first drawn they realized  that no name had been assigned to that point so they labeled it “? Name.”  When it was transferred it was copied as C. Nome and thus it became Cape Nome.

Okay – looks like Aily Zirkle passed Jeff King just outside of Safety!  Wow!  She made up a lot of time!  It’s going to be a long night!

Sunset in Nome

Jeff King is on His Way to Nome!

Jeff King looked chipper while packing up his sled and getting things together. He gave his lead dogs a lot of attention, encouragement, and words of wisdom before heading out.  “On your feet” were the words he used to get the team up and ready to go.  They didn’t listen too well the first few times, maybe the realized he wasn’t really quite ready to go yet, because finally he said it as he stepped on the sled and they sprung to their feet.  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, the kids must have just gotten out of school, because there were a bunch of kids there just in time to see Jeff off.  He finally pulled out, and with a wave back at the crowd he was off to Nome!

Aily Zirkle is getting her teamed prepped to go.  Dallas Seavey will be the next.  Mitch Seavey has asked for a wakeup call ten minutes before Dallas heads out.  The cycle of teams in and out and in and out will continue here for the next several days!

More Teams Arrive

Aily Zirkle came in about an hour after Jeff King.  She and Jeff are sleeping now after getting their dogs settled and having a quick snack for themselves.  It sounds like she had a rough run.  Someone chewed through two ganglines and Quito got loose and took off after Jeff’s team.  She obviously got Quito back, she arrived with all her dogs!   I didn’t quite hear the whole story, but I will see what I can find out later.

Dallas Seavey just pulled in.  His checkpoint routine was to get the dogs hay first and get them settled.  Then he set up his cooker to start heating water.  Here, the mushers are given a bucket of water from a hole cut in the river.  They have to use their cookers to heat the water.  Dallas started his cooker by poking holes in three bottles of Heet and pouring it in to the bottom of the cooker.  Then he grabbed some hay and lit it and went from there.

He says he has a young team and he’s pretty impressed with how they have done.  His current leader is just two years old, and the rest of the team is three.  He also spoke of the glare ice and how the dogs were slipping and sliding.  He even talked about doing 360’s with the team!  He seems to think the future with these dogs is bright.  He said he pushed them this last run because he didn’t want to have any regrets or be able to wonder, “What if?” as he tried to catch the leaders.  He asked after Christian Turner who is running his puppy team.  He says those dogs will be on his team next year, so he is anxious to learn if they are having a good run.  Dallas admits that he is tired, but there isn’t that much further to go.

At the White Mountain checkpoint, a few unique things happen.  This is a mandatory gear check location.  So when the teams are parked, the vets swarm in and check the dogs and then they and the musher sign off on the vet book.  The musher also has to sign in on the checker sheet and then the mandatory gear is checked.  Technically, if the musher is missing anything, they could have a fine or be withdrawn from the race.  The mushers can ask for a wake-up call on their way into the sleeping area.  Interestingly enough, Jeff did not ask for one and Aily did.  As the mushers leave the checkpoint after their mandatory eight hour stay, they will be given back their racing bibs.  They will put them in their sled for now and will put them on when they get to Safety as they have to have them on for the finish in Nome.

We have another lull in the action and then the next mushers will begin to roll in.  I’m hoping to get to Nome today so that I’m in time to see the winner cross the finish line!  Cross your fingers for me!

Jeff King Arrives in White Mountain

Jeff King has arrived in White Mountain, and Aily ZIrkle shouldn’t be too far behind.

Jeff’s checkpoint routine is precise.  He doesn’t waste much time or energy in taking care of his chores. I’ve often heard that races are won or lost in checkpoints, which I think may be true.  Someone told me the other day that their mentor told them if they could shave two minutes off their time in each checkpoint that would make a huge difference in their total time.  There’s your math problem for the day.  How much time could a musher save by shaving two minutes of of their time in each checkpoint?  Don’t forget – they can’t do that in their mandatory stop checkpoints… that would break the rules.

Here’s what Jeff did when he pulled in:
1.  Pulled out his cooler and dropped out food that had been in there cooking from the previous checkpoint.  The dogs ate this while they were still standing. He said later that the dogs have been eating best when they first pull in, so he’s been carrying food for them.

2. Opened his drop bags and got out his bags of kibble and passed that out to the dogs.

3. Got out buckets and gave each pair of dogs a bucket of water.

4.  Opened the straw and gave some to each set of dogs.  One of the dogs who was closest to the full bale just helped himself. He pulled some off the bale and made his own nest!

5.  Passed out fat snacks to the dogs.

6. More straw!   Jeff doesn’t just give them straw to lay on, he actually puts straw on top of them and makes them little cubbies of straw to cuddle down into.  When he ran out of extra straw for the top he put his sleeping bag on one pair and his parka on another pair.

7.  Then he grabbed a handful of straw and some Heet and started to get his cooker ready.

That’s when he stopped and started telling stories to the reporters!  He said the trail out the last checkpoint was really bad for the first ten miles – rocks and stumps.  He says he almost pushed his “Get me out of here” button.  But then the trail turned great and he had a wonderful run.  He says that when he got to the river his leaders were amazing.  They went right out onto the glare ice without any problems.  It was really slippery and the smallest gust of wind would send them sliding sideways. He thinks it’s been interesting to see the terrain with so little snow because now he know really knows what the land looks like. Usually everything is covered in snow and you can’t tell what is what.  He says he feels great, no aches or pains and he’s not that sleepy.  He credits his feelings of being awake to waiting until Ruby to take his twenty-four hour rest.  He says the dogs look great, they are perfectly gaited.

Oh – dogteam!  Aily is here! It’s going to be a close one!

Setting Up White Mountain

I left the beach town of Unalakleet and  arrived in White Mountain, flying in on a nine seat plane.  I really enjoyed Unalakleet.  I felt so comfortable there. Maybe it was the beach… maybe it was the people… maybe it was the pizza!  My only regret is that I didn’t have time to go back and get a Pizza on the Iditarod Trail t-shirt.  Should have gotten it when I first saw it!  I did get a hat that the school ski team was selling as a fundraiser though!   Flying to White Mountain was another amazing flight watching the land change again from sea ice and back inland a bit.

It’s a pretty interesting time to get here… the checkpoint is still in the process of being set up.  The comms people are working on getting all the communication set up and are, not surprisingly, having issues setting up internet and wi-fi here in rural Alaska.  The kitchen is being set up and down on the river the drop bags, straw, and Heet are being readied.  This checkpoint is the final mandatory eight hour layover for the race, so every musher will have to be parked and will stay at least eight hours before they make the final push to Nome.

I don’t have much to report from here yet.  None of the mushers are here, most people are working to set up the checkpoint.  I had a wonderful conversation with Joe Runyan about the Iditarod and education. He said that he has always heard from teachers that kids are so interested in the Iditarod, but he didn’t really understand how we used the race.  I told him about how amazing it is for kids especially who grew up watching the high-powered professional sports.  It’s neat for them to focus on a sport where the athletes are so approachable, where age and gender don’t matter.  It’s the thrill of the competition, the lure of Alaska, and the joy of the dogs.

The estimate from the Insider Guys and others who have been around for a while is that this race is on a record pace.  In Galena, the locals told me the mushers started arriving about twelve hours before they usually do.  In Unalakleet they told me the mushers have never arrived on Saturday before.  And now they are expecting the early mushers to arrive here tomorrow around five or six am.  They then think that the first person will cross the finish line in Nome around midnight tomorrow!

Nathan Schroeder told me today that the race is going faster than he can believe.  That he will blink and it will be over.  He’s exactly right!  Maybe this time tomorrow I’ll be in Nome waiting for the first person to come under the burled arch!  Wow!